Learning to Drive Your Camera
If you get in your car and go for a drive, you'd better be well familiar with how to work all the controls. Turn the steering wheel the wrong way or step on the gas when you want to brake and you're liable to have an accident. The same is true (but hopefully not in the same life threatening way) with your camera. Which direction does that control dial turn? Do you really now?
In a discussion over dinner recently with some aspiring photographers the topic naturally turned to how to create the best photos. After spending some time on Photoshop and digital darkroom techniques we moved on to the foundational idea of getting the best in-camera results possible. No matter what you do to an image on your computer, you are better off starting with a good capture. Obviously everyone gets better with practice, and good composition can be learned, but there's a topic even more fundamental that I want to discuss this week.
How much do you really know about how to use your camera? I'm talking about the basic level of operating all the controls. Regardless of what you want to take a picture of, your camera and lens are the tools needed to do so. Yes, you can put most cameras more or less on autopilot and let them determine such things as aperture and shutter speed for you, but if you want to take control of such variables yourself, do you really know how to?
Quick, which command dial on your camera controls the aperture? And if you want to close down the aperture to get more depth of field, which direction do you turn it? Is it clockwise, or counter clockwise? These too can be learned of course, but it's surprising how many photographers gloss over questions about such actions. But rather than fumbling around with the controls while the light is changing or the native wildlife run away, wouldn't it be helpful to already know the answers to such questions?
At least for me, I want such actions to be more or less instinctive. The camera should function as an extension of my creative vision, not get in the way of it. I want my attention to be focused on my subject and how I can best portray it to convey what I am seeing and feeling. All the time necessary to look down and figure out where a button is on the camera or which direction to turn a knob is time taken away from that focus.
The time to figure such things out is before the sun is setting and the wildlife is running away. Do it at home if you want, or even better go to a neighborhood park if you normally shoot outdoors. But wherever you go, bring your camera manual with you just in case. You may not need it, but if you do its better to be prepared.
Mount your camera on a tripod or hang it on a strap around your neck and let go of it. Now see how quickly you can grab hold of it and change the aperture or shutter speed in a predetermined way. Do this over and over until you don't have to think about it. Then make sure you can do the same for such things as the depth of field preview button and other controls. Do the same thing with the camera in both the normal horizontal (landscape) position as well as held vertically (portrait orientation). With a tripod, make sure you can switch efficiently between landscape and portrait orientation.
And in this era of digital, how about such things as adjusting the ISO or white balance? And there are plenty more possible adjustments beyond this. Any time you have to delve into the LCD menu system on your camera you can eat up an amazing amount of time if you don't know where the setting you are searching for lives and how it works. I did suggest you have your camera manual available, didn't I?
Now, how about changing lenses? There's a lot to think about when doing so especially when shooting outdoors. You've got a camera with an open hole in the front you want to keep the dust out of, you've got the lens you are taking off as well as the one you are trying to mount. Oh, and there's also the lens caps from both lenses. Ideally, you don't want to set any of these on the ground so they don't get dirty, but you've got more things to contend with than you have hands to hold them with. I put the rear cap from the new lens onto the back of the old one since it always fits and do the same for the front cap if the two lenses are the same diameter, but there are still a lot of items involved in changing lenses no matter what. Take some time to think about the process of changing lenses and practice it so you can do it easily with a minimum of time and fuss.
In the opening paragraph I likened all this to learning to drive a car. It's not a perfect comparison, but it does hold merit. Think of the exercises I've mentioned here as being akin to Driver's Ed for your camera. Before you take your camera out on the metaphorical freeway of what you really want to take pictures of, you should be as prepared as you can be to avoid accidents.