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Taking your Photography to the “Next Level” (5)

Know Your Equipment

There is nothing worse, nor more frustrating, than to be in the field, with a photographic opportunity facing you, and not know how to use your equipment to capture the moment

I have admitted previously that I am a (recovering?) gearhead :-). This blog is about equipment, but it’s really not about “gear.” We all have our own likes and dislikes on equipment and I have certainly posted my share—and will continue to do so if I feel strongly about something. In recent years, I have tried to winnow down my gear to what is really useful to me, so perhaps the GHA (gearheads, anonymous) meetings are working.

Seriously, if you have read this far in my series, you are probably a determined photographer and by definition have a certain amount of requisite equipment. There is nothing worse, nor more frustrating, than to be in the field, with a photographic opportunity facing you, and not know how to use your equipment to capture the moment.

Read the Manuals and Study the Equipment

This means you have to study the equipment and your manual. I do not mean just a cursory review, but study it—with camera in hand. Like any other learning process, it also means trial and error. You must try things, realize you haven’t quite understood it, and go back and re-read. Highlight things. Treat it like you are studying for a proficiency exam.

If you are like me, you find the manuals (universally shipped as pdf disk files now) difficult to follow and understand. It is well worth researching and purchasing an after-market book on your equipment. I have long been a fan of the “Magic Lantern Guides” series. I keep the D700 (my current body) Magic Lantern Guide in my bag when I travel. Occasionally, I will pull it out with a highlighter and re-read sections of it. I invariably find something new I didn’t know already.

Men: Yes–You must read the Manuals!

Use the equipment, look at the menus, study the controls, and customize the camera for your own shooting style. This means all your equipment. If you haven’t used a tripod head before, you need to practice with it so you are not fumbling with it (or worse yet, dropping a $3,000 camera/lens combination). When I went to Maine in 2009, I had the recent good fortune to upgrade my tripod and head system from the quirky Bogen-Manfrotto pentagonal QR-system to a Carbon Fiber leg set and Arca-Swiss standard dovetail QR-system. I took it out into the yard for a dry-run a couple times and it definitely took me some getting used to. So did changing from lever lock legs, to the Gitzo-style screw tightening system. When you are trying to move into (or out of) position quickly it is important that those actions be comfortable and second-nature. You cannot be practicing when the real thing comes along.

If you use dedicated Flash, you must, likewise, understand both its controls and the in-camera flash controls intrinsically. It too, has a manual and must be “practiced” with.

Understand How Your Equipment Works and What it is Doing

Every modern DSLR camera is packed with features. Many (if not most of them) frankly should be ignored and turned off by serious photographers. I have often found myself wishing I could order my camera the way I order computer equipment, specifying each component I want or don’t want. But some of the features are quite useful and can be time-saving (and occasionally, image-saving) items. “Automatic” settings I frequently use include auto-focus (AF), and the aperture priority and shutter speed priority modes. What I can accomplish with these settings can be done with the camera set to fully manual mode. And you must understand how to do that and what is happening before you can truly understand and appreciate these modes.

Recently, a friend sent me a “help!” e-mail. She is an accomplished photographer with many wonderful images under her belt, and lots of creativity. She was shooting a nighttime skyline shot, and was frustrated because while she thought she was doing everything “right,” important parts of the image were “blurry.” She wondered about whether some external factors were causing the problem, such as inadequate support (tripod), wind, etc. On closer examination, the problem was more fundamental. The image was out of focus. In order to make crisp, sharp images, you have to understand the physics of depth of field, but you also have to understand what that technology is doing! She set the image up, composed, and focused on the correct point in the image. But the camera controls were set to AF, and the AF was triggered by actuating the shutter. So, where was the camera’s AF point set? If it wasn’t set on the right place, the camera would re-focus on whatever the AF point was actually set on. In my friend’s case, it was certainly not an instance of not knowing how to get a crisply focused image. Rather, it was a case of know being thoroughly familiar with the equipment, how it was set, and what it was doing. We have all been there. It is the reason we need to practice with our equipment, and know how it works. She has the good fortune of living near the image and will undoubtedly go back, armed with new knowledge, and re-shoot. Imagine if it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Practice Makes Perfect

There are times when this hackneyed old phrase applies 100%. This is one of them. You have to go out and use your equipment enough that you aren’t fumbling around with controls. Its features (at least the ones you will use in the field) must be automatic, so you aren’t thinking about them when you need to be shooting. This means you must get out and shoot with the camera in real shooting conditions. One of the many wonderful pluses of the advent of digital shooting is the ability to “waste” as many shots as you want with only battery drainage being involved. So you can now, at virtually no cost, go out and practice features of the camera, see the results (and mistakes) and work to understand and perfect these features. This is especially true of new equipment. It is just not a very smart move to buy a brand new piece of equipment and pull it out for the first time on a trip or an important shoot.

