Learn to handle your camera
In part one of this blog series about how to improve your photography you learned about the exposure triangle, a very important element you need to master. That was the technical part. The next step is to make sure that you can handle your camera properly. As wildlife photographers we are dealing with wild animals. Nothing can be planned and more often than not, time is not on our side. If you first have to look at your cameras display and scroll through the settings in order to change ISO, the animal might have moved and your chance to get the shot is over within a few fleeting seconds. That’s frustrating! But I have good news for you. You can avoid these frustrating moments by knowing your camera and its features. That might sound obvious, however I am often coming across people that aren't fully aware of their cameras capabilities.
Soldiers learn to take a weapon apart and then put it back together while being blindfolded. That way they get to know every single piece of the weapon and since they can’t see they have to feel. After doing this a couple of times most of them are able to handle a weapon even in tricky situations that require quick decisions. Don’t worry, I am not encouraging you to dismantle your camera (really, if you haven’t earned a living putting cameras together before, then don’t do it!!) but try the blindfolding part. This is the first of three tips which allow you to get a better feeling of your camera.
Here is what worked for me:
1. Handle your camera blind
What you need: your camera body and your camera’s manual.
Start by looking at your camera and take note of all the buttons it has. Then read the cameras manual, find out the role of each button and memorise them. Once you feel prepared, test yourself by closing the manual and see if you can remember what you learned. If you know them all you can go ahead and pick up the body.
Hold your camera like you would if you were in the field and start touching each button with your fingers. While you touch a button remember what it is there for. Once you are done with all the buttons, start all over again. This time in reverse or random order. It won’t take you long to feel very comfortable with the camera in your hand. Last but not least, close your eyes and repeat the process. Now that you can’t see what you are doing it will require your sense of feeling to work extra hard. This allows you to simulate a situation in the field in which you can keep looking through the viewfinder while changing settings like ISO, autofocus, white balance, etc. without having to leave the viewfinder.
2. Master the menu
Let’s switch on the camera.
Canon users will look at something like this. Cameras of other manufacturers have different looking views, but the main settings are the same.
To fully understand what you see on the display, take out your manual again and do some research. Get to know what the symbols mean and how you change any of these settings.
Once you are familiar with this display, click the “menu” button.
Again, this is what Canon users will see. Menus of other manufacturers will look different.
Click your way through the menu first and take note of what you see. Understand how your camera’s menu is built and which settings you find under the single tabs and pages. Once again, grab your manual and start diving into your menus content. This will take some time and effort until you reach a level of knowledge which allows you to comfortably scroll through the different pages. At a later stage you should look into “personalizing” your camera by changing certain settings so that it suits your needs.
3. Test yourself
By now, you will have accumulated a great amount of knowledge and a good feeling for your camera and its many functions and settings. Since we are wildlife photographers, I believe that in addition to learning theory at home you will have also put your knowledge to the test in the field. We all know that there are many situations in which we have to act and make decisions very fast if we don’t want to miss out on any action.
Whilst I was busy getting to know my current camera, I came up with an idea. I remembered, when I had to learn vocabulary back in university, I used index cards to write down a single word or a phrase on one side and the translation on the other side. I had someone spreading the cards all over the house with the side I had to remember facing down. Whenever I walked past a card I looked at it and had to come up with the answer. By doing that, I had to be prepared at all times because I never knew which card I would come past next. Not only did I train my language skills (in this case), I also improved my reaction because I had to come up with an answer in unexpected moments. That is the same method I used two years ago with my new camera.
Give it a try, it works. Take a bunch of cards and write down something like “change ISO from 200 to 800”, “switch off the mirror lock up” or “change the selectable autofocus points”. On the other side of the card you write down the answer on how to get to these settings. Then go ahead and spread these cards all over your house with the answer facing down. Whenever you walk past one of these cards, take it but only look at it once you’ve got your camera and then do whatever the card says. See if you were right. Done!
The tips above are by no means the only way to learn how your camera works but they worked great for me and I genuinely believe they will work for other people too. It all comes down to committing to it and being consistent. Personally, I myself had many situations in the past that ended in a lot of frustration, simply because it took me too long to get my camera ready and I therefore missed a yet another opportunity for a great image. Maybe you have had the same experience before. I promise, if you are willing to put in a bit of time and effort and make sure you know how to work your camera, nothing will surprise or catch you off guard anymore.