Read the Stinkin’ Manual!

Everyone has a turning point in your life. You know – that moment where you have a clarity about something important in your life, and you make a dramatic decision that changes your life. I’ve had several of those in my life, and those decisions have shaped who I am as a person and the direction I have taken with my life.

One of those turning points in my life was when I actually sat down and read the manual for my camera!  Think that’s silly?  Not at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Yes, there are more profound and meaning things in life than reading an owner’s manual for a camera, but for me, this was important. A photograph is an opportunity to be a window into a moment with which to share, challenge, and compel others. A photograph can add value to life and make positive changes in life.  A good photo does it even better.

My wonderful wife gave me my first DSLR six years ago. For five of the years following, I took photos based on what I knew of film cameras I carried years ago. With the DSLR, however, I simply put it on “Program” mode as a convenience and relied on my experience to compose acceptable shots. I tinkered with some of the features that come along with a basic DSLR but didn’t get very deep with it. As I compared my photos to many of the photos on websites like and National Geographic, however, I clearly was missing something. In regards to my photography hobby, the best thing I ever did was read the manual from cover to cover.

You may be in the same place I was – you want to take amazing photos, too, but your results are not what you are seeing on some of the photo sights on the internet.  There are two very important reasons why that might be happening – you don’t know what you and your camera are capable of doing!  In other words, (1) you don’t know the fundamentals of photography, and (2) you don’t know how to operate your camera.

I want to focus on the latter in this blog post. Before you spend another dollar on gear, equipment, and all the other stuff, take my advice and read your camera manual from cover-to-cover.

Let me give you an analogy. My step-father got me interested in golf, but I was terrible at the game for three or four years. I was passionate about the game, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with it. I would hit a good shot 1 out of 10 swings.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I didn’t know how the fundamentals of the golf swing. A friend game me great advice about my game – don’t spend another dollar on a round of golf until you get a lesson. At first, my pride got in the way. I can figure this out myself!  Well, that didn’t work out.  Finally, I signed up for golf lessons at the local club.  It was the best decision when it came to my golf game. It taught me my clubs’ capabilities and my capabilities.  I never became a professional at golf, but I enjoyed the game so much more when I was not spending all of my time looking for golf balls in the woods.

The same applies to photography.

When you don’t read the manual, you don’t really know how to operate your camera. Learn the fundamentals of photography and apply those to the essential features of a DSLR, and you will be amazed at how quickly the quality of your photographs improve. I am living proof! For each feature of the camera, the manual had great little photos, and I tried to copy what they did.  That’s when my passion for digital photography kicked in and my skills as a photographer started heading in the right direction.

Also, when you don’t read the manual, you don’t know what your camera is capable of doing. Like I said above, I was in film photography for much longer than I have been in digital photography. So, I thought, and in many respects still think, like a film photographer (which isn’t a bad thing. I’ll have a post about that later this year). The downside to limiting my knowledge about digital photography was I was not using all the tools my camera possesses to take amazing photos.

Some feel like using many of the tools available on with a DSLR is not “real” photography. Usually, they are film photographers who have moved to the digital side and typically only shoot in Manual or AV modes. I completely understand and appreciate their value system.  I have mixed feelings on this one. On the one hand, it might be more important to get the shot than let your values become a barrier to being creative and taking great photographs. On the other hand, some of the features on a DSLR can prevent you from getting the photos you want. Only Manual mode will let that happen Thus, as I said above, it is important to know the fundamentals of photography so you can use the tools in the camera to get the shot you want.

Furthermore, once a person becomes more focused on a particular genre, many of the features on a DSLR become less important and used infrequently. Because I typically shoot landscape photography, I rarely need to use the TV (speed-priority) mode. That does not mean that you shouldn’t learn how to use those tools and practice with them to understand what they do and how you could use them.

Finally, when you don’t read your cameral manual, you don’t know how to protect and maintain your camera. The manual will provide important cleaning instructions, environmental limits, and troubleshooting steps. Also, it will provide you with important manufacturer’s customer service contact information.

Your lack of knowledge about your camera can become a significant barrier to taking awesome photos. Reading your camera manual could, like me, become a turning-point in your photography. You can move away from simply taking snapshots to making remarkable photos that you will be proud to share!

In the comment section below, make sure you share your camera manual stories!

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