a cup of coffee, a black DSLR camera, and a few paper camera manuals on a wood surface

Camera Manuals, Coffee, and a Big Duh Moment

I have a confession. I rarely read the camera manual. Yeah, I know. Pretty dumb. That’s why I confessed.

Recently, though, I have reformed. I dug out all my camera manuals, and lens manuals, and sorted and placed them in plastic sleeves, arranging them alphabetically into a large notebook binder. This works for the small manuals and also for the one-to-two-pagers that came with some of the simple film cameras. Then I put all the thicker manuals that wouldn’t fit in the little plastic sleeves in an old box. I looked through my cameras and figured out which ones didn’t have manuals (bought used, with no extra details), and identified the manuals that would be helpful to have. Noodling around on the internet, I found the manuals I wanted for a couple of old DSLRs, a little digital point and shoot camera, and a couple of film cameras that have a little more to them than point-and-shoot. I printed these manuals out, thanks to the photographers and camera enthusiasts who have scanned and uploaded these forgotten manuals, and companies who keep archives available. Then I stapled or clipped these manuals together, and placed them with the binder and box full of manuals. Now, if I ever sell any of these cameras or lenses, it will be easy to find the manual and send it along with good wishes to the new home of the camera or lens.

A couple mornings ago, I was too lazy and chilly to get up for an early dawn walk to a local nature area to take photos of the sunrise, but I did want to do something photographically, so I poured a cup of coffee with a splash of milk, and curled up on my made bed with a quilt tucked over my lap, and began to read the manual for a little digital camera I just bought less than a month ago. I knew there were a couple of features that I didn’t know how to get to with the weird early 2000s menu setup. Sure enough, the manual pointed me straight to it and now I can’t wait to get out and play with that camera. This morning, I curled up again with a cup of coffee and a manual for a DSLR that I scored for a bargain over the summer. I have taken it out for a couple of test spins, but I knew that reading the manual would help me unlock the frustrations I was having with the camera. Sure enough, the manual helped me find a couple of settings that I couldn’t find easily, and it also assisted me in addressing a problem I had encountered with the auto-focus of one of the lenses. Wow.

I am sure this seems like a “big duh” (when my nephews were little “big duh” was their sarcastic answer to things that they seemed to know inherently or when they had just learned something and wanted to show off their seven-and-eight-year-old wisdom), to more advanced and experienced photographers than I. I have heard before that a huge part of photography is knowing your gear, but apparently I appreciated getting to know my cameras through long and awkward conversations over the years, instead of with a simple sit down before the first photography voyage, even if it was a simple walk around the block. My photography skills are slowly improving, but there was a huge leap when I stopped to read the manual.

If I had any photography advice to give, and please, you really shouldn’t take photography advice from me given my confession above, but it would be to read the manual, even if the manual is only one page, and even if you have used a million cameras, and even if you have used a similar camera. The manual is a gold mine. It can help you trouble-shoot, discover an unknown feature, or even confirm what you already knew about your wonderful camera. Curl up with your favorite beverage, placed safely away from your camera, and a camera manual on a day when you are home and not able to get out for a quick walk or a bigger photography adventure.

Get to know your camera, and get properly introduced to it with that lovely manual. There are secrets to behold, and while your camera may whisper, your manual will shout or speak to you in the appropriate volume. You and your camera might be able to have a deeper conversation, and when it’s time for your next adventure, you and your camera will both be ready.

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19 thoughts on “Camera Manuals, Coffee, and a Big Duh Moment”

  1. I think we have all been guilty at some point. When I was first training up in IT, one of our tutors wrote RTFM up on a whiteboard. When asked what it meant, he said ‘Read The Manual!’.
    I know I’m still guilty to this day of trying to work it out myself, sometimes that brings extra insight, but more often frustration and wasted time…

    1. Bob, hahaha! I guess I could have titled this RTFM! I didn’t know this term, but it fits perfectly! I might make a sticker for my camera! 😉 Glad to know I’m not the only one. You are right, though, sometimes it’s fun (and frustrating) to take the meandering detour, thinking we will come up with the answer ourselves. It’s similar to life, no? Some of us have to take the hard way to get to the answers. Anyway, thanks for reading and making me laugh!!

  2. In old film cameras, manuals are usually useless for me, from the operational standpoint. They can, however, be very helpful in troubleshooting. My Olympus OM2n sometimes locks the mirror in up position, if the battery suddenly runs out. I probably would not have gotten it back down without the manual.
    (Push the tiny, rectangular button at the bottom of bayonet mount and, PSCHLONK!, down comes the mirror)

    1. Jukka, you make a strong point especially when you know the fundamentals and your camera so well. And, yes, that is one of the million reasons why analog photography is so wonderful, you don’t get caught in some weird submenu. Those little secrets in the manual, like the one you shared about the Olympus OM2n, though, are priceless!! Good to know! I would love to play with one of those Olympus SLRs. I have heard wonderful things! Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I am looking forward to reading more of your articles here, and I see I have a lot to catch up on! Thank you!!

    2. I’ve recently been using the Dynax 9xi – the manual was definitely needed!
      I also ran foul of the OM2n mirror locking up after the battery ran out. When I looked it up in the manual I found myself exclaiming ‘So that’s what the rest of the power switch does!’..

  3. I reckon that some of the purported reticence to reading manuals, especially for those of us in the autumn years, was the hitherto routine employment of ‘Chinglish’ or ‘Janglish’ by way of text.

    In other words, the manuals were written in the English of those for whom it was a second language.

