Digital and film photography are far more alike than they are different, but digital image recording opens up many new, valuable and perhaps unanticipated opportunities. For starters, assume that everything you already know about getting good pictures still applies.
You won't find it in the box, but every digital camera comes with a license to experiment, test, tweak and screw up to your heart's content. With the cost of another shot at nothing, why hold back? The pros typically take dozens of shots to land a few keepers. Now you can do the same, and there's no better or faster way to learn. Instant feedback is one of digital photography's most powerful advantages.
Sit down with your camera's manual as soon as you can. Some cameras come with a basic printed manual to get started and a complete manual that will come on CD. You should read both. Digital cameras are sophisticated devices with capabilities you might not anticipate from your film experience. You might be able to fake some of the features some of the time, but you won't be able to take full advantage of your investment without a read through the full version of the manual. You won't regret it.
Think outside the box. Digital cameras have more uses than you might have imagined. You do not have to memorize everything about your camera right away, but using it should become second nature if you want to be good at it. So practice every chance you get. Take pictures of your feet, hold the camera a few feet away from your face and take an interesting self-portrait. The more you practice, the better you will get.
You may never get to some of your new camera's settings, but a few critical settings demand immediate attention, and they won't necessarily be familiar from your film experience.
If you haven't yet thought through the many trade-offs surrounding resolution (the number of pixels recorded) and JPEG compression level, often referred to as quality, play it safe: Set your camera for the highest available resolution and the highest JPEG compression setting for now and work out the details later.
When in doubt, don't hesitate to take advantage of auto-exposure and auto-focus. Avoid auto-ISO for anything other than low-light action shots. Try the lowest ISO setting your camera offers before venturing higher. Higher ISO settings bring more image noise.
Many digital cameras behave like color slide film. The best images are often slightly underexposed, particularly when bright scene elements are involved. Use exposure compensation to feel out your own camera's exposure sweet spots, but count on some variation with photographic conditions. When in doubt, bracket your exposures.
Sooner or later, you'll have to deal with other purely digital recording mode issues like white balance and in-camera sharpening, but it's usually safe to accept camera defaults on those fronts for starters.
If you use your camera's macro focus setting for a close-up, be sure to turn it off right away. Many a non-close-up's been fatally blurred by a camera carelessly left in macro mode.
If your shots come out badly exposed, even in auto mode, make sure that exposure compensation hasn't been left at an untoward setting.
One of the most difficult parts of digital photography that new users have trouble getting used to is the inevitable time delay that occurs between pushing the button on the camera and capturing the picture.
Digital cameras have more to do in preparing to take a photo than do film cameras. Like film cameras, they have to focus the lens. However, they also have to take a pre-exposure to get proper color balance.
The good news is that they are able to achieve better exposed, better color-balanced, and in many cases better focused images than film cameras. The bad news is that this takes a fraction of a second and could cause you to miss a great picture. What can you do about it? There are a couple of approaches that are very effective.
The simplest is to just push the shutter button down half way as you are waiting for the action to develop. Keep it there until you are ready for the photo, and then press the rest of the way. Pressing half way signals the camera to immediately choose focus, color balance, and exposure. The subsequent delay when you take your shot is now quite small, comparable to film cameras. When I am shooting basketball games, I keep the shutter button half depressed, and I get great action shots.
A second approach is to switch to manual exposure and focus. If lighting is stable, as it is indoors, this works rather well. Most digital cameras have tremendous depth-of-field, so focus is not critical. Set your focus for a typical distance, and you will probably be happy with the results. If this is an indoor sporting event, you will want the shutter speed as high as possible, so choose maximum aperture and adjust shutter speed for proper exposure.