Camera Testing – 3 Tips For The Best Results

In the last year I’ve bought hardly any cameras, and used even less.

It’s the most focused – or, put another way, cameranogamous – I’ve been since using just the camera in phone, my approach from around 2005-2011.

But there was a period of seven or eight years where I was almost buying more cameras than eating hot dinners.

To try to make sense of those I’d accumulated, I would put each one through a testing phase.

Now, this didn’t work entirely, because I always had more cameras than I had time to test them all. But that’s a separate issue.

That aside, going through so many cameras (and lenses, and film), I did learn some key lessons in testing that served me very well in deciding what I liked most, what to keep, and what to pass on.

These are the three most valuable –

  1. Only change one equipment variable at a time.

    Wow it took me a long time to figure this one out! So many times – especially with film cameras where you never really knew if they worked fully until you had the film developed – I’d be experimenting with a new (to me) camera, and a new lens, and a new film emulsion, all at once.

    If you’re lucky and the combo works well, at least you have some pleasing photographs to show for it, and in theory if you use the same trio of camera, lens and film again, you’ll likely get similar results.

    The trouble is, it might be a stellar lens that’s made otherwise pretty average film punch above its weight.

    If this is the case, what if you used the same lens with your favourite film and it performed to a whole other level?

    But you wouldn’t necessarily do that immediately, as because all three elements were new to you, you don’t know which contributed most to the favourable results.

    What’s more likely is your results might not be as you’d hoped. It could be that a mediocre (or even damaged) lens sullies otherwise very capable film, and gives you bland results overall.

    But you might instead write off the film as being uninspiring, before it’s had a fair chance to show you what it can do.

    Or maybe the camera has an exposure issue that underexposes by three stops, makes even the best film look super grainy with washed out colours.

    Again, if you change all three equipment variables every time, you can’t narrow down where the fault lies. And you might discount all three unfairly – camera, lens and film.

    So just change one when testing, and keep the others to those you’ve previously tried and trusted.
  2. Only choose good light.

    Again, this took me far too long to learn.

    Because I was so impatient to test all the gear that was piling up, I would go out with equipment that in good light could perform exceptionally, but my images were utterly forgettable, simply because the light on the day was poor.

    Bad light could mean, for example, you’re shooting in low light on a grey day so the camera is needing a slower shutter speed and/or wider aperture, which in turn is impacting the final image in ways you don’t want – motion blur, or too great a depth of field, with potentially missed focus.

    Good light, where a faster shutter speed and/or smaller aperture was used, would immediately reduce these issues.

    Or it can just mean you go out with visions of beautifully lit compositions in your head, that are just impossible for the camera/lens(/film) to capture because the quality of light needed to bring out those sumptuous colours or that sharpness or those deep shadows just wasn’t there.

    If you only shoot in good light – and definitely when testing new stuff – you know that any shortfall in the final image isn’t due to the light not being favourable. Another variable eliminated.
  3. Stick to locations and subjects you know.

    For enthusiastic photographers the temptation is to shoot anything and everything, and think you always need a new and exciting location to make interesting photographs.

    With my One Room Fifty Photographs experiments I’ve proved to myself that I don’t even need to leave the room to make interesting and rewarding photos, let alone leave the house, neighbourhood, or country.

    More important than this when testing camera gear is to stick to places and scenes you know, so it removes one more variable that could throw the results adversely.

    If you’ve already made pictures at the same location you’re happy with, it gives you the yardstick for what’s possible, and will help you measure the new gear’s performance accordingly, and make a decision on whether you want to keep it.

    Once again, when testing, this is a way of reducing as many variables as possible, so you can really analyse that particular new camera/lens/film you’ve just bought and try to get the best from it.

Hopefully these ideas will help you get the most from any new photography equipment you buy, and will avoid some of the pitfalls I experienced all too often.

Do you have any tips for the best approach when testing new camera gear?

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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8 thoughts on “Camera Testing – 3 Tips For The Best Results”

  1. That’s the secret of accurate testing: control the variables. This is the same in all fields. The trouble is photographers (and everyone else) find it boring to take multiple shots of the same thing adjusting only one parameter.

