Camera Control Chaos

I often get asked by random people if I can tell them how to operate their camera. Since I often walk around with a honking big camera (or multiple cameras), I guess that makes them think that I am an expert in all cameras, but it doesn’t work that way.

But first: some background

Decades ago, when all cameras had the same basic controls (shutter speed and aperture. ISO was determined by the film you used), and you could find nearly all of them in a camera store, I would tell people to go to a store and feel the cameras in your hands to figure out which camera will work for you.

(Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

This was because there were only 3 controls (shutter speed, aperture and film speed)

  • Film speed was fixed to the roll you had in the camera
  • Aperture was often on the base of the lens
  • So basically if someone handed you a camera, and you had to make a manual adjustment, you had to find the shutter speed dial.

But today,

  • You not only have exposure controls
  • But focus modes, drive modes, flash modes, stabilization, movie start/stop, etc.
  • And picture adjustments (that previous generations could only do out of the camera by using various films, film processing and darkroom work)
  • And the controls are digital and can be located and controlled in a seemingly endless variety of locations and ways (switches, dials, buttons, menus) .

(Mishmash courtesy of

This is often promoted as “innovative,” but it also makes many photographers confused. All this front dial on this camera and back wheel on another camera is like moving the steering wheel, break and accelerator all over the place on a car. It’s fine if you never change cars, but then you are useless on another car and fearful of other cars and complain that every other car is wrong because you must support the car you are in which means all the moving around is:

  1. to lock in loyalty to a brand
  2. to avoid lawsuits by other manufacturers for copyright infringement

I REALLY hope for all our sakes that car manufactures don’t do what camera manufacturers are doing.

But back to the beginning question:

  • I often give general photography tips to new photographers like
    • What situations will work best with full auto and Program
    • Why they should learn about shutter priority, aperture priority and ISO
    • The limitations of inexpensive cameras in comparison to high end cameras used to take the photos they admire (and all the photo processing those photos go through)
  • And, I have some knowledge in the cameras that I have used so I can make some settings changes that will help them
  • But if you hand me a camera that I haven’t used, I often cannot find the menu or setting that has been inadvertently changed. I’m as lost as them in this sea of menus and buttons.

So, if you know a photographer, please be kind and have reasonable expectations.


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