How to Drive Your Camera

16 09 2010

You adjust your camera the same way you drive a car. It sounds lame, but it’s very true.

You see where you are relative to the road and traffic, and adjust accordingly. It’s easy. Today I run all my cameras in Automatic, and adjust as needed to get the shots I want.

Every camera, regardless of how advanced and automatic, still requires occasional tweaking to get the best technical results just as your car requires constant steering to stay in lane. Take your hands off the wheel and you crash; ignore your camera’s tweaks and you get crappy pictures.

Better cameras require less frequent attention, but no camera can figure out what you’re trying to do all by itself all of the time, regardless of how automated it is.

Let me explain what does what, and you’ll be on your way to better photos.

Brakes and Throttle: Exposure

Exposure, how much light hits the picture, is like the brakes and throttle.

When we drive, we know how fast we’re going and we use the brakes and throttle to get us to the speed we need. It’s easy.

Setting the exposure is as easy. Today it’s usually called Exposure Compensation in camera instruction books and labeled “+/-” on the camera or in its menus.

All you do is look at your LCD (or film at the lab), and make your next shot lighter or darker as needed. That’s all there is to this; it’s simple!

This process needs to become as natural as riding the throttle to keep your desired speed up and down hills. It should become second nature so you shouldn’t have to think about it.

It is tougher with film, because you have to wait longer to see the results before you can apply them. It is exactly the same process, just with a longer delay in the loop. See also Modern Exposure.

Steering: White Balance

Steering is like setting white balance. It’s how much left or right (red or blue) you need to keep you where you need to be. Turning a corner, a big change, is like changing from Daylight to Tungsten. Small changes, like keeping yourself in the same lane, are the same as WB trims. WB trims are what gets you perfect color, and the big steps are what gets you close.

We use the same reiterative process of looking at the results and making changes for the next shot. It’s the same as adjusting the wheel as you drift out of lane.

If your shot is too red or blue, reset the WB and try again. See my white balance page for examples and explanations of which way to turn the dials.

Finer Tuning

Most cameras have many more controls for setting color saturation, contrast and more. It’s critical to play with these, too. They are usually hidden in menus with weird names.

I love wild color, so I typically crank my Nikons up to the max and my Canons up to +3 saturation. I detail what I use for each camera in their respective reviews.

Even if I usually set my cameras one way for what I usually shoot, when I shoot something different, I may change these settings, too.

Successive Approximation and Reiteration

It is critical to see what you have, and make changes as you go.

No camera is always dead-on. When I rate cameras, important to me is how often they get it right, but none does it perfectly all the time.

Many cameras constantly overexpose. No big deal; for these cameras I know to leave the exposure compensation set to -2/3 as a starting point.

It’s the same for color balance (white balance). Some cameras and films are warmer (oranger) or cooler (bluer) than I prefer, so I always set them a certain way when I start shooting.

The more you shoot, the more your experience will tell you where to leave the settings to start.


It is critical to be intimate with your camera, film or digital. Time and experience will enlighten you with how to set the camera for different situations even before you shoot them, since you’ve shot them before and remembered.

If you use only one camera it’s much easier to know how to set it intuitively in every condition. This is more critical with film, where you can’t instantly see how the camera’s meter responds.

Only idiots and hobbyists try to shoot with a zillion kinds of camera. This means they’re starting from scratch every time they pick a different one from their collection. It drives me crazy reviewing all the cameras I do, since it makes it difficult to know any of them in depth. Luckily with digital it’s easy to get back up to speed, but with film cameras this can be death.

Don’t be silly. The best photographers have one old camera they’ve used for years, and know it in their sleep. More important then what kind of camera you have is how well you know it.

Virtuoso musicians can get their sound on any instrument because they hear what they’re doing as they play. In photography it’s the same thing, but since we don’t have instant feedback it takes us a little longer to accustom ourselves to a new camera.

Setting the Destination: Good Photos

There is no absolute “good.” Photography is art, so whatever looks good to you is good. Know what you want, and go for it. If you don’t know what you like, have fun, and do more of what looks good to you. That’s how my style developed. Just like a mescaline-crazed fruit fly, I’m attracted to crazy colors, so I do more of them. Don’t follow anyone else, do what turns you on.

As I tried different films, digital camera settings and techniques, I liked some better or worse than others. I kept doing more of what looked good to me. It’s easy, but you need to know how and when to make changes. You also need to stick with one thing at a time to learn it. If you’re changing more than one thing at a time it makes it hard to discover anything.

When I started, I was afraid to take any setting off its default. Today, even on automatic, it’s normal under some odd conditions for me to have to dial in up to two full stops of exposure compensation, and under normal conditions to use +/- 2/3 of a stop. Don’t be gentle if your camera needs a good smack to get what you want out of it. I was too chicken as a kid to use any exposure compensation and often got crappy pictures.

Getting a technically great photo is trivial if you follow the instructions above.

Making a genuinely great photo is difficult, since you have to be in the right place at the right time and apply a whole lot more.

For instance, even with GPS navigation and Mercedes Radar-controlled cruise control that sees cars in front of you and can stop and start your car and go up to 125 MPH automatically, you still need to tell your car where you want to go.

Even these systems still can’t even keep your car in lane. Cameras are just like cars, but much more advanced, and even they can’t find a good picture all by themselves.

You still need to set the destination for your car just as you need to see the picture first for your camera. Setting the destination for a trip is like seeing a good photo as you’re walking around. It can’t be automated as the technical issues are today.



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