    1. Yeh, good point. I think the trick is to try to vary it enough to keep it interesting, but not so much that too many variables are in play and you can’t make any rational conclusions. That said, I know some people are quite happy just playing around with different cameras and lenses, without any attachment to achieving a great end result. I’ve certainly had numerous photowalks where the experience of being where I was and using the camera I was using was 95% of the pleasure. The photos at the end of it were academic. This is a good place to be and a relaxing and fun way to approach photography with different cameras.

      1. Right; the difference between rigid, scientific evaluation and the more ambiguous human feel for things. The latter is not to be dismissed, especially in artistic applications. If you are comfortable with using a certain camera and like the results then the main criteria are satisfied, regardless of how it scores on technical evaluation. If this were not the case no one would ever use a ‘Diana F’ type camera. Or at least they wouldn’t admit to it.

      2. Yes and sometimes it’s that difficult to describe emotional feeling or connection with a particular camera, and sometimes it’s with the pictures that camera is capable of (like my Holga, which is an ugly bulky hunk of plastic, but it’s capable of magic many other cameras aren’t). I’ve never tried a Diana F, but been curious often, for similar reasons as having the Holga.

  2. Dan, Thats a really thoight provoking post, and one which I will try and keep in my mind when testing new lenses, On a personal level what amazes me is that when I buy a lens from say ebay, regardless of cost, 9.9 times out of 10 I have to clean the lens prior to using, as many seem to be caked in layers of dirt, looking at low resolution pics on ebay doesn’t always mean you are looking at a well looked after lens however good it may look…so one point I would add to your list… is to firstly give the lens a good clean.. it should be the most natural thing to do when taking delivery of a new (to you) lens…of course many would say” oh well thats a given anyway…” but I wouldn’t mind putting money on it that a fair few folks dont even think of it…. its a minor point… but a very important one in my book… BR, Lynd..

    1. That is an excellent addition Lynd, thank you. Yes when I was buying and testing old film cameras and lenses especially, I had a makeshift mini cleaning kit including baby wipes, cotton buds, a couple of toothbrushes and a few lens cleaning microfibre cloths. I’d go over the gear with the dry toothbrush, then wipe it over with the wet wipes, then another toothbrush while it was still damp, then dry off with kitchen towel and finally buff everything up with microfibre cloth. I had one lens I remember – an Auto Chinon 50/1.7 – which absolutely reeked of cigarette smoke and looked like it had been used as an ashtray, the filthiest thing I’ve ever seen. Ten minutes later you wouldn’t have known, and while it was never going to be in mint condition, it was perfectly passable, and made lovely images. I sold it on for about five times what I paid for it.

  3. Hi Dan, Yes there have been a few that have come over my bench that looked fine in the pics but when opened on arrival were a bit disappointing to say the least, I think that a lot of people were just selling gear from estates of people who had passed, and it always amazed me that they didn’t just spend a few moments to give it a simple wipe down, but hey, thats why I was paying so little money for them, and I did find a few nice diamonds in the rough… especially when I went through a phase of buying compacts, this particular one for instance,
    seemed to of been used as a serviette, as the various bits of sauces and grease took a bit of shifting, but it has turned out to be an exceptional camera, and one I leave in the car for times when “her indoors” is shopping, leaving me in the carpark to play “photo-time” its a really good example and especially good for B&W images, and literally does just slip into the top pocket, and having the slide over for protection of the lens is a real bonus, a very underated and unsung camera with a nice minolta lens, from a time when minolta were still building quality items… it also sort of links into your other post about upgrading.. in so much as I do have a fear of the batteries dying in the future leaving the camera useless, and do try and keep a lookout for spares, Dan I would highly recommend this to you… as it really is a sweet little camera.. anyway, thanks for the return of email… always appreciate your answers and comments.. cheers, Lynd..

    1. Yes, how many camera listings these days contain lines such as “selling for my late father/uncle/cousin, I’m no expert so can’t conform it works…” I wonder how many are actually genuine!

      The little Konica Minolta sounds good, and a 5MP CCD sensor puts it right in the middle of my golden era for digital cameras. I’ve almost bought a Dimage a number of times but never quite pulled the trigger. I had a late Minolta DSLR which was really appealing, and gave some lovely pictures, but alas died after only a handful of outings with me.

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