Friday, 10 June 2016

Coming to Grips With Your Camera

When faced with difficult subjects or lighting, 
the last thing you need is to be fiddling around in the menu system 
attempting to find the right settings!

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

Let’s 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 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. It is a bit like remembering peoples names or phone numbers, unless you make an active attempt to do so chances are you will simply forget them within a very short space of time.

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 regularly need, it's hard to get comfortable in your picture taking if your fingers and mind are confused!

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 perhaps even partial familiarity with their gear. You know what I mean, hunting around the body looking for some long lost button, endlessly tapping at menu items, having to continually take the camera from their eye, readjusting settings that have mysteriously gone wrong and on it goes. This is not due to a lack of photographic skill or base knowledge, all these folk know the difference between a shutter speed and aperture, rather it is a lack of them being at one with their device in the physical sense.

It amazes me just how much better I can work with a camera, both practically and artistically when I am totally familiar with all the controls. My old Sony NEX 5n is a prime example: The NEX series is often denigrated for having difficult methods of operation and inscrutable menu logics, yet I can work with it quickly in a completely relaxed way, 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 systems but that would be the subject of another post).

I go through the “getting to be one with the camera process” for every camera I buy and being the anal retentive guy I even 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?) I realise some of the manuals are poorly written and half incomprehensible but honestly they are better than nothing and there is a good chance you will at least uncover a few operational gems.

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 very easy to apply. Basically an athlete visualises the task he /she is training for and then go through the process repeatedly in their minds eye.

For example: Lets say you are a long jumper, you imagine going through the process of performing the jump from before the start through the run to the jump, flying through the air, the landing and finally coming to a stop. The mental process is repeated over a longish period of time, say perhaps a month.

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

Now we can apply that idea to our cameras.

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 works.

Once I know the positions, I keep my eyes off the camera body and in the viewfinder whilst I repeatedly attempt to use the controls 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 will just persevere till I find the button.

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, how wide is the arc that I need to turn the lens through to zoom from one extreme to the other and a few other items as well. 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.

The cameras menu system will inevitably prove the most challenging, but you can manage it, 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 by pressing your menu button, then tabbing across and down, then open your eyes and see if you nailed it. You probably won't nail it first time but with practice you will.

Make a note of the items where you actually have to press a set button or some other button to implement them, 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 (that could be very very challenging for Olympus systems) and all its little idiosyncrasies. Importantly you will be amazed at how much quicker you will have become at adjusting your camera, but of course it's not just about speed. Most likely along the way you will find menu items you were not aware of previously, items that might give you greater control or better shooting 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 and Olympus OM cameras efficiently, but it equally applies to other brands and models.

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’ll add one further tip 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.

I realise this might all sound completely 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 on to a new camera, which is great, it might save you heaps of the folding stuff. But, and there is always a but, when your current camera finally 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!

Will you get better photographic results because you have take gone down 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 be able to optimise settings 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 mostly 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 that’s all, I have to show people how to use thousands of cameras a year from 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. By the same token if I was a complete newbie pretty much any camera and menu system would appear to be quite confusing.

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

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