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Breaking in Your New Camera

By Mike Pasini
Editor, Imaging Resource Newsletter

To tell the truth, more than breaking in your new camera, your new camera has to break you in. There are two ways: the hard way and the easy way.

"No matter how unpleasant, difficult, annoying, or ridiculous it may seem, reading your camera's manual(s) will add years to your life, reduce cellulite, and grow hair."

The hard way appears to take longer and is not very exciting. The easy way promises to instantly gratify every expectation you ever had, while simultaneously thrilling you to your bones. Which is where the regrets come in -- right after you've indulged in the easy way, you find out things aren't quite that simple.

But does the hard way have to be quite so hard? Here are a few tips to make it as easy as possible:

TIP: Read the Free Manual (RTFM)

OK, it isn't "free." You paid. And it may not even be easy to read. But no matter how unpleasant, difficult, annoying, or ridiculous it may seem, reading your camera's manual(s) will add years to your life, reduce cellulite, and grow hair.

Well, it will seem like it.

Manuals do vary tremendously. Some are printed in multiple languages and illustrated profusely with an index that is as thorough as the table of contents is tidy. Some include a fold-out map of the camera's features, some a quickstart guide, some a CD with Adobe PDFs of everything in print, but fully text searchable and linked to make it easy to jump from one topic to another.

And some seem translated from machine code by a robotic device on dead batteries. Still, it pays to read them.

But don't suffer unnecessarily.

First skim through the manual so you have a sense of what's in it. If a topic leaps out at you, indulge yourself. But skipping things entirely -- particularly if you think you already know them -- can spoil the fun. Buried in those unlikely places are often real gems.

Can't think of any offhand though.

And that's the other advantage of familiarizing yourself with the documentation: You don't have to remember any of it. Just look it up when you need to know something. Metering modes, focusing modes, flash modes. You can go nuts trying to remember everything some of these cameras can do. But gradually, as you use the camera in different situations, you'll learn more and more, and it will become second nature. Until then, rely on your manual to remember what your camera can do.

TIP: Send in the Registration ... Eventually

There's a card in there somewhere. Or a Web site address to make it easy to register your equipment. And no doubt, there's some strong advice in Helvetica Black to fill the thing out and send it in right away, before you forget.

You won't forget.

"Try to make every mistake you can think of before you actually have to do anything important."

The time to fill out the card and send it in is after you've confirmed the manufacturer hasn't been in the lemon fields too long. Confirm that everything is included that should be included. That everything works. And you've seen the quality of the pictures your camera takes and you like what you see.

In short, don't send the stuff in until you know you've got a keeper.

Why? Because some stores won't accept a return without all the original material.

But do register. Not only the hardware, but any software included in the bundle.

Sure, this can (if you're not careful) merely put you on a few marketing lists, but it also can start a flow of useful information your way. Like recalls, or special offers, or other ways companies try to be nice to their customers (like free upgrades). Just look for the little checkbox to turn off marketing materials if you don't want any.

TIP: Populate Your Bookmarks

You're dying to install the software and see your pictures ... but wait.

It's worth a few minutes on the Web to bookmark the sites of your camera manufacturer and the software companies. While you're there, you may find a few tips and even a later version of the software, or an upgrade, or a patch, or who knows?

Keep an eye out for user forums, too. It can save a lot of head scratching to read what problems other people are having with your model. And what workarounds and solutions they've found. You'll become an instant expert.

If you can't find a forum on the manufacturer's site, try usenet. One of the easiest ways to see if there's a list dedicated to your equipment is to drop by and use the search form. Try a generic word (like "photo") or the manufacturer's name to hit all the discussion groups that may be relevant.

Keep these resources handy and you'll have good places to go if you need help.

TIP: Practice

You don't have to buy any film, so don't be shy. Shoot bad shoots. Lots of them. Surprise yourself. Just erase them all and start again. Try to make every mistake you can think of before you actually have to do anything important. There, we call that practice.

But my bet is that you'll find a few of those practice shots you just love, that surprise you, that get you to try things with your new gear that you didn't think were possible. We call that experimenting.

OK, enough tips. Time to play. The goal is to simply feel comfortable with your new camera, to see through it to the shot you want to take, knowing both you and the camera can handle it. Easily. That's when the fun begins.