System of Camera Control

"Nature photographers have a tendency to credit their successes to their intelligence, their knowledge and their experience; they also have a tendency to blame their failures on accidents and fate". Particularly when we've just missed another once-in-a-lifetime shot because the camera was incorrectly set. It was after I'd fallen foul of this a number of times that I decided a different approach was called for. I realised that what I really wanted was to be ready for anything, at any time. My solution was to develop what I now think of as my System of Camera Control.

First of all let's get this into perspective. Everyone, and I mean everyone, who enters the unpredictable world of nature photography has fallen into this trap at some time. Don't think that top-flight pros get it right every time, that's just a myth.

Getting Caught Out

Argumentative Ducks
Argumentative ducks - explosive action such as this can happen without warning, starting and stopping in a moment. Time to get the shot, one second at most.
The time when we are most vulnerable to this phenomenon is probably when handling new equipment. I once had a camera that came to an untimely end on the plains of Africa. When its upgraded replacement arrived I did the usual thing; tear open the box, throw the manual to one side (hey, I know how to use a camera), fit the batteries, attach a lens and start "playing".

Later, when faced with unexpected golden opportunities, gaps in my knowledge began to show. "Stupid camera", "Why do they make them so complicated?", "But this button should do that", "Doh!" This is when I realised that it was time for me to take a few backward steps along the learning curve and really begin to think about what I was doing, and try to find the manual that I threw over my shoulder.


Every time I'm sat on a plane waiting for take-off I know that the pilots are carefully checking that everything is right before we begin to fly. They are steadily working through a list of items one by one (...oil pressure - check, fuel - check, wings - one, two - check...). And I figure that if using a checklist is good enough for them, it's also good enough for me. As I'm only intending to fly a camera my checklist is somewhat shorter and can be easily committed to memory. But it's still a checklist nonetheless.

Sandhill crane
This bird was standing around looking lazy and contented when suddenly it hopped across a ditch. Time to get the shot, two seconds.
By mentally checking to see how my camera is set before I start shooting, at natural pauses during a session and before putting it back in my camera bag, I can increase my chances of being ready for anything (which I shorten to RFA) and reduce the number of my stupid mistakes to an absolute minimum. The mid-session checks are vitally important as once I start getting "creative" camera setting can end up just about anywhere. Regularly returning to my preferred settings means that I'm ready for that winning grab shot whenever it arrives.

So what checks do I do? These are my preferences, yours may be different but whatever they are they should be the settings that you are most comfortable with.

  • Switch the camera on.
  • Is a memory card loaded?
  • How much memory space is left? (Change the card if it's low.)
  • Set exposure compensation to zero (or what ever local conditions, such as snow, may dictate).
  • Set aperture to wide open.
  • Manually focus lens to near infinity.
  • Switch auto-focus on.
  • Switch Image Stabilisation on (if applicable).
  • Set function mode to aperture priority.
  • Set exposure mode to centre weighted.
  • Set motordrive to high.
  • Ensure mirror lockup is off.
  • Ensure time delay is off.

Remember, it's important to get back to your RFA settings as soon as possible, not just at the end of shooting, as it's only then that you will be fully primed. Some of these items may seem a bit basic but that's the beauty of a checklist. It covers the obvious while preventing the potentially disastrous.

Developing the System

What I've covered here is the core of my System of Camera Control. I back it up with a couple of other mental checklists to try and get the best out of my time with a camera. My camera bag is laid out in a particular order so that I can easily and quickly reach what I want. Or explain to someone else where a particular item can be found. This saves endless frustrating moments as I frantically search for a what-you-may-call-it as another golden moment passes me by. I also make sure that the heaviest items are at the bottom when the bag is on my back. This lowers my centre of gravity, and reduces the risk of me losing my balance as I spin round to shoot the Yeti that I saw out of the corner of my eye. It also means that the fragile items get the least load on them (assuming that the heaviest items are the most durable).

One of my favourite tripods is of the bent-bolt design, (i.e. Benbo). To be used correctly this incredibly versatile tripod requires a system all of its own. Anybody who has had the pleasure of handling this style of tripod will know that it can be likened to wrestling with a drunken octopus. But, with a little bit of care, this minor problem is easily overcome. Naturally I use another checklist to achieve this.

Red grouse
This female red grouse appeared from nowhere, glowed in the sunlight for a second or two, and just as quickly vanished. Time to get the shot, less than five seconds.
  • Check that the ball head adjustments are tight.
  • Support the camera and lens with my left hand.
  • Flip the centre leg forward with my right hand.
  • Move both outside legs into position with my feet.
  • Adjust leg length.
  • Tighten the locking bent-bolt with my right hand.
  • Check for steadiness.
  • Release the camera and lens from my left hand.
Awesome as it may seem this list can be quickly committed to memory and has undoubtedly saved me from a lot of trapped thumbs and damaged lenses.

System of Camera Control

The tripod, bag and camera methodologies come together to form my System of Camera Control. The fact is that there are a number of photographs in my files that wouldn't be there if I hadn't been working to this system. It's a great help to me and I've no doubt that a similar system would be just as useful to you. If the thought of remembering all of this gives you nightmares then write it down. Once you have been through your system a couple of times you should have no problems remembering it in the future, and have a lot less missed opportunities.