How To Learn How Your Camera Performs

By William Lulow

Photography is mostly a science that occasionally can be elevated to an art form. Of course, this is not to belittle science per se, but it is important to bear in mind that the process of converting light rays to visible representation on celluloid, digital information and then paper, is very much dependent on certain scientific principles being understood and followed.

In order to maintain consistency it is necessary for the photographer to be able to refer to each step along the way to building better photographs. This includes (1) a knowledge of equipment and techniques; and (2) because all the lighting exercises one can learn would mean nothing if not kept in the proper context with regard to other steps in producing good photographs. In other words, it is necessary to learn the science in order to be able to do the art!

Thus, in any scientific discipline, it becomes necessary to eliminate certain variables if one wants to perfect a technique and have predictable results. So it is with the photographic process as well. What good is a great expression captured for posterity if the image wasn’t exposed properly? Or, what good is that same portrait if the image, digital or traditional film, wasn’t processed and printed optimally? I have an adage which says that a photograph is as strong as the weakest link in the chain creating it. Once this is understood, you are on the road to standardizing your procedures and making consistently good pictures. Anyone seriously interested in doing photography professionally or semi-professionally, must learn the techniques of standardizing procedures because, as we have stated, the art of making photographs is also a science! In order to rely on your image-making process again and again, you must expose, process and print your images the same way every time in order to achieve consistency of results. The following represents my techniques for obtaining consistently high quality results. This will be presented in a series of articles here on my blog.

First of all, start with one camera and one basic lens, use it until you are thoroughly familiar with all its workings under many different lighting and shooting conditions.

It is important to realize that different camera manufacturers, even though they do extensive tests on their equipment cannot possibly know under all conditions, how their products will behave. They do tests to promote quality control, and they have tried to anticipate conditions that photographers would encounter. They have tried to build in “foolproof” systems so that anyone can use their camera and get acceptable results. But you have to learn about all of these things yourself before you go out and charge people for your services, or try to make images for yourself.  Therefore, it is necessary for every photographer to conduct his or her own tests to determine how to modify techniques and to adjust for differences in how the equipment  reacts. Once tested, the camera can then be counted on to perform the same way under the same conditions over and over again. This is how consistency is achieved. You need to read the manuals thoroughly because each manufacturer puts controls in different places. You need to be familiar with all the “modes” from AUTO to MANUAL and how they are set up and used on your equipment. Most of all, you need to become familiar with all the ways your equipment controls exposure and how to use them under all the conditions by which you will photograph.  Typically, I read and re-read the manual countless times before I use a new piece of equipment. Then, I try to learn how to use the camera under different lighting conditions. I then go back and read the manual again until I know how to manipulate the settings to get what I want. I import the images to a folder called “Tests” and enlarge and print the images until I know that the color balance and sharpness is working on my computer, monitors and printer. Sometimes, an image that looks sharp enough on the monitor, doesn’t look the same when it’s printed to an 8×10.

Another thing I do is to shoot at one ISO setting and then one f/stop. I only vary the shutter speed. This will show me how the camera performs with all the shutter speeds. Then I will do the same thing with the shutter speeds. I pick one speed (let’s say 1/100th of a second). I then vary only the f/stops to obtain a correct exposure. This gives me a good idea of how the camera performs under the various lens openings. Finally, I set the lens at f/5.6 and the shutter at 1/100th of a second and vary only the ISO settings to get a good exposure. This will show me what happens to the image under the different ISO settings.

This method is great for testing the camera’s variable options and gives me a good idea of what happens as I change each. This is the only way to learn how the settings on your camera and lens alter your images.

Canon 6D