How Anyone Can Improve Their Camera Technique in 10 Easy Steps
Have you ever read your camera’s instruction manual? No? Welcome to a very big club. But you do want to improve your camera technique, right? Here’s how – in ten easy steps. (And guaranteed you won’t have to spend anything, not a penny, nada.)
1. Learn the buttons and dials
Learn where the dials, buttons and switches are located on your camera. No, I mean really know. Can you find them with your eyes shut, by touch alone? Can you make important adjustments – e.g. exposure override, auto-focus mode – by touch alone?
Remember when you first learned to bat a ball? You hit and hit again until you were sore, but eventually you got the hang of it, hitting without thinking. Get the hang of your camera by practicing with it until it all becomes second-nature.
2. Learn the twist
If you have a digital SLR, learn which way to twist to zoom out, to zoom in. Which way to twist the focusing ring for closer subjects, which way for far away objects. Same with controls like the aperture ring and shutter dial – which way for bigger aperture, which way for shorter exposure time.
Every fraction of a second you spend thinking about which way to turn a control is time spent with your eye off the ball. If you have to think about your controls, you can’t think about timing, composition.
3. Learn to love your camera’s quirks
You probably have some friends with quick-fire responses, some who take a little longer to answer or get the joke. But you love them all the same. Your camera may be a little slow to start, a little sluggish to respond to the zoom control. If you allow for your camera’s quirks, you learn how to get the best out of them.
If your camera takes a long time to start when you turn it on, then keep it on – most cameras wake from sleep more quickly than from ‘off’. If shutter lag is a problem, learn to press the button just before the action completes. If the zoom control usually overshoots the setting you want, learn to release it just before you reach the setting you want.
4. Speed up all processes
Turn off every automatic function you don’t need. The more thinking you do for the camera, the faster it can work. If you’re set to a wide-angle on a point-and-shoot camera or dSLR with small sensor, you have a huge amount of depth of field to work in. In good light, there’s hardly any need to focus. Try turning auto-focus off and be amazed at how much more responsive the camera is. Turn off the flash, of course, (but if you have to use it, charge up your battery till it’s bulging!).
You’re getting the idea: the core of camera technique is reducing the gap between you and your subject, so that it all flows effortlessly, and you can concentrate on the picture-making rather than the camera-using.
5. Keep the camera on, keep you mind on
Actually, it’s a good idea to keep any camera on all the time you’re working – and maybe even if not. Knowing the camera is on helps keep your mind in a ready state too. And it really helps to keep the lens-cap off too. Sure, it exposes the glass – but that’s what a lenshood and UV filter are for – protect your glass so that you can take pictures.
The second it takes for you to decide whether to turn the camera on or not could be a second too late. It uses up time that could have been better spent getting into position, selecting the camera angle.
6. Cradle your camera
Remember those leather cases which your Dad or Grandfather used to keep their cameras – they were called “ever-ready cases”, but professionals sneered at them, calling them “never-ready cases.” The fact is, any protection for a camera is a barrier to use. You want to sell your camera on eBay in pristine shape? Then buy another and use that instead. Keep your camera not only out of its pouch or bag, not only over your shoulder but IN YOUR HAND!
I’ve shared drinks with great photographers whose camera was so present, it was almost in the same hand as their beer. You might not want to be so obsessive, but tell me who gets the pictures everyone else misses? I walk around with my camera cradled in my arms – people have said it’s like I’m cradling a baby.
7. Look there, not here
When you drive, if you only watched the road immediately in front of the car, you’d soon crash into something. Safe drivers read the road as far ahead as they can see or at least the distance they can stop in. Well, you’d be surprised how many photographers look no further than their personal space and time. You can tell a pro at work because she or he is often oddly present and not present: they are aware of what is going on around them, but they are constantly asking themselves ‘What’s going on over THERE? What’s gonna happen next?’
With camera in hand, lenscap off and power on (even if the camera is quietly dozing away) your mind can be alert to all around you. What you see now is the foundation for the picture to come. In the time it takes you to get to a scene, you can plot your tactics. But if you let something surprise you, the time to think has already been forfeited.
8. Adjusting on the run
This is when you will appreciate having mastered your camera. When you’ve spotted a scene with potential – and it could be a street scene, an animal in the wild, or a landscape – you never know how much time you’ll have. This is when you set the exposure mode, or sensitivity, or zoom to the focal length that gives you the magnification you want. And you do that with your eye constantly on the scene, constantly evaluating the best position – for the picture you want.
When you raise the camera to your eye, you want to be able to expose with minimal adjustments. That’s the ideal. Even landscapes and scenics can call for this state of readiness: hey! A bird is reflected in mirror-like water. In the next second a breeze could break the reflection. Few things are more painful than missing a shot because you were too slow on the draw – Jacques Henri Lartigue writes about being “inconsolable” when that happened.
9. Imagine that amazing shot
Have the courage of your convictions and go for the shot you’re after. It really helps to imagine that it will be amazing! Let an image which inspires you to float through your mind if that helps. Yeah! I want a great shot like THAT! Frame it up, chase it, imagine it, wait for the moment and squeeze that magic button that sucks in the scene for you.
This is about you “seeing” the shot you want – in your heart, in your mind – before you get into position. The light’s great, the elements are kind of moving the right way but it doesn’t sing yet, so wait a second, lean to the left, wait a moment, walk forward – and suddenly imagination and reality are one. What a magic moment that is! And it will come to you, I promise.
10. Take nothing for granted
This was advice that Ansel Adams hammered time and time again. David Bailey tells how he and some photographer friends wrote down the things that could go wrong on a shoot, and were astounded by the length of the list. At very least, make sure your battery is charged up before you leave base. Make sure you have ample space in your memory card. Is your sensor clean? Your lenses pristine? If you don’t expect some great opportunity to come round the corner, it’ll bite you in the rear instead.
These, after all, are very simple precautions. All designed to stop you from kicking yourself sometime in the future. Make a list if that helps. It’s what all professionals have do to stay in the business. Gary Knight tells of five weeks of tedium in the Iraqi desert looking for action before it suddenly erupts on them, with no warning – and, oh yes, he got his pictures.
I guess, if you want to sum it up, it’s all about being ready. Ready on the long haul, ready in the medium-term, and constantly ready for the ultra-short-term too. As I promised, you now know how to make a huge improvement in your photography without spending any money at all!
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