I am not an expert, however there are a few things I have picked up from talking to experts and from attending photography courses that I believe might be useful. Occasionally the experts forget what it was like to actually be a beginner, so it becomes difficult to speak on a level which us newbies can grasp. The following is a short list of things that I have learned explained in the same language it took for me to understand them.
Choosing a camera: What type of camera should I choose? Point and Shoot? Digital SLR? What the heck are those? Well, a point and shoot camera is designed to automatically adjust the internal settings to take the best photo in a given environment. Many more pricey point and shoot cameras also allow for manually adjusting some or all of the internal settings, but these adjustments are generally limited in comparison to the lowest end Digital SLR. A Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) is a higher end (and generally more expensive) camera that offers interchangeable lenses and greater functionality as far as manually adjusting camera settings is concerned. The photo quality of a Digital SLR, even when the Mega pixel count is the same or even lower than a cheaper point and shoot camera is far superior to most point and shoot cameras. Overall for general purpose a mid to high end point and shoot camera will do everything a photographer needs, but if you are looking to sell photos, take landscape photos, take artistic photos, or print professional quality photos the Digital SLR is the way to go
Manual Settings: Cameras function by the manipulation of light. They manipulate the light by adjusting one or all of three settings. Shutter Speed, ISO (International Organization for Standardization) equivalent and Aperture. Shutter Speed controls the length that the digital sensor is exposed to light, so the longer the shutter is open the more light is allowed to pass through the lens onto the sensor. Shutter Speeds are measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. A shutter speed of 120 can actually be thought of as 1/120 of a second, while a shutter speed of 1, 2, 3 an so on are whole seconds. Every camera in some way notes the difference between fast fraction of a second shutter speeds and slow whole second shutter speeds, so refer to you users manual for help. Tip: For any shutter speed of 1/20 of a second or more a tripod is recommended to prevent blurring from camera motion. ISO equivalent is the speed at which the sensor processes the light presented to it. The higher the number the more sensitive to light. For example, a setting of ISO 400 will take much more exposure to light to wash the photo completely out (the photo shows nothing put a blank white screen) than a setting of ISO 1600. Tip: ISO 400 is accepted as a good all around setting. Finally, there is aperture. Aperture controls the depth of field in a photograph. The aperture is the opening inside the camera which the light passes through to strike the digital sensor. This opening can be opened or closed to change the distance from which light reaches the sensor. These settings, also called F-Stops, are represented by whole numbers or numbers with one decimal place usually proceeded by an “F”. A higher F-stop number will increase the depth of field, while a lower F-stop number will decrease it. For example, a setting of F8 in a photo of a soda cup on a table with woods in the background may only have the soda cup appear to be in focus, while with a setting of F2.8 the soda cup, the table and the woods behind may all appear to be in focus. Tip: Longer focal lengths also decrease depth of field
How and when to use manual settings: Refer to your handy dandy light meter. Most cameras have a built in light meter that you can see when looking through the eyepiece or at the LCD on the back of the camera. This little meter will tell you when your settings are correct by either balancing at zero or turning green or some similar kind of alert. Refer to you camera’s user manual to see exactly how your light meter works. For those cameras that don’t have a light meter external light meters are available for purchase at your local camera store. Tip: Have the camera guru that sells you the external light meter show you how to use it, those things can get a bit tricky.
Lens focal length: The lens focal length is a camera setting that determines how much of your photo target the camera can see. A wide angle lens, for example a 18mm lens, will see a wide area and the objects in that area will appear smaller or father away. A 105mm lens however, will show much less area of the target, but the objects in the photo will be larger and have more discernible detail.
Mega pixels defined: Digital photos are maid up of millions of little dots called pixels. The mega pixel count attributed to a digital camera is the amount of little dots the camera uses to build a picture. For the most part the more the pixels the better quality the picture, however that is not the case when comparing a point and shoot camera and a Digital SLR. The difference is, basically, that each of the Digital SLR pixels has more detail in and of itself than each individual pixel of a point and shoot camera. This difference can be attributed to the difference in and quality of the lenses. So what is the difference between ten and twelve mega pixels really? A twelve mega pixel camera will maintain the photo detail to a larger photo size than the ten mega pixel. Therefore a 4 x 6 photo from a twelve mega pixel camera will have more detail and be more crisp and clear than a 4 x 6 photo taken with a ten mega pixel camera using the same settings. The difference is negligible on smaller photos, but the larger the photo the more noticeable the difference.
What now? Practice, study, and experiment. The best way to learn how to use a digital camera is to use it. That is the most appealing difference between a digital camera and a film camera. If you don’t get the photo right the first time you’ve lost nothing except a little juice from the battery (probably rechargeable anyway). Go snap pictures, play with settings, change them and see what happens. Go to photography classes, there are some free ones on the Internet if you learn well by reading, and once you pick up a little bit of the lingo go talk to the experts. They are the experts for a reason, and there is always something new to be learned from them.
The single most important thing to remember when using digital cameras is to have fun. Whether your taking a photo of your child blowing out the birthday candles or waiting for four hours to get the perfect light to take a landscape photo that gets front cover of a magazine just remember to enjoy it. That is why you picked up the camera in the first place, and the fun you have today will come back to you every time you look at the picture you took. That is what photography is all about after all.