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The basics of a camera are really very simple.

Ever heard of a pin-hole camera? It’s nothing more than a light-tight box with a small hole on one side. Opposite the hole on the inside of the box is a piece of film that captures the light coming in through the hole. And on the outside of the box is usually a piece of tape to close off the hole when the exposure is over.

That’s it… no controls, no fancy dials, no LCD screen. And people take pictures with nothing more than this all the time. (Though it takes some trial-and-error experimenting, it can produce some magical images — because you never really know what you’re going to get).

So what does that have to do with the fancy digital camera you’re probably using today?

Well, everything really. For starters your camera is, at its core, just this — a dark box with a hole in it. Your lens is the hole. The shutter is the tape. And your digital image sensor is the film.

The difference is that your camera has all kinds of bells and whistles to give you more control over your images (so many, in fact, that at times they end up getting in the way).

That’s why understanding and learning to use your camera’s basic features is so helpful. It will give you a good foundation to build upon.

THREE STEPS TO SETTING UP YOUR CAMERA FOR THE FIRST TIME

Here are three things you need to do to set yourself up for good-quality shots from the start (even if you don’t know much about photography). Let your camera help you.

First order of business: Get very familiar with your camera’s manual. I know some people don’t like to read maps — but in this case, the map will serve you well. I promise.

If you can’t find your camera’s manual, look online. Just go to www.nikon.com or www.canon.com or to the website for whatever manufacturer made your camera and look up your camera’s model name.

For what purpose do you need this manual?

** 1) Well, for starters, find out how to change your image-quality setting and then set yours for the highest level.

You can always shrink an image later but you can’t make up for a small, poor-quality image after the fact. Be aware that you may have to invest in a larger memory card to accommodate these larger photos you’ll be taking. (Often the card that comes with the camera doesn’t have enough memory to capture more than a few high-quality shots.)

** 2) The second thing I would encourage you to do is turn off the pop-up flash. You may want it back on for shooting pictures at the next birthday party (so take note of what you do). But for quality shots, you’ll want to avoid using the on-camera flash (with the possible exception of fill flash – a more advanced technique). Nothing screams “snap shot” quiet so loudly as the use of a pop-up flash.

** 3) Third, get familiar with the program dial. This dial usually has little pictures on it, like a flower (for macro or close-up shots), mountains (for scenic shots), a person (for portraits), and a guy running (for sports shots).

Each of these modes is pre-programmed to tell your camera what kind of situation you are shooting in and therefore what is important to you.

For instance, if you are shooting a fast-action football game with your camera set on portrait mode, chances are the motion in your shots will be blurry. On the other hand, the sports mode automatically adjusts for a faster shot so that the action is frozen in time, like in this shot:

When you’re getting started, shoot with these pre-sets on. They are usually pretty good and will give you descent results. Just remember to change the setting when you change your type of shooting.

As you get more comfortable and confident with the basics of your camera you can move on to more advanced features.

But if you do nothing but those three things as you begin, you can be sure you’re headed in the right direction.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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