Auto Mode

I kind of like this picture, but could understand why others might not. It's a truly automatic shot. My very first digital camera, a Canon Powershot, took this all by itself when it was in the process of dying, a disappointingly short time after purchase.

I was suckered by the tag on a Facebook advertisement: Auto Mode is Killing Your Photography. The link led to a place where I could buy a little ebook (reduced from $97 to just $10 if I bought it now) which appears to give reasonable advice to beginner photographers, which boils down to understanding what your camera is doing and thinking about the pictures you are taking. The tagline got me because it's a sentence I have been repeating to myself for a long time now.

I got serious about photography when I was 18. Over the road from my parent's house was a hippy commune called Chippenham. Walter Logeman lived there, and he had gathered a small group of young guys to whom he was teaching photography. We bought black and white film in large drums and loaded it into old 35mm canisters. Every week we would decide on a subject, 'trees', say, or 'angles' and all go off and shoot a bucket load of frames, develop the film in Walter's dark room,  print off the one or two almost decent shots from the week's effort and gather around the Chippenham fireplace to compare and discuss. Walter hated camera automation with a passion so we all used hand held meters, and studied Ansel Adams' Zone System of photographic exposure. My first camera was a cheap and cheerful East German Praktika, to which could be fitted the lenses and flash guns (Walter didn't have much time for those either) which I could get from the bargain bins of second hand shops.

With simple gear I made a lot of mistakes, and had to think through every shot.  There are only three important settings on a camera: aperture, shutter speed and focus, but for any given amount of light there are several combinations of these which can be used to make a well exposed shot, and before these are made  there are the choices of type of film and the lens to be fitted to the camera body. There are also  the niceties of framing, composing, point of view, and all the things you can do in the darkroom afterwards to get the photo the way you want it. Photography required me to think and be aware of what my eye was seeing, what the camera would do to what I was seeing, and what I actually wanted when I rinsed off the fixer and hung my newly exposed and developed sheet of photographic paper on the line to dry.

The old Praktika was a bit of a dunger really, and didn't last long. It had a series of successors, mostly Canons, each one of which added a little more automation than the last one. Firstly there was a through the lens light meter, then there was the automation of either the choice of aperture, or shutter speed or both. Then there was the automation of focus.  Then came zoom lenses which meant that a change of focal length was easy.  With digital cameras many of the things I used to do in the darkroom happened inside the camera and were automated with ever increasing levels of sophistication.

The cameras grew ever more complex. My first decent camera, a Canon FTb, for example, had 7 controls. and that was it. Looking through the viewfinder looked like this:
My current main camera is a Nikon D7100 and looking through the viewfinder I see this:
As well, the camera has an LCD screen on the back which gives me this information:
and one on the top which looks like this:
The camera has 34 controls. It has 6 connection ports through which I could attach even more controls.  It has a menu system with 6 menus and 82 (yes. Eighty Two!) sub menus. And it allows me to make up three menus of my own if I can't find what I need amongst those. My number 2 camera is actually even more complex. Faced with all that choice, I find myself, increasingly, choosing one of the camera's 11 different automatic modes and letting Mr. Nikon do the thinking for me. The camera does it very well. It usually makes the choices I would have made myself. Technically, the quality of the pictures hasn't dropped much if at all. But I find that I am not thinking about the shots in the way I used to. I raise the camera to my eye and press the shutter button, and I find myself making sloppy errors more and more: things are badly framed and horizons slope. Because I am no longer paying for film, I find myself banging off a dozen shots, (my camera can take 8 in a second) hoping that one of them will get it all right.

This is the malaise of our technological age.The technology allows me to take some nice pictures without much effort. But that's the trouble. They cost me no effort. And  I am not seeing, not engaging with my subject the way I used to; and seeing was pretty much the reason I picked up a camera in the first place.

So thanks, Expert Photography. Your ebook has already been very helpful, even though, I must confess, I probably won't buy it. You're dead right. Auto mode IS killing my photography.  I've set my two DSLR cameras to manual mode, and that's where they're going to stay


Jill Rapley said…
Expert Photography stuff is pretty good Kelvin - another site I follow is Darren Rouse's (Darren is an Aussie) - and also (addicting - free sessions while live, which is daily).

I was seriously looking at the D7100 - also the Sony, when someone gave me a Sony Fx3 so it was decided. I love it - especially since it accepts lenses from any other camera (with adapters).

Love your photography Kelvin.