How to Use Your Fancy New Camera Like a Pro

Congratulations, you just scored an awesome new camera. Welcome to our annual guide to getting started with your new tool.

Whether you're shooting on a DSLR, mirrorless, or a top-notch point-and-shoot, these tips will get you on your way. The rest is up to you.

What do I need to buy?

How to Use Your Fancy New Camera Like a Pro

Extra lenses
All but the most expensive cameras usually ship in packaged kits with some variation on an 18-35mm zoom lens. For the most part, these kit lenses are versatile and functional, but they aren't the best for getting creamy beautiful out-of-focus backgrounds or shooting in low light. Quality lenses are really important—frequently they're more important than the camera's image sensor. In other words, you're not crazy if you're already considering some lenses. Just be forewarned that any lens worth buying will cost you.

If you're using a tiny mirrorless camera, your first lens acquisition should definitely be a small wide-angle prime lens that will help you make the most out of the camera body's compact size. Who needs a shrunken camera if you need a bag to carry it around all the time? If you've got a new DSLR, go for a 35mm or 50mm prime with a maximum aperture of f/2.0 or faster (the lower the number the better).

How to Use Your Fancy New Camera Like a Pro

Upgrade your Strap
The camera strap that came in the box sucks compared to what you'll get for a small investment. You could start by making the bundled strap better with this pad from Domke. Or you could buy a new strap altogether. A few good options are this sling from Black Rapid or Joby's hot Ultrafit Slingstrap.


Learn your shooting modes and take control

How to Use Your Fancy New Camera Like a Pro

Your new camera comes with a buttload of modes. I count at least six million different "scenes" modes on your typical camera—foilage, kids & pets, fireworks, snow, miniature, hookers in unflattering light, etc. They are fun. But if you really wanna learn to shoot, there are 4 notches on the dial you should pay attention to for photography: P, S (Tv on Canon), A (Av on Canon) and M: Program, Shutter priority, Aperture Priority, Manual.

Program mode is essentially an automatic mode that lets you have some control over some settings—like ISO sensitivity or whether to use flash. (Typically, in full auto, the camera locks all settings.) Start here, and play around. If you're outdoors, set the ISO low between 100 and 400. If you're indoors, set it high between 800-3200.

Shutter priority is semi-automatic. You pick the shutter speed, the camera picks the appropriate aperture setting for a proper exposure. Shutter priority is useful if you find your photos have motion blur after shooting in low light. Often cameras set shutter speeds too low in full-auto mode. To remedy this, switch to shutter priority mode and set the shutter speed at about 1/100 minimum (the smaller the fraction, the less likely it will be that photos are blurry). Bump the ISO up so you're pics aren't underexposed.

Aperture priority is also semi-automatic. And guess what? You set the aperture, which dictates how much light comes into the camera. Do you want a nice, shallow depth-of-the-field with blurred background? Set a large aperture size (that's the lower number on the dial, like f/1.8). Are you in bright sunlight or want to catch the whole scene in focus? Set a low aperture size (higher numbers, like f/16).

Manual. Well, you figure it out.


How to Use Your Fancy New Camera Like a Pro

Stop destroying your photos with flash

Your camera's built-in flash? Don't touch it. Ever. Okay, well, there are a few circumstances where you have little choice, like when it's blacker than the black heart of Socialist Nazi Terrorist, or in daylight when you need a little fill.

If you MUST use the built-in flash, at least follow these tips:

Bounce or diffuse it: It'll make the light look more natural and keep things like this from happening. You can make one for cheap.

Try slow-synchro flash: On some point-and-shoot cameras, like the S110, this is what exactly what the "night portrait" scene mode does: Uses a longer shutter speed while firing the flash, so you get the benefits of a longer exposure and flash—you can see the foreground and the background, and maybe turn out one of those hipster-y, rave-y photos with wavy lights in the background.


Brace yourself to beat the dark

How to Use Your Fancy New Camera Like a Pro

How do you avoid using flash in low light, you ask? You could use a tripod and along exposure time. Or, you could shoot your camera like a sniper. Hold that thing steady. Tuck your elbows. Use your camera strap (or whatever) as a brace. Exhale. Squeeze the shutter button.

Also, fortunately for camera buyers, the megapixel war between camera makers is largely over. Now, their focus is all about ISO and low-light performance. So situations where you used to need flash might be a bit more flexible with a newer camera, compared to one from a couple years ago. So, step one. Boost your ISO settings. On newerish basic DSLRs, like the Canon T4i, you can usually get away with up to ISO 3200, or even 6400, before things start getting really wonky. On good point-and-shoots, like the Sony RX100 and Canon G7X, you'll want to keep to keep things at ISO 1600 or below. The important thing is that your photo is properly exposed. An underexposed image will make noise stand out detail recede. If your image is nice and bright, noise will be much less noticeable.


How to Use Your Fancy New Camera Like a Pro

Shoot RAW and tinker with your photos on your computer

If your new camera has interchangeable lenses, or simply cost over $500, it almost definitely shoots RAW. RAW images consist of uncompressed data, unlike run-of-the-mill JPEGs, meaning you're better able to manipulate them using Adobe Lightroom or other software without losing much quality. You will be shocked at how much you can recover from a photo you thought was completely under or over exposed. Find a photo that has a yellow or blue cast? RAW images can be fixed instantly and easily.

Before you shoot anything, go down the camera menu and select that you'd like to shoot in RAW or JPG + RAW at the same time. The files are huge, but external drives and online backup storage are so cheap these days, that there's really no reason to skimp on image quality.

You don't need to splurge for Photoshop to work with RAW files. Adobe Lightroom is cheaper, and they'll let you turn bad photos good with an army of potential adjustments.