But there is another thing to be wary of. We are human. We don’t remember things we do not use all the time. So, if you are like me, and have other endeavors (like a day job 🙂), there may be extended periods of time in which you don’t touch the camera. If you have an important shoot, event or trip in the near future, by all means, get that gear out and refresh your memory.

It is just not a very smart move to buy a brand new piece of equipment and pull it out for the first time on a trip or an important shoot

My own most embarrassing moment came only a couple years ago. Having shot seriously for over 25 years and having some notoriety among friends and family as being “a photographer,” my wife asked me to bring my camera along for the investiture of a former boss of hers as a judge. I wasn’t the “official” photographer (or I might have taken it more seriously). But she was counting on me to have some images she and her co-workers could share. Earlier in the year, I had made a significant change y shooting process that involved a change in the camera functions (I turned off AF on the shutter release in favor of the dedicated button on the back of the camera). I used it briefly, liked it and then put the camera away for several months. Because it was a completely new process for me, I forgot about it. At the event, I pulled out the camera at the appropriate time to do some pre-focusing and composing before the ceremony and could not get the AF to work (obviously, because I had turned it off). I figured it out later that night after I got home. Some pre-event familiarization would have avoided the problem.

Seek Other Resources

As I am writing this, I am looking at the “Nikon Creative Lighting System Digital Field Guide” which I have highlighted and dog-eared to understand how to use my flash system (obviously, if you use another manufacturer’s equipment, there will be parallel third party manuals for them, too). Some of your equipment does not really come with a good manual, and sometimes you have to search out there for “how to” help. It is worth spending some time doing that, at the bookstore, on Amazon, and online (e.g., in blogs). For you Nikon shooters, I find D-Town TV website with Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski useful and entertaining.

Have a Shooting Process

Like most things in life, we all approach shooting differently. I marvel at the amount of conversation there is out there about the best way to carry equipment into the field. I don’t really care how you do it as long as it works for you. The important thing is to have a well thought out shooting process that works for you and that works for the particular shooting event. For me, most often, that means wearing my dorky photo vest. But most importantly, it means having those items of equipment I will need in the field in that vest, always in the same place, and in some logical planned way. When I need a filter, I want to know exactly where I can grab it. When I need a change of batteries or a of CF card, again, I want it to be subconscious to reach it and quickly make the change. Likewise with lens changes. I always keep specific items in specific pockets of the vest, so I am not fumbling around looking for them. There will be a certain amount of trial and error at first, but eventually you need to come up with a consistent process.

Plan for the particular shoot. If I am going to be indoors, I will need different equipment. If I am going to be on a boat or other moving platform, I may have different needs and requirements. If I am traveling by public transportation, I carry a different gear set. Shooting in the winter, or in the rain requires some thought about gear and packing. In the back of my vest, I always have a large (I use one I bought in a Coleman camping store some years back) rain poncho. The poncho is large enough that I can put it on and drape it over my camera and tripod all at once. When I am not using it for rain protection, it doubles as a ground cloth. I also try to remember to carry towels and garbage bags—particularly if I am anticipating wet weather.

You need to have a consistent process

(Next and final installment; “Visualization”)

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2 Responses

  1. Good article, Andy. Like many things we do in life–regardless of how many times we do them–preparation is the key to success.

    I really don’t believe that luck plays a significant role in creating great images; rather, anticipation and preparation are my by-words. But, I’m beginning to think that photography can be a lot like the tokens of baseball players. Your comment. “…wearing my dorky photo vest…” has me chuckling. Me too, but unlike fastidious photographers, I don’t want mine washed, cleaned up, or disinfected–I don’t even want it touched by anyone but me. A few months ago I replaced my frayed, dirty, sweat-stained (and probably stinky) vest: the first few field trips were not memorable until I had my new “token” properly broken it in…baseball!

    TIP: put a small pack of baby wipes in your vest too–they’re great for cleaning up in the field (but they don’t work too well on dirty vests). Another for your readers: a plastic grocery bag is perfect for instant rain protection and takes up no room at all in your vest, pocket, or bag–drop it over the camera and lens, then tie the handles together loosely under the head. Works great if you carry your camera mounted tripod over your shoulder like me.

    Last, very glad to see that you are not prefacing your next article in series, “Visualization” as so many others do.

    • Thanks, Jim for reading and for your insightful comments. I agree wholeheartedly with the plastic bag suggestion. I generally carry both kitchen size, which works well for the use you suggest and lawn and leaf size, which can make a makeshift poncho and a great kneeling pad on wet ground.

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