A new year has started and the weather is cold. While there's nothing wrong with getting out there with your camera, the truth is photography tends to slow during the cold months. Take advantage of the down time to revisit the basics. Whether it is to brush up on a long forgotten bit of knowledge or gain something new, it never hurts to backtrack once in a while.
One of the things I constantly tell beginner and novice photographers to do is to read your manual. Cameras are complex pieces of equipment and I find that understanding everything about it can be a slow and layered process. What do I mean by layered?
Knowledge advances by building on top of what you already know. For example, you learn to walk first before running. After you have mastered balancing on your feet you begin by taking slow, careful steps forward. After a while it becomes easier and your confidence increases. Before long you are walking without even thinking about it. You put a little effort into it and before long you are running all over the place.
It is the same thing with your equipment. You begin with the basics; on/off, manual/auto focusing, metering, downloading images... Then you move onto the more complex settings; aperture priority versus shutter priority, exposure compensation, bracketing... Whoo hoo, we feel accomplished! But there is so much more that your camera can offer you that you may not be aware of. There are also techniques and functions that will become useful only after you have mastered something else.
For example, many of the more advanced dSLR cameras allow you to assign tasks to the different buttons. Customizing the button layout to the way you work can shave seconds during a shot. Those seconds can mean the difference between getting the shot or missing it forever. Now that you have used your camera a while you now know where you can assign buttons to simplify or speed up your tasks.
As with assignable buttons, most upper end dSLR cameras allow you to custom create your own menu, allowing you to store the most commonly used features all in one section. Most menus have additional sub-menus with advanced functions you may not even know you had. Exploring these sub-menus may yield some nice surprises. The first thing I did with mine was configure it with exposure bracketing, mirror lock-up, custom white balance and a few other often-used settings. No more having to search through countless other menus and sub-menus to get to these features.
Did you know that your on-board flash may have variable power settings? Do you know how to switch between spot metering and zone metering? Or that you can lock your exposure? Did you know some cameras allow the use of an infrared shutter release? How about turning the 'blinkies' on and off?
If any of those questions made you think about your camera's abilities it might be good to dust off that instruction manual. Thumb through it once again and revisit some of those long forgotten functions. You may end up finding something new.