Thoughts on Teaching, helping, selling and guidance

Recently, I have come “back to the fold”. I am now associated again with the camera shop (yep bricks and mortar, going strong) in both a sales and training capacity.

The sales side is still feeling a bit alien to me. Odd as I have 35 years retail and more recently 10 years at the same camera shop, but it is amazing how quickly you can loose your knowledge edge when dealing with a vast and ever changing flow of gear. The area most surprising is in lenses, especially for ranges I have little interest in (SLR’s), as I love lenses and have been in the past a walking data bank on the subject. It will come, but I will have to apply my self.

The more exciting news (for me) is in the training/teaching/event management side.

Over the last three or four months I have been rolling out an ever changing range of camera and photo technique courses (some of the support materiel is in the tutorial page). My learning curve has been steep, but affirming. The things I have learned about teaching after a 3 year break, have helped me as much as my students. It is amazing how core concepts can slip into habit, sometimes bad habits, until you have to face them directly, explaining them to someone else in a clear and logical manor.

My intention in our basic course and when doing a 1:1 session with someone is to talk about the “triangle” of exposure, ISO and Shutter speed. Their relation and relevance and their creative or trouble shooting options. What I have found or been reminded of though is when someone is new to serious SLR or mirrorless photography, the controls of the average camera are ridiculously over thought.

Here are a few things that I have (re) learned lately;

1. Control of focus is fundamental to controlling depth of field and depth of field is fundamental to creative control of photgraphic images. Auto focus cameras, SLR’s especially are good at getting focus somewhere in the frame, but generally poor at placing it where you actually want it.

One of the reasons I really like mirrorless cameras (or high functioning live view on SLR’s) is, they can detect faces/eyes automatically and accurately and offer touch focus. This fixes a lot of the common problems associated with focus accuracy for amateur photographers as friends and family are often their subjects.

The user is bamboozled by a huge range of options and odd terminology, both in the coverage and continuity of focus. Autofocus in a camera cannot mind-read, it just a tool to be controlled (although Canon’s eye control focus of the 90’s came close and Olympus’s thumb touch control on cameras like the Pen F also has potential), making humble manual focus and depth control still the best form for creative space* photographers.

One of the most common issues we come across in the shop when new photographers upgrade is in controlling focus. They go from a simple, centre biased 7-9 point focus system and a slow aperture lens in a camera like a 700D Canon, that generally did what they had learned to expect, to a 50+ point system in a 5D3 flickering, seemingly randomly across the screen, but often not where they want/need with their new shallow depth of field f2.8 zoom.

The first thing I have learned to do for the bulk of subjects is get the user to set “centre spot, single point, single shot focus” so they can actually control what they are shooting at.

 A tough subject for many cameras, torn between the off centre, forward subject and the more larger, centred background. This would probably split the field focus wise (I know from experience a Canon SLR would usually grab the background), but simply by setting focus to single point/single shot focus and picking the important point, then re-composing you get what you want. Face detection would have probably worked here also, but only with the right subject.

A tough subject for many cameras, torn between the off centre, forward subject and the more larger, centred background. This would probably split the field focus wise (I know from experience a Canon SLR would usually grab the background), but simply by setting focus to single point/single shot focus and picking the important point, then re-composing you get what you want. Face detection would have probably worked here also, but only with the right subject.

The opposite (wide area, continuous tracking) is used only when we are talking about action shooting, where specific point accuracy is less important than general accuracy.

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2. Exposure Compensation is one of the single most useful controls on any camera. No camera will get metering right all of the time and no camera will ever understand your creative needs or preferences.

Another reason I prefer mirrorless cameras or SLR’s in live view is the “what you see is what you get” exposure preview. Being able to get a pre shot preview of an image gives everyone the same level of exposure control that a national Geographic field photographer has learned over 20+ years of experience and opens up a lot of creative options. Believe me when I say, it takes years of experience, experimentation and close observation to be able to accurately guesstimate the exposure compensation an image needs through an SLR view finder!

It is rarely talked about and is shut out on most automatic settings, so most photographers come to it in a slow and round about way, but if learned early it fixes most exposure error issues that come up regularly and gives the photographer a better feeling of creative control.

 Without exposure compensation (-1.5), the camera would try to make this image look like daylight (all light meters in all cameras are set to think that way, to make what they are looking at look like daylight light values) and this image would lose it’s night time, slightly grungy vibe and would likely look washed out.

Without exposure compensation (-1.5), the camera would try to make this image look like daylight (all light meters in all cameras are set to think that way, to make what they are looking at look like daylight light values) and this image would lose it’s night time, slightly grungy vibe and would likely look washed out.

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3. Fast lenses. The humble “nifty fifty” though often poorly identified and even more poorly explained is sold in most three lens kits, then usually lost in the bottom of the bag or worse the wardrobe.

The fact of the matter is depth of field is the most creative of all photographic controls and the (lens) aperture control is the primary, easiest and most accessible (although not the only) way of controlling it.

The other side of wider apertures is they let in more light. On average sixteen times more light (4 “f” stops) than a kit zoom at it’s widest aperture setting.

The average kit lens only offers you half of the possible aperture settings available. This means half as many creative controls and none of the wide or shallow ones and has much less light gathering power for low light shooting.

 A shot that relies on both low light sensitivity and subject separation (shallow depth of field), both achieved by using an f1.8 aperture on a standard lens. Also requires focussing accuracy (see above). Could it have been taken with a kit zoom? Yes, but at the cost of the clearly defined subject “snap” with the background being less smooth and the noise or grain being more obvious due to a higher ISO (up to 4 settings higher). The ability to focus accurately and use exposure compensation were also factors in the image.

A shot that relies on both low light sensitivity and subject separation (shallow depth of field), both achieved by using an f1.8 aperture on a standard lens. Also requires focussing accuracy (see above). Could it have been taken with a kit zoom? Yes, but at the cost of the clearly defined subject “snap” with the background being less smooth and the noise or grain being more obvious due to a higher ISO (up to 4 settings higher). The ability to focus accurately and use exposure compensation were also factors in the image.

Landscape shooters rejoice. You are covered by the aperture range of f5.6 to f22, but portraitists, sport/action, low light and abstract/artistic photographers who want f1.8 to f2.8 apertures as a creative or low light option are well screwed by the limited aperture choices available.

How hard is it to get this fixed? A $200 dollar 35 or 50mm f1.8 lens and some small understanding of how to use it and the problem is solved. Think about that for a moment. Probably the cheapest accessory after a basic camera bag can double your creative and trouble shooting options.

There are more and I will talk about them in later posts, but these three have become the ones I have had to pay the most attention to. Teaching often reminds you that things you do automatically, can be overlooked when showing others and that was the case here. Strangely, when I am selling a camera, I have usually been good at reminding myself to not take any customer knowledge for granted, explaining things in a clear and logical way , but I lost that thinking when teaching.

Learn by teaching.

* Creative Space photographers are one who use the entire frame to compose an image, often placing the subject off centre or even in the corners.