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Photo Tip of the Week

The One About Buttons and Knobs

Operating a camera or adjusting a tripod is all about pressing buttons and turning knobs. As you might expect, over the years I've therefore thought a lot about the topic of this week's PhotoTips article. This then, is the one about buttons and knobs.

You'll find a button at the very core of photography. Without a shutter release button there would be little point to photography. Thankfully, like the constancy of which pedal in a car operates the brakes and which the gas, the shutter release button has stayed pretty much the same on all modern cameras. But much like the confusion over which control stalk operates the windshield wipers and which the turn signal in various countries, the placement and operation of other camera controls are less standardized.

Do you even which command (control) knob on your camera adjusts the aperture and which the shutter speed, or do you try one and if doesn't do what you wanted do you then try the other? The aperture opening used to be adjusted directly on the lens so there was little chance of confusion with the shutter speed on the camera. But those days are gone and now these two primary camera controls are left to fight for real estate atop your camera body with only the engineers at the big camera makers to arbitrate disputes.

And which direction do you need to a particular knob once you find it? Traditionally, Nikon knobs turned one direction while Canon knobs rotated the opposite direction to accomplish the same task. I'm not sure about Canon, but as recognition of the confusion, newer Nikon digital SLR's lets users swap the function of the two command dials and which direction they turn.

Photographers need to be able to operate their camera easily, and without stopping to think. A camera is a tool that should become an extension of the photographer themselves if both are to live up to their full potential. I have long recommended that beginning photographers practice at home so they can begin to learn the ins and outs of their equipment when the stakes aren't so high. If I'm on location I need to be able to act quickly when the sun finally peaks over the horizon. It's amazing how quickly the window for magical imagery can pass. Time spend fiddling with gear is time lost to capturing images. Camera makers need to make it easy for all of us, not through simple lack of thinking about it make it more difficult.

For years, Nikon SLR cameras and even digital SLR's were notorious for having tiny buttons for the depth of field preview and tiny levers for selecting the exposure mode. Neither presented much problem until you tried to operate one while wearing gloves, a situation many of us first experienced on some fateful morning shivering while waiting for the sun to rise. Eventually, Nikon realized they could do better and started releasing models with larger controls. Thanks Nikon. My gloved fingers appreciate it and I like the attention to detail.

Tripods and tripod heads can be equally problematic. My first tripod head was the long popular Bogen (Manfrotto in much of the world) 3047 pan-tilt head. Ball heads were either prohibitively expensive (at least to me way back when) or poor quality that could slip and "creep" when you needed them to be rock solid. The three separate controls of the Bogen 3047 seemed like a good compromise in that axes could be locked down tightly except when adjustments were being made. Unfortunately, in use it always proved quite frustrating since the locking knob for all three axes were identical. Tilt the head over to shoot a vertical and it became all too easy to begin loosening the wrong knob when time was of the essence. I can attest that accidents were sometimes possible before the mistake could be realized. These days, I've long realized that there's just no substitute for a quality ball head. I also specifically look for different sized or different shaped control knobs for such things.

Knobs shouldn't come off either. The Arca Swiss B1 and some other high-end ball heads originally came with clamp knobs that could be loosened to the point of falling off. Even once you realized that, they could also come off on their own through simple vibration from travel or other sources. I once carried my tripod up a trail to shoot the sunrise only to find I had no way to clamp my camera to the tripod head. My expensive tripod had been rendered useless. All the major brands that had this defect I believe have been redesigned to have captive knobs, but such issues should never have been overlooked by the design engineers in the first place.

I've never minded much having all the buttons and knobs the same color (black) since through practice I know where the important controls are and which button does what. I do know someone though who paints various controls with fluorescent paint so they stand out more. That's going too far for me at least. But the labels for buttons and knobs are themselves nearly black in some cases which can complicate learning which is which in the first place.

I guess you could say that buttons and knobs sometimes press my buttons. Good, reliable gear should include properly designed controls. Even some of the best gear sometimes falls short of this. Hopefully with enough of us pointing out the need to pay attention to the buttons and knobs we'll see continued improvements that everyone can benefit from. Thanks for listening.

Date posted: August 25, 2013


Copyright © 2013 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Previous tip: The Spooky Forest of Resolution Terminology: LPI and DPI and PPI ! Oh, My! Return to archives menu Next tip: The Relationship of Composition Rules to Good Composition

Related articles:
Learning to Drive Your Camera
Why I Don't Like Auto-Focus / Auto-Exposure Lock Buttons
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

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