    1. Hi Stephen, yes, I can see where it might be frustrating to read a manual that doesn’t quite match up, but I can’t imagine trying to read a manual in another language (as I only understand one), so I am grateful for the attempts. I know that Chinese and Japanese are listed as some of the most difficult languages for a person who speaks English to learn, so I am sure it’s the same for someone learning English.
      I teach English as a second language as my job, so I’m not crazy about those terms. Trying to learn a couple languages myself, I’m quite admiring of anyone writing a camera manual in a second language. Heck, I think it would be difficult to write a camera manual in English, even if I knew all the ins and outs of the camera. 🙂 Imagine getting a camera that didn’t even have your language as an option for the manual. We are quite lucky to have options for translating now and multilinguists who write those manuals.
      Thanks for reading.

  4. Un buen consejo. Lei y relei muchas veces el manual de la nikon f5 ,la f4 y la canon eos 1 n y siempre los consulto ,es muy importante conocer la camara en profundidad sino sus funciones se convierten en un obstáculo.

    1. Hola, Miguel!! Yes, you’re so right!! You’re smarter than I, but I’m finally learning! 🙂 You have some good cameras there, and it sounds like you know them really well! I think that’s my next step, to know the camera so well. I can’t remember where I read this, but it was some photographer saying he wanted to know the camera so well that it was an extension of himself. I have a long way to go, but it’s something to strive for. I will take your advice and read and reread those manuals! Thanks for reading and commenting!!

  5. Nice Article, Kary!

    I’ve found another great trick to be especially useful “in the field.” If you find a camera manual’s PDF online, download it into your smart phone’s “library” (called “Books” on my older iPhone).

    Then, you’ll be able to refer to the manual if something crops up while you’re out shooting AND you can quickly search the PDF file for specific information. Right now, the only books in my phone’s library are the extensive manuals for my Fuji X-Pro1, Panasonic ZS3, Pany ZS100, and older Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom. And if I take my Nikon FE SLR on our next vacation, I’ll add its manual as well.

    It’s a real life saver on vacations!



    1. Dave, thank you! I appreciate the advice, that’s a really good tip!!! I am definitely going to do that!! In fact, I’m going to put a couple on my phone tonight! Thank you, that’s some of the best photography advice I’ve ever gotten!!! Thanks for reading and commenting!!

    2. Dave;

      This tidbit of knowledge is gold for this reader. Makes such logical sense – particularly for my sometimes slow-moving learning style! I will begin this process now, going forward!

  6. Another great piece. I sometimes been the process of deep-diving into one (or more) of my manuals, only to get derailed by my seemingly innate inability to focus, which compliments (unfortunately) my absolute ability to get easily distracted! However, I, like you, have learned much from simply understanding how my camera works, versus trying to figure it out myself, oftentimes in vain. Dave’s idea above is a helpful one for me. A glass of Malbec might be a better friend versus a cup of coffee, to keep me focused! But I admit one of the reasons I went towards the point-and-shoot cameras when I first got back into all this, was the lack of complication in their operation. Some camera manuals are like melding of science with insurance/law “speak”. At times, it can be overwhelming – but that’s mainly “me”. You’ve given me another adventure to embark on, however – and I love to read. So, for this, I thank you! 😉

    1. Oooh, Malbec and manuals would have been a good title, and a nice combo, provided it’s the happy hour and not the morning hour! 😉 I will admit that yeah, those manuals aren’t exactly curl up with material, and it can be hard to focus. Yes, the point and shoot cameras, and a lot of film cameras, are nice because there’s not much to figure out. There’s also probably something to going out with the camera first and then coming back to the manual, maybe? Then you have specific questions, instead of just reading from front to back. Remember those DVDs that they used to sell to help set up a camera? That always seemed like a nice option, a nice combo of reading with some help. Yes, you’re right those manuals can be quite dry, but I think it would be so hard to do that kind of writing. Anyway, thanks for reading, James, and have fun with your manuals and Malbec!!

    2. I would normally associate the Malbec with ‘creative defocus’…
      The thing with some of those P&S cameras, is that, because of the computerization and despite the limited number of buttons, some of the features that you might not even know existed unless you dug into the manuals are hidden behind obscure button presses. Sometimes they can feel like undoing a puzzle-box…

  7. Kary, I guess I’m the odd duck when it comes to reading manuals but I’m the odd duck with lots of things so I’m okay with it. I’m an avid manual or assembly instruction reader and the results have been a mixed bag over the years but definitely way more positive. You have to put all your trust in whomever wrote the instructions and this has not always resulted in a positive outcome. I once spent hours putting a gas grill together only to find out at the very end a critical part was backwards and the propane tank wouldn’t fit. It would have required a total disassembly so I put the grill out at the curb and have never looked back. On the other hand when my business model as a photo retoucher changed from negatives and silver gelatin prints to photoshop and pigment printers I submersed myself in multiple PS books and manuals. I read everything I could get my hands on. That was 2006 and I made the transition when so many others my age, now late 60’s, fell by the wayside. I’m now a custom digital darkroom and print finishing specialist with as much work as I can handle. I’ve never looked back. These are personal examples but when it comes to wanting to excel at something personally rewarding I believe you should know as much about the minutiae as the basic ‘this is a camera’. I agree with you completely. You just never know when one small piece of information will be the key that unlocks the door to a whole new way of thinking, seeing or working. Onward and upward!

    1. Bill, you’re so right. “. . .When it comes to wanting to excel at something personally rewarding I believe you should know as much about the minutiae as the basic ‘this is a camera.'” Right there is the perfect advice, and it’s really only been recently (in the last year) that I do want to succeed and improve at my photography (even if it is just a hobby). I cringed when I first wrote this, felt unsure when I submitted it, and wanted to hide under the covers when I saw the publishing date. I braced myself for comments, but luckily I’ve landed among a lovely group, the 35mmc readers and writers. Thank you! Yes, indeed, onward and upward!! 🙂

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