Articles & Tutorials

Coming to Grips with Your Camera

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Without digging into your camera bag to retrieve your camera see if you can answer the following questions.

Lets start with an easy one.

When in manual focus mode do you turn your focus ring to the right or left to focus on a more distant object?

Now moving on, but still easy.  When mounting a lens which way do your turn the lens to mount it?

A little harder now.... on the four way controller on the back of your camera what does pressing the right hand side do?

What about pressing the left hand side, what will that do?

Getting a bit harder now, where in your menu system do you find the setting for formatting the memory card?

I could of course ask you many more questions, but I’ll ask just one more.  If you held your camera to your eye, could you find your way around all the cameras controls without taking your eye from the camera? Could you do it simply by touch?

I suspect most photographers cannot, not because they are incompetent but simply because they have never committed the locations and functions of these controls to memory.

Here’s the thing, and I feel very strongly about this, your camera is a tool and a clever one at that, but it can get in the way of your images and creativity if you are having to continually hunt around to find the settings and functions you need, it is hard to get comfortable in your picture taking if your fingers are confused!

It amazes me just how much better I can work with a camera, both practically and artistically when I am really familiar with all its controls.  My Sony NEX 5n is a good example: The NEX series is often denigrated for having difficult methods of operation and inscrutable menu logics, yet I can work with it in a completely relaxed way and with rapidity, why?  Simple, I invested time and effort in getting fully at one with the device right from the outset.  (In fact I can see a certain logic to Sony’s much maligned menu system but that would be the subject of another post).  

I go through this “getting to be one with every camera process” with every camera I buy and being the anal retentive guy I also read the manual for every new camera from front to back at least 2 or 3 times.  (yes, very sad I know, perhaps I need some psychiatric help?)

It has often struck me how difficult it is for some of my students to work even half efficiently with their gear because they lack full or even partial familiarity with their gear.  You know what I mean, hunting around the body, endlessly tapping at menu items, having to continually take the camera from their eye, readjusting settings that are wrong and on it goes.  This is not about a lack of photographic skill or knowledge, these folk know the difference between a shutter speed and aperture, rather it is a lack of being at one with their device in a physical sense.

So how might we get to a higher level “digital oneness”.

In the world of elite sports training a much used technique is visualisation, and it really works, yet is easy to apply.  Basically an athlete visualises the task he /she is training for, going through the full process repeatedly in their minds eye.

For example, lets say you are a long jumper, you imagine in your minds eye going through the process of performing the jump from start to finish over a longish period of time, say perhaps a month.

The upshot is, that without actually performing the task the athlete actually improves, which is pretty amazing when you think of it.

Now apply that to your camera.

First of all you have to know where all the controls and menu items lie, that takes time but you can do it.  You may not choose to deal with the whole device at one time, perhaps this week you just concentrate on the positions and functions of the core knobs.  Next week you may move onto other less used knobs and buttons and perhaps the week after the dreaded menu items.

The first thing I do is determine what the controls are and where they are located, (which often involves some manual mining) and then I make conscious mental notes of their positions.  For example I may note that the WB control is on the right side of the four way controller, so I tell myself that, I then close my eyes and visualise seeing it in that position and finally feel that position on the camera with my eyes closed and the camera to my eye.  Yes I know it sounds odd and perhaps I am a bit of a nutter but trust me....I'm a photographer.

Once I know the positions, I keep my eyes off the camera and in the viewfinder and repeatedly attempt to use them on the camera over a period of days, noting their relationships to one another, how they feel and how they respond to my touch, how far apart they are etc. If I get it wrong I avoid looking at the camera body, I just persevere.

Along the way I also note the sound of the shutter at different shutter speeds and physical feel of the shutter release just before it triggers.

Following on from the physical stage, I then repeatedly imagine myself manipulating the buttons, knobs and menu items, often I do this in bed or when relaxing somewhere....mental repetition is the key.

I realise this might all sound a bit over the top, but just try it, you have nothing to lose.....well maybe one thing.  If you become really “at one” with your camera, you will likely feel so comfortable with it you simply won’t want to move to any new camera, which is great, it will save you heaps of the folding stuff.  But, and there is always a but, when your current camera curls up its pixels you will probably go through a significant period of CSA, (camera separation anxiety)!  Maybe you should just buy a second identical camera body now!

There is one type of photography that can be particularly benefitted by having full familiarisation of your camera, shooting under very low light. Most photographers resort to hand held torches, (still a good idea to have one handy) but being able to locate and operate everything in full darkness is going to seriously reduce your frustration levels.

I would add one further idea for serious “next to no light explorers”, learn to fully operate your tripod by touch, including mounting and un-mounting your camera and getting a feel for when everything is set level.

The cameras menu system will inevitably prove the most challenging, here are a few tips to help you.

Look at the menu items and make a note of how many categories there are and then the order in which the main categories are arranged.  This might take a day or two to fully remember, but again visualising the menu with your eyes closed will help. Don't try to do it all at one time, it's just too difficult with most cameras, especially Sony and Olympus models.

Once you have the number of items and the order sorted move onto remembering where the most important items are located, for example, perhaps the option for adjusting the focus mode is on the second tab across and third item from the top, tell yourself this and try finding it blind and then open your eyes and see if you nailed it. Also visualise seeing the items located above and below this menu item.

Make a note of items where you actually have to press a set button or some other button to implement, this often traps people up, some Canon models for example need the set button pressed to enable the WB setting you have chosen, I can't tell you how many people in my classes have set out to test their WB settings on Canons only to find on returning to the classroom the images all look the same cause the camera remained fixed on AWB option due to them not pressing that pesky “set”!

Eventually given enough practice and active visualisation you will remember the entire menu system and all its little idiosyncrasies and be amazed at how much quicker you will have become at adjusting your camera, but it's not just about speed. Most likely along the way you will find menu items you were not aware of previously, items that give you greater control or better options, items that might just improve your photographic results.

Even better if you really delve deep enough you will probably find items that can be set up in custom locations or assigned to other buttons on the camera, this is actually the secret to using most Sony E mount and RX cameras efficiently, but it equally applies to other brands.

Will you get better photographic results because you have taken this control and menu visualisation pathway, probably because you will be more likely to access and use all the tools your camera offers and thus optimise settings and better for those tricky situations.  But even if you don’t get visually better results you will definitely enjoy using your camera far more.

Remember this, often when reviewers are bagging out a certain camera for bad control layouts or poor menu arrangements, what they are most often experiencing is unfamiliarity compared to what they are used to using rather than an inherently bad system of operation.  Lots of reviewers for example think Canon systems are great, I beg to differ, they are familiar to most reviewers thats all,  I have to show people how to use thousands of cameras a year, of all brands and models I can name several less than ideal aspects to Canons' operation compared to other brands, but if I only used Canon cameras I would just accommodate them and probably assume that is the way things are supposed to be.

Familiarity does not breed contempt, I promise, but a lack of familiarity will definitely breed frustration. 

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