02 April 2006

How I Take A Picture 1: Take Responsibility

I have a Nikon F-100. It's a great camera. It has lots of advanced functions. It winds the film onto the takeup spool as soon as I close the camera back. It reads the ISO sensitivity of the film off the film cassette and sets it automatically. When it gets to the end of the roll, it automatically rewinds the film. I can set it to leave the film leader out of the cassette, or to wind the film all the way into the cassette with no leader sticking out. The F-100 has aperture-priority and shutter-priority automatic exposure, and a program mode, and a "flexible program" mode, which lets me change the aperture or the shutter speed and automatically compsenates for the exposure difference by changing the setting I haven't touched. The F-100 has spot metering, center-weighted average metering, and "matrix metering". It has autofocus. It has TTL auto-flash with distance sensing, which measures the light as it hits the film and closes the shutter when just exactly the right amount of light has gotten in. It has exposure compensation and flash exposure compensation. It shoots 5 frames a second. It fits my hand like a glove.

I never use it.

I got tired of turning all those features off.

I turned them off because I realized after a while that my first step in taking a picture should be to take responsibility. Taking responsibility was hard with the F-100. It was always whispering to me. It would say things like "The light just changed. I could handle that for you - why don't you just let me set the exposure while you worry about more important things?" or "It's really dark in here. Why don't you just let me add a little flash?" And since I'm lazy and weak, I'd sometimes give in and let the F-100 take some of the responsibility I should have been taking.

The F-100 handled those responsibilities beautifully. It made far fewer mistakes than I did.

You're wondering why I wanted to take responsibilities away from a machine which handled them better than I did. Here's why: because the F-100 was a slut. Everything it did for me, it would have done for you too. It was homogenizing my photography.

Imagine this. You and I are standing in front of Kilauea. There's a Pacific cyclone a hundred miles offshore, and the biggest thunderhead either of us has ever seen is towering over the ocean behind the volcano, showering lightning bolts like Steven Spielberg on a $200 million budget. The volcano itself is erupting spectacularly, and to top it all off, there's an incredible sunrise behind us spraying orange and pink light all over the clouds and casting a huge rainbow over the volcano and in front of the storm.

The light's changing fast, so I have the F-100 on Program auto-exposure, in matrix metering mode and autofocus. I take a picture. You forgot your camera, so you ask to borrow the F-100 and you take a picture too.

We just took the same picture. Of a once-in-10-lifetimes scene. Not only that, we both took the same picture as all the other tourists standing around looking at the scene through the viewfinders of their auto-everything cameras. We all took the pictures our cameras wanted to take, not the pictures we wanted to take.

If I were using the all-manual Leica IIIf shown at the top of this blog entry instead of the F-100, I would have to make a bunch of creative choices. I would have to choose a shutter speed and an aperture setting, for example. The combination of the two would determine whether the scene in the picture looked "normal", "dark", or "light". But each individual choice has implications beyond darkness and lightness. A slow shutter speed would give me more lightning bolts, but it would blur the lava spewing out of the volcano. A wide aperture would blur the foreground, and would slightly decrease the overall sharpness of the picture. If I want a slow shutter speed and a wide aperture, I get a lot of light. That's OK if I want the picture to look lighter than the scene looked in real life - but if I don't want that, I'll need to put some filters in front of the lens to block some of the light.

When I use the IIIf, I have to think about what I want the picture to look like before I push the button. It has no automation, so it can't whisper the siren song of automation in my ear. It doesn't want me to take average pictures - pictures just like yours and everyone else's - because it doesn't want me to take any particular kind of pictures at all. All the creativity and intelligence stay in my head, where they belong.

If you want to take pictures just like everyone else's, set your camera to automatic.

If not, take responsibility. Set your camera on manual.

If that sounds scary, don't worry; in the next entry in this series I'll tell you what to do next.


Blogger Ron Williams said...

Damn. I always knew there was something sleazy about letting the camera decide. You gave me the words. My auto is a slut. Apt. Well put. Spot on. Now I know why I have the urge to shower after succumbing to the combination of my own laziness and its sensual sameness.

Shooting "auto" is like working in a large corporation: consistency is everything - the exceptional is shunned. That which is exceptional is encouraged to sink slowly into the morass of the mediocre - no later than the press release - should it get that far.

thanx Bob.

April 03, 2006 12:26 PM  
Blogger Radovan Semancik said...

That's right. Mostly.

Some of the "automatic" features are just fine. Like the exposure metering. I have set my Pentax to aperture priority most of the time, using exposure compensation very frequently. Sometimes setting it to shutter priority (sports) or full manual (creative) mode. I have only one autofocus lens, and even with that I usually work with autofocus off. But I really miss the focusing screen of manual-focus cammeras. But we just cannot get decent manual-focus digital SLR camera these days :-(

It's a lot of fun to look at the world in this way.

April 03, 2006 12:27 PM  
Blogger Meredith said...

Never thought of that angle when considering using the auto setting or not.

Great entry!

April 07, 2006 11:10 AM  
Blogger EdNaz said...

I disagree about two people, same camera on auto, same location, getting the same shot even with auto exposure. I've gone on casual walking around shooting trips as part of photography workshops, where there are five or six photographers walking around together shooting and afterwards during image review the images captured can be very, very different. Not just in composition but in exposure, which in an auto exposure camera is driven by the composition - how are light and dark objects distributed in the scene radically changes the exposure, and if you're using matrix mode instead of really simple spot or averaging mode, even more variation gets introduced. Just like how a Zone calculation changes if you compose an image a couple degrees one way or another.

Somewhat confusing, however, has been how much better exposed the instructor's images were, despite their Nikon being set on aperture priority matrix metering just like everyone else's Nikon. Watching a couple of them work, I noticed that they do the autoexposure camera version of zone system, moving the camera around, watching the numbers change, then choosing a part of a scene, locking exposure with the shutter button or AE lock button, and then shooting their composition. So fluidly I couldn't figure it out until I did NO shooting on one walkaround and just watched. Then there's the other difference - we are all there shooting exteriors of the same church, and when you look at the images captured afterwards, all the students saw the same shots, but the instructor had images many of us couldn't even remember were there. I suspect a National Geographic photographer, same camera and lens on auto, would bring home a radically different image of the lava than I would, right down to exposure.

June 06, 2006 3:58 PM  
Blogger Al Kaplan said...

Gotta love those Leicas! I usually guess my exposure and then check my guess with a Weston Master V, mostly making incident readings. It's amazing how accurate a "well programmed" human brain can be.

June 30, 2006 8:21 PM  

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