June 3

On Knowing your Kit

The theme of my Call of the Muse project is one of exploring photography beyond our equipment - Creativity Beyond the Camera, and is designed to hep creative photographers focus on the essentials of an artistic life.

Having said this it’s important to realise that in order to do this it’s necessary to see beyond our gear and the many technical considerations or nightmares that come with it.

The Technical Stuff

There’s so much information out there relating to the technical stuff of our craft that I really don’t want to add more noise to an already confusing topic. However I do see a need for this in the creative community, especially for those who are just setting out on the journey and need some succinct and salient guidance. With this in mind I’m going to create a set of articles on this website that will cover the basics without the fluff and bluster that often comes along for the ride

In this blog I hope to explain my reasoning behind this, and maybe, if you have any doubts about your craft this will help set you on the right road. During my long working life as an editorial photographer I was commissioned to handle thousands of shoots covering all kinds of topics from travel to portraiture and the one thing that mattered was an absolute and thorough working knowledge of my equipment.
There wasn’t time during the shoot to wonder how to set my exposure mode, how to choose the right focus point or how to quickly ramp up the iso when the lighting changed. It really did need to be second nature. Back in the days of film it was much easier as there weren’t as many variables. Film did come with it’s own peculiarities though. Having to consistently nail the exposure without error, or the opportunity to review the image after shooting, was a biggie!

And this ability, which only develops with practise, brings so many benefits, the main one being an ability to stay with your subject. When you no longer have to wonder ‘what iso should I set now, and how do I do it’, your mind is released from one more decision and is able to remain focused on topic, in the zone that perhaps took a while to reach. And this is the place we need to be to really master the subtle storytelling aspects of the craft. Photography works best when it’s not a technical exercise. There are occasions when our ability is taxed of course, it’s important to make time for this growth around our edges, but we should try to spend lots of time creating ‘beyond our camera’.

Muscle Memory

This doesn’t come overnight, and no amount of YouTube videos will gift it to you beyond pointing you in the right direction (maybe). Instinctively laying your fingers on the right buttons, scrolling to the correct menu without thinking and knowing which way to turn the focus and zoom rings will release you to connect ever more deeply with your subject. We aren’t born with this knowledge of course, it needs to be developed until these movements become a muscle memory, and the camera becomes a true extension of our very being rather than a clumsy box of tricks that pulls on our thoughts.

The first thing to do to reach this particular photographic nirvana is of course to know which controls you need to understand. Modern kit is so complex but in truth we only need to become familiar with a tiny fraction of all it can do. We can always return to the manual when we have advanced and need to know about some other feature.

The main controls to know are probably setting the exposure mode, adjusting the aperture and shutter speed, accessing exposure compensation and white balance and switching between auto and manual focus. That’s six common camera operations, and I work with these all of the time. Add to this the focus and zoom rings and you’ve got the main things covered.

Now it’s just a matter of getting to know them intimately so you can adjust them with your eyes closed. This will enable you to keep your eye to the viewfinder and to stay attached, connected to your creative considerations which is where the art lives.

Where to put your Fingers

You may want to add one or two more items onto this to suit your particular way of shooting such as the back button focus button or switching from centre spot to zone focusing but the secret is to keep it minimal. In fact it’s best to work with just one at a time and slowly build up this intimacy with your kit. Can you fluidly move between the zoom and the focus rings on your main lens? Do you instinctively know which way to turn them both to get where you want to be? If not then why not work with these first.
Do you know without having to think or look where to put your fingers to change the aperture, and which way to open up or stop down the lens? Take steps to master this until it becomes second nature. And then chip away at the other commonly used controls until you don’t even remember you’ve got a camera in your hands. Yes, it will eventually become virtually invisible, an extension of your thinking process.

Don’t be put off it this seems to take a while, give it a couple of years. It is a long process but one worth sticking with and is a good reason to resist the urge to change your camera kit unless you really need to because then you will probably have to start much of the process again, especially if you swap to a different manufacturer. Before updating to my current Canon about 3 years ago I stuck with the same Canon body for all of my professional and personal work (Canon 5D mk2) for over a decade.

Do your best to shoot often. If you’re anything like me you too may need to do something repetitively for quite a while before it becomes automatic. So go find your edge, decide what control you’d like to be able to operate without a thought and then dig in. Make it a part of your photographic practise sessions and before too long you’ll be able to see photographs beyond your camera.

About the author 


Jason has been a photographer all of his life and successfully carved out a career as a professional editorial photographer and writer working with a wide range of publishers in the UK and beyond.
He spends much of his creative time working on personal projects and helping other creative photographers get more from their calling.

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