Why can't I remember how to use my camera?
August 12, 2014 11:30 PM   Subscribe

Photography has been a lifelong, though not consistent, interest of mine. I have always had an SLR or DSLR camera for about 30 years. Yet I still can't remember how to operate the damn thing without using automatic settings! What is my problem and can you suggest ways to improve my 'technical memory'?

I have always found it hard to follow instructions on how to use physical objects or move in a specific way - if I look at an Ikea flat pack assembly diagram, my brain just freezes; I can't knit and my sewing and violin teachers gave up on me in despair; I couldn't tie my shoelaces for years; I love freestyle dancing but can't follow choreography, etc. Possibly I'm a bit dyspraxic. I am fairly ambidextrous and sometimes I think the two sides of my brain just trip over each other. I can use relatively complicated software (e.g Photoshop) to a high level but once a third dimension is added (e.g. Blender), I find it really hard to understand.
Generally this shortcoming is annoying, but I find ways round it (aka 'my husband' normally). However, the area where I'm really frustrated is photography. I have read books, had personal tuition, been to a class, and I still can't remember how to use my camera! Part of the trouble is that I don't use it every day, but I really think that by now the basics on how to set up my camera should have sunk in. It's not THAT hard, surely! I have had this camera (a Nikon D50) for about six years and had numerous attempts at learning it; the knowledge stays for a bit then I realise I've forgotten everything again.
Please, do you have any suggestions on how I can learn this kind of thing in a way that sticks? I don't have time to use the camera every day but I would like to be able to pick it up and know what to do when I do use it. I'm not looking for books or guides unless you know one that's specifically written for people with my 'blind spot'!
posted by KateViolet to Education (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
To use an SLR out of automatic mode, you have to know what you want the camera to do (ISO, exposure, f-stop, flash brightness/duration, focus stuff, etc), and how to make it do it (various buttons, menus, and knobs). It's not clear from your question which part of this keeps slipping out of your brain, but I think that'll be pretty important to specify to give a helpful answer.
posted by aubilenon at 12:05 AM on August 13, 2014

Response by poster: I understand the concepts (e.g., relation of shutter speed to aperture width) but I can't remember how to actually change the settings on the camera to get what I want. So I know I want more depth of field but can't remember where the setting is it or whether it should go up or down...
posted by KateViolet at 12:25 AM on August 13, 2014

I'm for some reason reminded of a part from John Holt's How Children Learn:
On days when I have a lesson, I bring my cello to school, take it to a classroom, and give the children a turn at "playing" it. Except for the timid ones, who make a few halfhearted passes with the bow and quit, almost all little children attack the cello in the same way. They are really doing three things at once. They are making the machine go. They are enjoying the luxury of making sounds. And they are making scientific experiments. [...] But it is important to note that the first few times they do this, they do not seem to be doing it in the spirit of an experiment, to find out what will happen. They do it for the sake of doing it. [...] Then there is quite a change in their way of doing things. You can almost hear them thinking, "Ah, this string makes that kind of noise, and that string makes that kind of noise." But they have to do a good deal of what seems like random bowing, activity for its own sake, before they begin to think about what they are doing. They have to pile up quite a mass of raw sensory data before they begin trying to sort it out and make sense of it. [...]

A scientist might say that, along with his useful data, the child has collected an enormous quantity of random, useless data. A trained scientist wants to cut all irrelevant data out of his experiment. He is asking nature a question, he wants to cut down the noise, the static, the random information, to a minimum, so he can hear the answer. But a child doesn't work that way. He is used to getting his answers out of the noise. He has, after all, grown up in a strange world where everything is noise, where he can only understand and make sense of a tiny part of what he experiences. [...]

Where the young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage is in situations—and many, even most real life situations are like this—where there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask. He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise. Above all, he is much less likely than adults to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them. And these are the vital skills of thought which, in our hurry to get him thinking the way we do, we may very well stunt or destroy in the process of "educating" him.

But the greatest difference between children and adults is that most of the children to whom I offer a turn on the cello accept it, while most adults, particularly if they have never played any other instrument, refuse it.
I think it's your association with the IKEA instruction booklet that reminded me of this, because those are so extremely concise, like choreography diagrams, and seem to leave no room for experimentation and failure. The steps are numbered and you are supposed to put them together like a programmed robot, and if you mess up it's embarrassing. It feels like a performance that you haven't been allowed to practice for.

Maybe you could try doing more of this random experimentation? Like, you're not going to ruin the camera, just maybe get some terrible photos. Maybe your neural structures need a lot of input, and self-driven active exploration, in order to learn these kinds of things.
posted by mbrock at 12:30 AM on August 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

How about writing a cheatsheet about how to do it or making a short video about it? You'll have a quick reminder when you need it, and possibly explaining it clearly will help it stick a bit more.

Also, you can try the trick of focusing on one single thing to remember whenever you take the camera up again. Once you find yourself consistently remembering how to use the depth of field setting, for example, add one new setting to master. It's obviously a slow process, but maybe you don't really need to be in a hurry. It fits in well with mbrock's approach too: sometimes it's easier to learn a thing bit by bit at your own rate, without feeling like it's a big, high-stakes, impenetrable mess you have to tame.
posted by trig at 1:08 AM on August 13, 2014

I'd take it a step further and just get an old fashioned manual camera and some film, and then just play with it. An old Nikon isn't expensive, and it only has 3 settings or so that change at all, and they're all physical things on the camera... Not abstracted settings on a menu. I have a BFA in photography, and we all still had to learn on a manual camera first for this very reason... When you adjust the f-stop it is a physical dial, you can SEE the hole getting bigger and smaller and the depth of field getting deeper and shallower.

