Excerpt: 'The LIFE Guide to Photography'

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Remember this: Good pictures demand care, and truly good pictures are hard to make. The manufacturers are out there selling us the digital dream, telling us that the camera does it all. And some of these machines almost do; they are marvelous contraptions. But no matter how fancy the gear, photography itself, at the end of the day, rules. Just like Mother Nature, the photo gods are mercurial indeed and smile upon us only occasionally and reluctantly. So relax. You will make mistakes! As someone much smarter than I once said, "Failure is a form of progress." He must have been thinking about photography.

Do these things first: • Take the camera out of the box and attach the shoulder strap. I generally put a little bit of gaffer tape (not duct tape, but photographer's gaffer tape) around the tails of the strap so they don't flap around and slip.

• Fully charge the battery. It usually comes from the manufacturer only partially loaded.

• Don't read the manual right away. You'll either get discouraged or fall asleep.

• Most cameras come with a "quick guide" designed to get you taking pictures right away. Do read that.

• Make sure you have either the cord to connect the camera directly to your computer or some sort of card reader by which you can pull your images off the card and onto your desktop.

• Make sure you have some sort of browsing software so you can take a look at the pictures. Many digital cameras come with viewing software bundled with the hard-ware. If yours doesn't, there are many, many fairly simple, not-too-expensive viewing programs out there.

• Then, put the camera on P. It stands for "program," but it is also jokingly referred to as "perfect" or "professional." No matter. In this mode, you let the camera drive, and for your first few spins, that's a good strategy. Most of these cameras have such a high level of technology and sophistication that they will sort things out for you very well, without you expending any thought (or sweat) whatsoever.

This allows you to . . .

Have fun! Picture-making can be hard to do, yes, but it shouldn't be in any way miserable. Shoot pictures. Look at the hits, near misses and complete disasters. Make some more of them. Get used to the feel of the camera.

Many cameras now come with a "kit" lens, a reasonably decent, all-purpose zoom that goes pretty wide to sorta telephoto. Work both ends of the lens, and see what the wide view and telephoto view can do for you. Start thinking about when it might be suitable to use one or the other.

Put yourself in different situations: bright sun, interiors, birthday parties, on the sidelines of ball games. See how the camera handles all this nutty stuff you see out there, the stuff that constitutes your world. Continue to shoot; take lots of pictures. Remember, you don't have to run to the drugstore to develop these. No pixels have to die! If something is intriguing enough to make you lift your camera to your eye, then it is worth making 50 pictures of it, not just 5. Shoot! You will only get better at this after you do it repeatedly. Many folks have asked me over the years how I got to be a LIFE photographer—how I got to be a guy who actually gets Michelle Pfeiffer to pose for his camera. The question always reminds me of that old joke about the lost tourist in Manhattan asking a New Yorker, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"

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