Digital Photography: Overcoming Your Manual Fears

Al Toro de Lidia outside the Plaza de Toros, Ronda, Andalucia, Spain

Al Toro de Lidia outside the Plaza de Toros, Ronda, Andalucia, Spain

So, you bought the best digital camera you could afford, with every intention of finally learning to take better photos. All those features sounded great while you were in the camera shop. Then you took one look at that inch-thick manual, full of technical terms and complex detail, and thought ‘Maybe I will stick with auto after all’. After all, if you make a mistake, you can just delete it, right?

Does this sound like you? Don’t worry, you are not alone. Camera manuals reflect the technical power of modern cameras, but they are intimidating to any beginner who just wants to take a decent photo.

Digital cameras are like most computer programs; you may only need to learn about 10% of the functions on offer. So don’t get tied up in knots trying to understand everything. Just learn what you need to know, and learn it well, and you will be well on the way to being a better photographer.

Here are a few tips that may just take the complexity out of photography for you.

Tip #1. Stick with the basics. In the days of film, good photographers used SLR cameras with two main settings; aperture and shutter speed. These were the ingredients of all great photography. Today, cameras come with hundreds of features, but guess which ones you really need to understand? That’s right, aperture and shutter speed.

If you can understand these two settings, you are halfway to becoming a better photographer. Your manual (I never said you could throw it away) will tell you which buttons to press on your camera. However, to really understand what these settings are all about, don’t rely on the manual. There is plenty of information out there; workshops, websites, books and ebooks can help.

Practice has never been easier than it is today. Most cameras have semi-automatic settings, called ‘aperture priority’ and ‘shutter priority,’ that allow you to operate one setting while the camera takes care of the other. This is a great way to practice a skill without fear of getting too many failed exposures.

Tip #2. Learn from your mistakes. If you just delete every photo you are not happy with, you are missing a golden opportunity to learn from your own experience. Your ‘failures’ contain so much information, you could be learning from each exposure – even the bad ones!

Let’s say you are experimenting with aperture. Try photographing a scene three times, with three different aperture settings, for three slightly different results. Instead of keeping your favourite and deleting the others immediately, you could transfer them to your computer and take the time to examine them properly. You can see how each setting changed the look of the picture, and which setting worked best for that subject. Now you can learn from your own results, not from some theory in a book.

Did you know that if you right-click your mouse over a photograph on your computer and select ‘properties’ you will find a lot of information embedded in the file? You don’t have to keep a note of the aperture/shutter speed information; your photo does it for you!

Of course in the long term you don’t want to keep every single photo you take, but you might want to keep a folder of ‘learning photos’ to refer to later, with maybe two versions of each subject you experiment with. To make it even easier, rename the pictures with relevant titles, for example: Red Rose/Small Aperture, Red Rose/Large Aperture; Waterfall/Fast Shutter, Waterfall/Slow Shutter.

Tip #3. Learn The Art As Well As The Technique. Every problem in photography cannot be solved by the camera. Professional photographers rely on light and composition as much as they rely on technology. In fact, most photos fail not because of bad technique, but because they were taken at the wrong time of day, or the photographer did not put enough thought into the composition. Yet daily I meet people who think that all their problems would be solved by a better camera, or some mysterious technique they are yet to learn.

Remember what I said in Tip #1; aperture and shutter speed are the fundamental skills, and with a little practice, they are not hard to learn. Master them and you are halfway there. The key to becoming a really good photographer is a balance of technical knowledge and artistic skill. Practice both, and soon your friends will be coming to you for photography tips!

If you found these tips helpful, Andrew Goodall has released two top-selling ebooks that have already helped thousands of new photographers learn the art and skills of nature photography. See Andrew’s images and ebooks at While you are there, enjoy even more great photography tips by subscribing to our online newsletter…it’s free!

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  1. Joseph says:

    I really needed this article. I got a digital camera as a gift from my mother and have been taking snaps ever since. The problem lay in not being satisfied with my clicking and as a result, I felt very frustrated. Now I know from where I should start and how to learn. Thanks again.

  2. Kevin says:

    Hi Joseph,

    Photography is a learning experience. Keep on shooting and studying and you will become less frustrated and become a better photographer.

  3. Barbara says:

    You have motivated me to get a digital camera for myself. For years I have thought to get one but somehow got intimidated by the idea. Now I will really buy one and start experimenting with it.

  4. Green Nature says:

    Nice general presentation. As for the art category, I have found that morning and late afternoon sun, especially in the winter produce great nature photography results.

    As for technique, my experience with shutter speed showed my that even without the use of filters, some sun blotches on subjects such as vegetables and flowers, are reduced or removed at a setting of 1600 or higher.

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