A user manual with pictures
By far the most ubiquitous of manual replacements are the Magic Lantern Guides and books like that.
They may be ubiquitous, but I’ve never bought one and never plan to. They’re just the user manual, only with color photographs instead of black-and-white drawings. Reading these is like reading Cliff’s Notes for their sparkling literature—only it isn’t abridged, it’s expanded.
I honestly wish I thought the idea of making these. Basically you open the manual, copy it down in your own words just like you did in the 5th grade, and start taking photos of all the controls exactly where there are drawings in the manual. Then you reorder the sections to follow a predefined template so your manual resembles the other “guides” in the “series.” When you are done, you return the camera to B&H, Adorama, or Amazon—remember that generous return policy I mentioned? Let’s just say you’re not the only one taking advantage of it.
Unfortunately, these are the first camera-specific book available, and sometimes the only one available for your camera. If the latter, you should see how far you can get with the user manual. Then, if you need to look at a photograph, refer to the the middle section of DPReview’s review of your camera.
A beginner’s user manual
The one I ended up buying Marie was Mastering the Nikon D5000, mostly because it was published by the rabid enthusiasts at Nikonians. This is not too far different from the previous books I mentioned—and, in many ways, these books form a spectrum. But the key differences are in structure and dedication.
The book is structured around groupings in descending order of priority: the first chapter is how to configure your camera for 90% of your shooting, From there it goes on to: aperture and shutter speed (chapter 2), metering (chapter 3), white balance (chapter 4), playback (chapter 5), and then other menu features not covered previously (chapter 6-9). The final chapters cover less used systems: the autofocus system, flash photography, and movie recording. Marie says she likes this book the best because it’s not just a list of “what” like a user manual, but tells you “how and why” to do it. It’s not obtuse like a manufacturer’s manual; it’s straightforward like a user’s manual should be.
As for the dedication of the author to the camera and photography.: after reading the author bio from the book, Marie said, “It’s so cute I have to read this part to you”:
Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell) is an information technology engineer by trade and has been an avid photographer for over 35 years. He has a rather large family, with his wife and five children, so he has a constantly interesting flow of photographic opportunities. In fact, his entire family uses Nikon cameras to pursue what has become a cohesive family hobby.
“That’s you in twenty years!” she joked.
Perhaps that’s why I bought the book.
A camera nerd’s manual
The ultimate in user manuals are by professionals like Thom Hogan. He makes a one for the Nikon D5000 as well as other Nikons. I’m sure there is a Thom Hogan outside the Nikon world, but, like the above, these people are so dedicated, they shoot only one brand and make guides only for cameras they own and use.
I’ve written about his books before, and I own and have read his Nikon D3 book (it took me a week). He now often supplements his e-books with a spiral bound reference guide that you can use in the field.
His thoroughness and copious footnoting is reminiscent of an anal retentive version of me. For instance, here is a footnote on sensor cleaning:
159 Yes, Nikon’s documentation says don’t touch the sensor. But Sensor Swabs are similar to the method they use to clean the sensor. Heck, Nikon even sells cleaning kits in Japan. Don’t get the cloth too wet [you’ll leave streaks], and don’t use force in cleaning [you could grind dirt into the filter face or break the filter]. And again, I won’t pay to have your sensor replaced if you use this technique and damage your camera. If you’re not comfortable using this technique at your own risk, then don’t use it.
And yes, there is a little bit of geek humor:
49An aside: which set of words you use (transforms, coefficients, quantized or calculations, results, compressed) depends upon whether you’re a mathematician or a layperson. A nerdy party trick is to the the vocabulary of the one you aren’t.
That’s okay if you know everything about photography already. Let’s put it this way, if you think I’m not long-winded enough and you had no problem reading all seven parts of this series, then Thom Hogan is your man.
Going it online
If you can’t find the right book, the option here is to use the online world as a resource. There are camera specific forums where you can ask questions or search previous discussions. The only danger is that your learning is haphazard and may be a bit spotty.
One thing you absolutely should do is download the manufacturer manual for your camera: here is Nikon’s. While screen reading is an acquired taste, there are two advantages here.
First, the manual is searchable this way. If you are reading the general books and want to know “how do I do what they are describing in my camera?” you just open the PDF and search for the words you don’t know.
Second, it’s always a good idea to always keep a copy of the manual with your camera for reference purposes. Almost every photographer advises you do this. Save pack weight, and your printed manual, by downloading the downloadable manual onto your iPhone.
I do this and then leave the manual in the box. And yet, I can still read the manual if I have a long bus ride somewhere, or I’ve exhausted all the copies of Highlights in the dentist’s office.