Also, there is no real right and wrong.... Photographers manipulate all settings all the time to get the results they want. Just play.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:45 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Might a pocket sized version of this chart help?

As you mention you're happy using photoshop, it would be fairly easy to add some pictograms of the relevant camera buttons / controls needed to make changes at each corner.
posted by protorp at 3:40 AM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I used to use an Olympus DSLR, and after a couple of years I became reasonably competent. It was just too bulky, though, and now I use a fairly compact camera, a Canon G12. It does about 90% of what the DSLR could do, and I'm more likely to have it with me when I need it.

I always use Manual mode. One control sets the aperture and another one sets the shutter speed. It becomes intuitive after a while. I rarely have to use the menu system.
posted by Agave at 5:45 AM on August 13, 2014

Best answer: First of all, of course there is nothing wrong with using your DSLR in auto mode. You will get great pictures most of the time. But it sounds like you want to move beyond this.

Since there are so many ways that so many photographers use their cameras, it can indeed be confusing. And since everyone has their own way of doing things, you can get a lot of conflicting advice, including right here in this thread. None of the advice will be wrong (probably), just different.

So I'll throw my idea into the ring, and hopefully you'll find something in this thread that will be helpful, whether my method or not.

Pick one way to use your camera, and stick with it. Once that way has become second nature, then you can consider learning more.

I recommend setting your ISO to AUTO. Go to the CUSTOM (CSM) MENU (pencil icon), and item #10 is ISO AUTO. This will automatically increase the ISO (sensitivity) in low light in order to keep your shutter speed at a hand-holdable level. Don't let this confuse you, just set it and forget it. One less setting to worry about.

Now, set your camera to Aperture Priority mode (the A on the top dial), which is what I use. Leave it there. All you have to do is spin the thumb-dial to pick the aperture you want, and the camera will select the appropriate shutter speed.

How do you know what aperture you want? Aperture controls depth of field. LOW number = LOW depth of field (meaning blurrier background). HIGH number = HIGH depth of field (meaning background is more in focus.) A good example image is here.

Now, shoot in Aperture Priority. Shoot lots of stuff over the next week or two, whether they are "good" pictures or not. All you are worrying about is that thumb dial and picking an aperture. While you shooting, shot the same subject with a low aperture and a high aperture and look at the difference. Keep shooting in aperture priority until you feel like it's limiting you. A month? A year? Five years?

Only after you are totally comfortable with aperture priority, start using your Exposure Compensation. For this, you are also using the thumb dial, but at the same time holding the little +/- button (near the shutter button) with your index finger. You only need it in trickier lighting, when the default exposure is not to your liking. This increases or decreases overall exposure until you set it back to "0". (This paragraph is for future reference; don't even worry about it right now.)

Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 5:55 AM on August 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

I would work with your strengths here.
Either replace your existing camera with a bare basics camera that does nothing but adjust Iso, aperature, shutter speed, practice and possibly take a beginners course,
Or just be comfortable using your camera on auto.
I'm a semi professional photographer and until I made the switch to analogue, I used my digital cameras on auto. No shame, electronics are just too complicated for me to wrap my head around.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 8:29 AM on August 13, 2014

Frequency of use made all the difference for me. When I first bought my first DSLR (a Nikon D40, so I feel you on the D50) a few years back, I often left it in the corner and navigated around it carefully as if it were a wild animal. Using the camera every few months guaranteed that I wouldn't remember how to change the settings.

Fortunately for me, photography is one of my pet obsessions, so I kept going back to the camera more and more frequently. Now I don't forget how to change the settings, at least not as often. But you wouldn't believe how long it took me to figure out how to take ISO off of auto.

Is there a local photography club near you? Often these clubs will offer courses for beginners where someone will sit with you and walk you through how to change ISO, EV, etc. etc.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 9:26 AM on August 13, 2014

The thing about photography is that nearly everything is interconnected in some way. This can make it tricky to break into.

So, reduce the number of things you have to deal with at one time. This will help you learn everything else.

For now, stick with aperture mode. Select an aperture, preferably a wide one (low number, like f2). Use Auto ISO if the D50 offers such a thing.

Now, only ever adjust exposure compensation.

Take an ordinary still life.

Shoot it with no compensation, so that you're just getting what the camera determines is the proper exposure.

Now use exposure compensation to shoot at +1. Now do the same thing, but in the other direction, shooting at -1. Fiddle around with this as much as you like.

Compare all of your shots. Pay attention to what the exposure compensation is for each of these photos.

Now, when you shoot, just stay in aperture mode. Don't change the aperture. Don't change anything else. Just change the exposure compensation, so that you can figure out how to expose on your own.

After a while, try a different aperture, such as 5.6. What is different now?

Pay attention to what happens to the depth of field when you change aperture. Pay attention to what happens to the depth of field when you use different focal lengths. Pay attention to what happens to the depth of field when you're closer or further away from the subject.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:22 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Its too hard to remember because the camera was optimized for auto modes, and the manual modes are too damn hard. My son complained "manual focus is hard", but it wasn't hard when it was the only way to take a picture. As far as focus is concerned, you just can't see on a small screen what you can see through a good lens.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:52 PM on August 13, 2014

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