Whether you have just been given a camera or have been using one for a while, as soon as you ask a photographer how do I start this type or that type of photography the first thing they will tell you is, learn how to use your camera. You might think this is a bit odd because all you have to do is put your camera in automatic mode, point it at your subject and press the shutter release. Hey presto you take a photo. The problem is that sometimes this works and you like the photo you have just taken but more often than not the photograph does not turn out how you imagined it; it’s too dark, it’s too light, the background is in focus and not the subject etc.
As I have stated on previous Blogs the camera is only a box with a hole in it and a button that opens and closes this hole. It does not know what you want to photograph or even how you want your photograph to turn out like. Take a photo of a bird for example; the camera does not know what aperture you require to either get it all in focus or to get only part of the bird you require in focus, say the foot for example. It does not know what shutter speed you require, a fast one to get all the bird sharp or a mid-range one to get a blur on the wings to show movement. It does not know if it is on a tripod so it will always set itself to a high ISO to eliminate camera shake, the trouble is this will give your photo more noise. Your mind is the creative aspect of your photography not your camera and this is why photographers get annoyed when people view an image they like and then turn to the photographer and say “great photo you must have a good camera”! There are no "bad" cameras although some Canon owners will say Nikon are and some Nikon owners say Canon are. Good photographers can create great images from any camera. But buying a more expensive camera won't make you a better photographer. The Only way of achieving this creativity and becoming a better photographer is by switching the camera off auto mode and moving it to either a semi-automatic mode, shutter priority (TV) or aperture priority (AV), or manual. In either of the semi-automatic modes you can be more creative then in auto mode but to be fully creative you should use manual mode.
There are 3 components that can be adjusted to allow light through the hole in your camera and land on your sensor to produce your photograph, the shutter speed, the aperture and the ISO. In shutter priority mode you set the ISO and the shutter speed and the camera will set the aperture. In aperture priority mode you set the ISO and the aperture and the camera will set the shutter speed. But in manual mode you set all three. (All three of these modes will be covered in more depth in future Blogs). Using any of these modes starts you on your way to learning how to use your camera. I use aperture priority mode, because I want to be in charge of the amount of depth of field in my photos. I also use manual mode especially when I am photographing flying birds. Some wildlife photographers use shutter priority mode because they want to be in charge of the shutter speed. This part of the learning takes a while and the best way of speeding it up is by using your camera a lot. Take lots of photos because nowadays photos cost nothing apart from time. Test out different ISO’s and see how your camera handles the noise with each setting, set different shutter speeds and different apertures and then really look and study your photos. Note the differences in the photos and see how to achieve different effects in them; blurring of subjects, dark and moody photos, high key photos etc.
This is only half the story because whilst you are taking lots of photos you are subconsciously also learning about your camera, where the buttons are, what buttons and switches do what. There have been films and shows on TV that show soldier’s being blindfolded in training and whilst blindfolded they then have to strip and reassemble their firearms. They do this to learn all about their weapon, to know where the parts go and what they do but the biggest reason they do this is so that they can use the weapon quickly and accurately without thinking. A fire fight can happen at anytime, anywhere and they need to react quickly without having to think about how to use the weapon because it could cause them their life. They will know where the cocking handle is, they will know where the safety catch is etc. This is how you need to be with your camera especially if you are a wildlife photographer. Things can happen really quickly in wildlife photography and you need to react really quickly to get the shots. If you have to remove the camera away from your eye to change the settings then you will miss the shot.
You do not have to learn all the controls but you do have to know how to change the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and changing the selected active AF point. Settings that can be set before you start and do not need to change are things like the White Balance, especially if you shoot in RAW, and the auto focus mode, especially if you use Back Button focus (see a previous Blog). Practice locating these buttons, switches and wheels, so they become instinctive actions and the best way is doing it with your eyes closed and then with the camera and lens up to your eye.
Canon and Nikon cameras, sorry I do not know about other camera makes, allow you to change what the buttons, switches and wheels do, so set them up in a configuration that suits you and the size of your hands. Practice pressing buttons , flicking switches and rotating the wheels noting the direction you have to turn the wheel to increase or decrease a setting. Also noting how many clicks of the wheel to get to a certain value say increasing exposure by one stop. When you can change your settings to a certain configuration without removing the camera and lens from your eye then you know how to use your camera. Of course when you change your camera then you will have to start all over again.