Essential Reading for Photographers

Posted on Updated on

Years ago I received a piece of advice from my mentor that at first, made me laugh but I can tell you today that it was a very good suggestion.

I was told to read my camera manual.

When we first acquire our cameras, the last thing we want to do is still down and read 120 pages of technical jargon especially if we have been photographing for a while and we think we are quite competent. There is however a very good reason for reading your manual.

In photography, time is measured in fractions of a second and once the moment has passed seldom do we get another chance to make the picture that flashed before our eyes. We need to understand our equipment to intuitively respond to the situation and adjust our camera settings without a second thought. There is no time to dig deep into the camera’s menu to change one item that could make the difference between a good picture and no picture at all. Here are a few things I learned to use after reading my camera manual.

Exposure Metering Modes
Cameras today are very good at assessing all the light within a scene and achieving a good exposure so people are comfortable with choosing the evaluative or matrix metering mode and never exploring the other options. From previous posts on visual design, we know light is one of the most important elements of visual design. When we know how to control the way the camera reads light, we gain new approaches to making better pictures. Below is an example where I used spot metering to add a three-dimensional feeling to this stall in the Thai fishing village of Mahachai.

mahachai fishing village thailand

Function (Fn) Buttons
If you are using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you probably have at least one or even two function buttons. The Fn button is a button the user customizes to allow faster access to a predetermined menu option. Think of it like a short cut on a computer keyboard. Since I often like to photograph at night and in low light environments, I always set one function button to spot metering. It allows me quickly change between matrix and spot metering and I can do it without even taking my eye away from the viewfinder. If your camera doesn’t have a separate ISO button, you can program the second function button to change your ISO. If you need more ideas of what to program, your manual will have other options.

Custom Settings
If you have attended our classes or private workshops, you know we love to pan with our cameras. In a chaotic city like Bangkok, panning allows us to isolate our subject matter and simplify the scene. Did you know you could program the settings needed to pan using the custom settings of your camera? The custom settings (C1, C2 on Canons or U1, U2 on Nikons) are like the Fn button but instead you can program a group of settings you frequently use instead of just one setting like exposure metering. You aren’t limited to just one option either as many cameras have two or three possible custom settings so you can program setting changes that would normally take too long to do otherwise.

Back Button Focus
For the longest time, I used my shutter button to focus that was until I learned about back button focus. Normally we focus our cameras by pressing halfway down on the shutter button and then we press down fully when we take the picture. By using the back button to focus, we relieve the shutter button from focus duty and instead assign that task to another button. Not everyone likes to use the back button and it took me a while to get used to using it because memory muscle had firmly implanted the shutter button as my focus button. Why would you want to use the back button to focus? By separating the auto focus activation from the shutter release, you won’t need to refocus each time you release your shutter. You can be much more effective with your focus because if something moving enters your frame while you are making your picture, your focus remains locked.

Final Tips
These are just a few things I learned to do on my camera by reading my manual. No one really wants to read the entire camera manual and I certainly did not. What I did do is keep my manual handy and read short sections when I had a few spare minutes. I also downloaded my manual to my iPhone so that I could reference it whenever I needed it.

If metering modes, back button focus and panning have your head spinning, join us at our next Beginners Class starting in at the end of this month and we will explain it all to you and show you how to set up your camera. Oh and bring your camera manuals please!