|The Worst Way to Photograph
by Jim McGee
"Do as I say, not as I do!"
How many parents have caught themselves using that line? But that is exactly what was running through my mind as I packed up for my latest assignment. Every professional photographer will tell you that you should never go out on an assignment with a new piece of gear. It doesn't matter if it's a bag, lens or camera. When you're out shooting you want to be able to concentrate on what's in front of your lens. The last thing you want to do is miss a shot, or worse yet lose a whole roll of film, because you're struggling with unfamiliar equipment. As a matter of fact I've given that same advice to folks on numerous occasions.
Yet that is exactly what I do on every assignment. Not only a new bag or lens, but in many cases a completely new camera system from an unfamiliar manufacturer is along for the ride. The whole point of the job is to discover the quirks and eccentricities of that equipment. Often at the expense of missed shots. Which occasionally requires the liberal application of Tums at the end of the day.
So why is it so important to get familiar with your equipment?
Simply stated you're a better photographer when your equipment becomes an extension of both your hand and your mind. At that point it almost disappears from your consciousness and your mind is just focused on the creation of the image. You might be surprised that I mentioned bags in this description. When you work from the same bag all the time you cease thinking about it. You find the strap settings that are most comfortable. You mentally assign all the cubbyholes and you reach a point where half the time you're not even looking in the bag - you could work blindfolded by feel and that can be the difference in getting the shot.
It's the same with your camera. The settings become second nature and most importantly you don't have to pull your eye away from the viewfinder to change settings. After a while you have a gut feel for how much fill flash to use for a given situation. You don't have to think it through it just happens. It's the same with your lenses. As you use a lens or a particular focal length more and more you try different compositions. You learn what works. You explore; find its limits. You learn at what f-stop you can blur the background and at what f-stop you can still get away with acceptable depth of field. You know when you can handhold and when you need to worry about flare.
Throw in a new piece of gear and you can throw off your game. Suddenly you're thinking about how to use that lens or some feature on a new camera body. Or worse because it's new, you want to use it more so you change the way you shoot so you can use it more - resulting in less than stellar images. With bags it manifests itself as difficulty finding things, fumbling with straps and adjustments, or worst of all, dumping all that expensive camera gear onto the ground. Yikes!
So what do you do to get past that awkward period? Lets say you've booked that trip to Paris that you've dreamed about for years and you went out and purchased that new lens you've been ogling so you can get some great images on your trip.
The simple answer is to get out and use it! Let's say you want to shoot street scenes on your trip and you've purchased a zoom lens that covers the focal lengths you're most likely to use. Make it a point to get out at least two or three times with your new lens prior to your trip. But don't just go out and shoot your cat on the back porch. Get into the city and shoot the kinds of street scenes you want to shoot in Paris.
It doesn't matter that it's not an exotic location. Get out and experiment with the lens. Experiment with composition. Push it to its limits and beyond. Then take the film to your favorite one-hour lab and take a look at the images. I guarantee you'll have a few that you'll think "it would have been better if…"
So get out the next day and try the "if". See if it really does make for a better image. Try and do this right before you trip so you'll find your groove. Now when you're on the street in a strange city you'll be able to capture your surroundings with confidence.
The same goes for a new camera body. Today's cameras are a wonder of technology but new cameras are also a wonder of buttons and features. Take a new camera out in the field and that wonderful moment you wanted to capture will vanish before your eyes while you're trying to find the damned exposure compensation button.
Bags are no different. We all eventually arrive at that magical perfect way to over pack our bags so we know exactly where every little piece of flotsam and jetsam are without even looking. You only get there by packing and repacking the bag and working from it for a while. When I get a new bag I'll usually pack and unpack it several times to try and figure out the best nooks and crannies for everything. But only a couple of days shooting with it will really fine-tune the packing.
Another important thing to remember with bags is that they all ride differently. A misadjusted strap can make for a miserable day and you often don't realize it's out of whack until you start hurting. To get your adjustments in the ballpark load the bag up with all your gear and take a walk around the house or around the yard. Are there any hot spots where the bag is rubbing? Is the strap or straps pulling? Does it feel off balance?
It's particularly important with backpacks that the fit be correct and that the pack be well balanced. A properly adjusted backpack will place the majority of the pack's weight on your hips and it will ride with your body rather than flopping around. The sternum strap is important here as it determines where the shoulder straps fall across your shoulders. A backpack implies you'll be hiking. And that means balance needs to be considered more than with a shoulder bag. A pack that throws you off balance can get you hurt on the trail.
Getting yourself into that comfort zone where you don't have to think about your equipment can make a tremendous difference in your images. The complaint I often hear from amateurs, even advanced amateurs is that there is so much to think about before you press the shutter. When your mind is spinning its hard to relax and really see.
When you reach that point where your equipment is an extension of yourself, you'll be amazed how much less you have to think about.