Top 5 Camera Controls

7 Building Blocks of Photography 2

Modern cameras are truly wonderful things. They’re affordable and all of them do what they do beautifully. But remember, the only thing a camera does is record light onto a sensor and make an image file. How it does that is up to you and how you use the controls to capture your vision. 

The old masters of photography had only three camera controls. A shutter, aperture and focus - and the most basic of cameras to work with. Yet even with these limitations they made beautiful imagery. The big problem with modern cameras is over-complexity, which leaves us confused about which controls we need and how to use them. Social media pundits don’t help by insisting more features and options mean better pictures. It’s complete nonsense.

My first professional camera was a Bronica S2A which didn’t even have a battery, never mind a light meter! Three camera controls is the bare minimum and I’d never want to go back to that. So here are my top five camera controls you truly need to master and why.

1: Manual Exposure

There’s no need to struggle to get off auto. The dreaded M mode is only 3 controls. That’s all and I know that you, with all the skills and complex things you can do can master 3 controls and make a manual exposure. 

An exposure is an amount of light needed to record an image - that’s all. Light enters the camera via an aperture and you can control how much by changing the size of it. Small aperture not much gets in. Big aperture, lots more can get in. 

A shutter is how long you have the aperture open for. Open it for a long time, more light gets in, less and you decrease the time. The light meter tells you what size aperture to use and how long to open it for. 

Shutters and apertures can also be used creatively to control movement or how much front to back sharpness (depth of field) you want in your image. (I’m not going into those right now but you can click linked words to find out more if you wish or enrol on the Beginners Course where all is revealed). 

To compensate for these creative uses you have ISO which is a bit like skin sensitivity. Some people get burnt quickly when out in the sun and others can stay unburnt for a lot longer. People who get burnt easily are like a high ISO - they react to light quickly. And those who can stay in the sun for longer without burning are like low ISO. Sensitive people are like low ISO. 

When you choose a shutter / aperture combination for creative reasons, you can still get the exposure right by adjusting the ISO. And your camera’s light meter tells you when you’ve got about the right amount of light.

As you saw in the video, cameras get it wrong sometimes and you must recognise those situations, think about, adjust any or all of your exposure controls to get it right - which means disagreeing with the light meter. 

2: Histograms

A Histogram is a chart of the tones in an image. The right end shows bright tones all the way to white, the middle shows amount of midtones and the left shows the dark tones. If a scene / subject has lots of bright tones, a correctly exposed image’s histogram will have lots of data towards the right end of the chart. And the opposite if it has lots of dark tones. If there are no bright or dark tones, it will only have data in the middle where the mid tones live. Correctly exposed snow would be to the right, green grass in shade (midtone) in the middle and coal to the left. 

So all you have to do is use the shutter, aperture and iso to adjust the amount of light entering the camera until the histogram represents the tones you have composed in the viewfinder and don’t go off either end. If there are spikes off the scale to the top ignore them. It just means there are more of those tones than the histogram graph has the height to show.

3: Semi Auto exposure modes

Semi auto modes like P S and A (also called P TV and AV) are wonderful because in most cases they do a great job of exposure for you so you are free to think about light, composition, where to stand and when to click the shutter. But don’t use them until you know how to do it yourself manually for the times the camera gets it wrong, like with the white and black bricks in the video.

4: Exposure compensation

In these time saving semi auto modes you can control exposure with exposure compensation. Dial it towards the + and you are telling the camera to make a shot brighter than it thinks it should be. How much brighter is the amount you tell it such as +0.3 - +0.7 +1.0 etc.

Dial towards the - (minus) and you’re doing the opposite. Check the histogram to be sure the graph doesn’t go off either the right or left end and is an accurate reflection of the tonal range of the image. 

5: Auto Focus modes

An out of focus image is useless and we don’t want them. Well not unless it’s being done for creative reasons on purpose. Master your camera’s array of autofocus modes and it never need happen again. Auto focus is very fast and accurate, but when on Full Auto you are leaving which part of the composition you want to focus on to the camera. And there’s no way it can know because it’s not the creative force behind your image making. You are.

That's not to say full autofocus is bad. There are situations when it’s appropriate and the best option for the shot you want to take. Handy in fast moving situations when the subject is obvious or the depth of field being used is so great it doesn’t much matter where the point of focus is. 

Other times when you do want to pinpoint a small subject moving towards you through the composition, full auto focus wouldn’t be appropriate. In a situation like this single point (or cluster) combined with continuous tracking would work perfectly.

6: Focal length

I’m nice so I gave you this bonus because it makes a huge creative difference to your imagery. I’m not going to describe it here because the video demonstrates it best.

Master my top 5 camera controls and change your photography forever. You can go it alone or hire me to guide you through it one step at a time in the right order in my Masterclass in Photography. Over to you…

Best wishes

mike signature clear


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