I’ll never forget the photo I missed in Shanghai in 2008. I’d been taking photos with my film SLR camera for years. I had memorized the settings to use for the kind of photos I usually took. But, I had never really learned how to use my camera.
Shanghai, 9:30 pm, the Bund
I was on a trip to Shanghai with a new group of friends. At about 9:30 on the first night, three of us walked to the Bund, along the Huangpu River, to take night photos of the skyline. Each night, the buildings in Pudong, across the river, were lit with a light show. I was so excited!
In my backpack, I had my new and first DSLR, the Canon 40D. I was also hauling an incredibly heavy Manfrotto tripod that I had recently bought and didn’t know how to use.
Unfortunately, I had not taken any night photos of skylines before. On top of that, I was a total newbie to tripods. In short, I was unprepared. 😎
Just ask a friend for help
No problem, I thought. I’ll just ask Joe or Ollie, my shooting companions, for advice.
First, I had to assemble the tripod and attach my camera in the dim street light. After I had spent way too much time figuring out the setup, with a little advice from my friends, I was ready to shoot.
I switched my camera mode to Manual and looked at the camera buttons and dials to set them. It was dark and I was having trouble seeing them, so I looked through the viewfinder. I knew I needed to change the settings for a night shot, but I had no idea what they should be. I took a shot and checked the LCD screen. The photo was really underexposed.
By now, enough time had passed, and Joe and Ollie were ready to pack up and return to the hotel. I didn’t have a single decent shot. 😬
So, I turned to Joe and asked what settings he was using. I reasoned that if I chose the same ones, my photos would be great.
All cameras are different
This is where it got complicated. Joe had a pro-level Nikon camera. So did Ollie. They both had expensive lenses. I had a consumer-level Canon, with a kit lens. I couldn’t use Joe’s settings, because my lens didn’t offer the same range of apertures. (No, I didn’t understand any of this at the time! 😉)
But Joe had some advice that should have worked. He said if the photo was too dark, just turn the dial at the top of the camera to the right. I quickly did, and it got darker. He told me to turn it farther. I did. Now the photo was black. (For any of you thinking that I should have been looking at the exposure indicator in the viewfinder, I was. But, the exposure was so bad that the needle wasn’t showing up!)
Finally, I decided to turn the dial in the opposite direction. It worked. After a few more turns, the needle showed up in the viewfinder, and I was able to get a good exposure. Here is the shot I got. I took it at 10:02 pm, right after the light show on the buildings had been turned off. 😩 Joe and Ollie had beautiful photos of the buildings bathed in that light. I didn’t.
My path to learning
Needless to say, I vowed right then and there to learn all about my camera and how to use it.
I signed up for a photography class in Seoul, South Korea where we lived. I had a wonderful time in the class but learned nothing about my camera.
Then, I bought a really thorough training course. (Great Escape Publishing’s Turn Your Pictures Into Cash) Back then, it came in paper form, mailed to me three chapters at a time. (This was before YouTube tutorials had become popular!) I slowly poured through it. It was huge and wasn’t specifically about my camera, but it was detailed enough to help me figure things out. I was determined to learn my camera so I practiced constantly.
Helping other people to learn fast!
Oddly, at about this time, I noticed that I could help other people with their cameras, even if they weren’t just like mine. In fact, I could figure out their cameras quickly! I found myself quietly helping people during the class I was taking in Seoul. The best part was that I could explain complex technology in a way that helped other people catch on immediately! 👏
One day, I was helping someone with her Nikon and suddenly understood why Joe’s advice had been correct, but only for Nikons. At that time, on Nikon cameras, the exposure meter in the viewfinder had the positive numbers (and hence the exposure) to the left and the negative numbers to the right. So, turning the dial to the right on a Nikon increased the exposure, since it moved the needle to the left. On my Canon, doing the same thing decreased it!
All other camera brands I’m aware of have the positive numbers on the right and the negative numbers on the left. (Remember learning about number lines in school? It’s just the same.)
So, as a result of the disappointment of missing those photos in Shanghai, I had finally learned how to use my camera, and I had realized I could help other people do the same, in a lot less time.
Helping people learn to use their cameras became my passion, and I’ve been teaching my Camera Mechanics Workshops since 2011. I’ve taught my classes to people from every continent but Antarctica!
Your camera is unique. Learn to use it. Don’t assume you can ask advice from someone else or you’ll miss those important shots!
Then, after you’ve learned to use your camera, check out my blog post about general photography websites that I recommend. On those, you can learn more about photography theory.
This last photo was taken at the Bund, a few years later. I got the light!
What about the panorama at the top?
The photo at the very top was taken on the second trip, too. I was able to control the focus, depth of field, and shutter speed so I could be sure the woman and her grandson were both in focus and the little boy’s movement was frozen. I took it in the Yu Yuan Gardens in Shanghai. It’s one of my favorite photos because of the story it tells. In this post, it is only a thin panorama sliced from a regular photo. If you’d like to see the whole photo, click here to see it in my gallery.
Right after I shot it, the dog on the left fell in. I missed the fall since I had already started to move away. So, even knowing how to set your camera can’t guarantee that you won’t miss a great shot or two! 🤣 (He was just fine. His owners got him out right away with help from everyone!)