Beyond the Manual

One way or another, you'll get there.

If you’ve been paying attention (cue Sister Mary Elephant), you know by now that you should be reading the manual. But what do you do if your camera comes without a manual (oh, the joys of buying the floor model), or if the manual’s better suited as a doorstop than a source of quick, coherent instructions? Nearly every DSLR has a book or twelve written on its care and use, and there are also plenty of options to choose from if you’re shooting with a compact or bridge camera.*

I’ll take the Nikon D7000 as my example, since that’s my primary camera. The instruction manual runs to a dense, information-packed 325 pages. Just how information-packed? Well, I’m glad you asked. “Basic Photography and Playback” — you know, the part where you actually get to turning on the camera and making a photograph — starts on page 35.

I’m not knocking the instruction manual. However, sometimes you want something that lays out your options with a nod or two toward concision, and that’s where your “aftermarket” options come in. In no particular order, some of those options, with commentary:

Nikon D7000 Digital Field Guide by J. Dennis Thomas (Wiley): I bought this book for one simple reason: at the time, it was the only thing available on the D7000. I was hoping for something that’d familiarize me with the camera before I bought it, and it delivered pretty well in that regard. True to its name, it’s a field guide; a lot of information’s seriously condensed, and some of it elided. It’s also something you can read in a sitting or two if you have a mind to, or just toss in a camera bag for quick reference. It isn’t as exhaustive as some of the other options listed below, but it’s good in a pinch (and I’ve had my share of pinches).

Nikon D7000: From Snapshots to Great Shots by John Bartdorff (Peachpit Press): Like other books in the From Snapshots to Great Shots series, this is a nice balance of technical information and technique. There are exercises and detailed examples of how to get certain types and styles of shots. This book is particularly good for photographers with less experience for the simple fact that, like photography itself, it’s about more than just the camera.

David Busch’s Nikon D7000 Guide to Digital SLR Photography by David Busch (Course Technology PTR): The bad news: if you’re looking for concise, look elsewhere. The good news: just about everything else you’d think to look for, and a few things you wouldn’t, are here. At 560 pages, this dwarfs the instruction manual. However, chapters devoted to lenses, DSLR movies, and peripheral technologies give this book a depth to match its considerable heft. Recommended for all levels of photographers. For the impatient, there’s also David Busch’s Compact Field Guide for the Nikon D7000 (Course Technology PTR), which condenses its bigger brother down to its bare essentials.

Speaking of patience, maybe someday I will muster enough of it to figure out what’s “expanded” in Nikon D7000 (The Expanded Guide), by Jon Sparks (Ammonite). Unlike Busch’s book, it doesn’t venture much beyond the traditional camera guide; nor does it venture much beyond the manual, though it’s more readable (but that isn’t saying much given the writing in the average instruction manual, which is tantamount to typesetting something with Ambien). Not quite a waste of money, but nothing to make it stand out in a crowd, either.

Nikon D7000 For Dummies by Julie Adair King (For Dummies/Wiley): I have to confess that I have a bit of an issue with the structure of the Dummies/Idiots/Everything genre of books. To me, all the little icons and cautions and pull quotes and sidebars and lists are a bit like getting to a magazine rack after Godzilla’s been through town. The information is there, but you have to go over quite a number of speedbumps to get to what you’re looking for. My gripe with this book isn’t with Ms. King or her writing; both prove to be adequate to the task of teaching you how to use your D7000. Maybe I’m too easily distracted; if you’re not, this could very well work for you.

Magic Lantern Guides: Nikon D7000 Multimedia Workshop (Lark Books): There’s probably a good reason that these are put out anonymously. I got lucky and found one of these out of its shrink-wrap at Barnes and Noble, so I thumbed through the “book” portion. It has nothing at all to do with the D7000, or any other camera, specifically. Just some boilerplate writing on settings and exposure that you’d find in any book that’s an introduction to photography technique, only not done quite as well. The “Nikon D7000 Quick Reference Wallet Card” is only marginally useful, and one of the DVD’s is about as specific to the camera as the book is. Out of sheer curiousity, I ferretted out another open copy, this time for a Sony SLR. Same booklet, same nonspecific DVD, same half-assed wallet card. In short, you’re paying for one DVD that might be remotely relevant to your camera, bundled with a bunch of filler. If you want to learn visually, most camera companies have DVDs for their cameras, and I’m guessing they’re put together with more care than the Multimedia Workshop Lark is offering. If someone you know owns this, borrow it; otherwise, pass on it.

Lest anyone think I dislike the Magic Lantern series as a whole, however, that’s far from the case. The full-on guidebooks, the ones that actually explain the camera’s settings and functions, and that actually come with an author’s name on the cover, are very good. Case in point would be Magic Lantern Guides: Nikon D7000
(Pixiq Books), authored by Simon Stafford. This is the polar opposite of the Multimedia Workshop, in that it’s a book that gets very deep into the camera’s functionality, in a style that’s readable and accessible. Worth having.

The field, therefore, tends to divide into two categories: there are some titles out there that, at least to this reader, don’t seem all that useful; then there’s a batch that contains quite a bit of useful information, with a lot of overlap between one book and the next. What sets each apart is the author’s approach and teaching method. Find the one that works for you, and roll with it. Are these quite as exhaustive as the owner’s manual? Mostly not, but neither are they as exhausting. If you’ve got to choose between leaving a couple of bits out (or perhaps exploring them in less detail) but reading the darn thing, versus having every conceivable piece of information at your fingertips but letting it languish at the bottom of your camera bag, the choice is pretty obvious.

*Of the myriad options available for compacts, one of my personal favorites is Rick Sammon’s Confessions of a Compact Camera Shooter: Get Professional Quality Photos with Your Compact Camera
(Wiley). See also some of Tom Ang’s many books on photography (generally published by DK); he’s one of the few writers out there who doesn’t seem allergic/averse to showing the average photographer how to put a camera’s automatic/scene modes to good use.

In the interest of full disclosure, my wife is an employee of John Wiley & Sons, publisher of three of the aforementioned books.

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