Taking care of your digital camera

Here are some things you can do to get the most out of your digital camera

Did you get a new camera over the holidays? I did. I am quite excited about my new Nikon D7000, which was my "big present" on Christmas morning. If, like me, you have a shiny new camera to play with, here are some things you can do to get the most out of it. And while you're preparing to get the most out of digital photography this new year, be sure to read about five photo editing techniques you should definitely explore this year.

Read the Manual

This one should be obvious--so why do so few people read the user guide that comes with their camera? There's nothing wrong with experimenting with your camera and figuring stuff out on our own, but at some point in your first month with the camera, I highly encourage you to read the manual. There's a right way and a wrong way to do that, though, and I daresay most people don't get as much out of the manual as they should. Here's my recommended approach.

Block out some distraction-free time and sit down with a cup of hot chocolate, the camera, a pen, and the user guide. Scan the guide page by page. You don't have to read every word--in fact, reading it too meticulously will put you to sleep. As you start each section, quickly get a sense of whether you know how to use the feature being discussed. If yes, move on. If not, read about it and then immediately pick up the camera and try it out. If you actually try the feature with your own hands, you'll stand a much better chance of understanding it and remembering it when you need it.

When you encounter a new feature you didn't know how to use, write notes on the inside cover of the user guide. That's your cheat sheet, so you don't have to scan the whole book to look up how to format a memory card or change the metering pattern. Heck, you might even want to make notes about why you'd use an interesting-but-obscure-sounding feature like "flash compensation." And enjoy your hot chocolate.

Upgrade the Lens

If you are the proud owner of a new digital SLR, I encourage you to think about expanding your lens collection. One of the biggest benefits of using an SLR is the interchangeable lens system that lets you switch focal lengths to suit the situation. I have three lenses: A 105mm macro lens for close-up nature photography, an all-purpose 18-200mm "walking around lens," and a 400mm telephoto for situations in which I need to pull in distant objects.

Take a good look at the lens that came with your SLR, generally known as a "kit lens" (because it comes in the box with your SLR body, as part of a kit). It's probably not a bad lens, but nor is it especially great. You can expand your photographic possibilities by buying a faster lens. Your kit's fastest aperture is probably between f3/5 and f/5.6, which really limits your options when shooting indoors or in low light. Look for an f/2 lens instead. Be sure to read "Demystifying Lenses" and, for more tips, check out "Understanding Camera Lens Model Numbers."

Get a Carrying Case

How do you care for your camera? For starters, put it in a carrying case. A padded, appropriately sized case can help you keep the camera clean and protected. It lets you collect various accessories (spare memory cards, AC adapter, USB cable, extra lenses) in a single easy-to-find place. My favorite use for a carrying case: I can easily delegate Sherpa duties to my kids and trust they can carry my camera gear without dropping anything. Keep It Clean and Dry

If you get a case, you're well along the way to keeping your new camera clean and dry. Remember that the vast majority of cameras sold--even if they look like rugged tanks--are not designed to withstand exposure to harsh environments. They definitely, are not waterproof (unless you get one of a handful of water resistant models) so don't even think about taking pictures in the water. Rain counts: Don't expose your camera to a storm. If you want to shoot outdoors in bad weather, get a rain cover for your camera--there are a lot of inexpensive coverings you can find just by searching the Web for "digital camera rain cover."

Don't Use Canned Air

You'll want to keep your camera clean, but resist the urge to pick up a can of canned air at the local camera shop. Canned air can be dangerous to cameras, especially if you are not exceedingly careful. For example, if you shake a can of canned air, you can end up squirting propellant all over your camera and lens. Canned air can also force air and dust into parts of the camera that aren't airtight, which can eventually contaminate the sensor. My advice: Get a good lens cloth and brush, and leave the canned air in the store.

Turn It Off

Finally, here's some advice you don't hear very often, but it's good to keep in mind: Turn your camera off before you do anything to it. Changing lenses, swapping memory cards, connecting or disconnecting cables--all of these activities are best done with the camera powered off. If your camera is on and actively writing to the memory card, for example, you can ruin the card by removing it. Likewise, swapping lenses with the camera powered on makes it somewhat more likely that you'll attract dust to the sensor. It's a small and easy thing to, so get in the habit of turning off the camera when you're about to add or remove anything.

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