Know Thy Camera

Over the holidays I spent a fair amount of time responding to detailed requests that came in over email during the past month or two. I can't always spend a lot of time answering emails, so often my answers are brief. But what I discovered in making more detailed responses during this holiday period was simple: I was answering the same question, even though it was being expressed differently.

My answer always boils down to this: know thy camera.

My friend, talented sports photographer, and Sony Ambassador Patrick Racey-Murphy and I had an email exchange about where we are with cameras recently, and it's really, really simple: we'd have died for the cameras we have today as little as 10 years ago. We live now with a plethora of products that produce phenomenal photos. We take pictures in the dark, we capture brief moments that were previously unnoticed, we produce work that can be blown up to visually stunning sizes; the list goes on and on. We're in gear heaven.

So why is it I keep getting email and after email complaining that Camera X can't do Y? 

One of the most obvious of those is with the Nikon Z models. Quite obviously I've been getting dead-on focus with subjects that are moving erratically and fast (wildlife and sports). Yet I get plenty of "it doesn't focus" missives. Likewise, for almost all cameras I get lots of "my image is noisy, I thought this camera was good in low light" complaints. 

In working through everyone's problems, the answer is always the same: know thy camera. The answer to focus is typically that the user is not understanding something about how the way that brand's/model's focus system actually works. The answer to noisy images is often that the exposure and expectation are wrong in the first place. Sometimes it has to do with terrible camera setting choices, too, like using Vivid, Contrast boost, Saturation boost, and Active D-Lighting all together thinking that these are magic things that make an image look better, so why not use all of them?.

Since we just finished the big camera buying season, I'll let you in on a nasty little secret: your new camera isn't likely to solve your problems. Your next one won't, either.

It's a rare occurrence when someone approaches me with a problem and we discover in working through it that they've actually maxed out the capability of their existing equipment, and thus really do need to buy something new. And nine times out of ten, that's not a camera, it's a lens.  

The camera companies are in a tough place. On the one hand, they really do want to make their products better and better, because otherwise they'd never get those of us who are dedicated users buying something new from them again. On the other hand, the complexity of the current gear is really broad and really deep, so if the camera makers don't simplify and add and promote "automatic magic" they'll never attract new customers. 

I'd argue that the camera companies are failing at that latter bit. While what I call leaking—selling off an owned brand to completely switch to another—is on the decline, while sampling—trying out new gear that has some over-hyped feature—is on the rise. People are looking for something and not finding it. 

That's because it's already there (other than the communication connections and workflow features we all want), but it requires a commitment of time and practice to master. As the new camera monsters keep appearing, because they're even more complex, you need more time and practice to master them. 

Another data point that comes into play is that I'm working through my Z6 and Z7 book (I also have an upcoming Sony book, too), and I'm struck by how many small things Nikon has changed compared to the D850, which formed the logical base of the features and firmware of their new mirrorless cameras. It's not 10 things that changed, it's not 100 things, it's thousands of things that got changed in the transition.

Now many of the smaller changes don't really impact your shooting much, if at all. (While I'm picking on Nikon here, Canon, Sony, and the others are equally guilty of this problem.) For example, in Focus Stack Shooting, the D850 allows exposure smoothing, while in the Z series they only allow exposure locking. That's probably not going to trip you up, particularly since you have to go to a complex menu setup to enable Focus Stack Shooting, and the difference should be obvious in the settings you can make. But in other areas, things changed that will impact you. A lot. For instance, Dynamic Area AF is quite different between a D4, a D850, and a Z7. Same name, but different performance, different area, different strengths and weaknesses. 

The only way you truly get what the sophisticated camera can do for you these days is to learn everything you can about it and master it: know thy camera. 

So, as you get time to play with your holiday purchase or gift, I say this: take your time. Study everything you can find about it. Experiment with it. Practice with it. Ask others for help with it. Don't start complaining about the new purchase or gift until you're absolutely sure that you've done everything you can to know it completely.

Know thy camera. It's your new mantra for the new year.

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