Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Automatic For The People

This title was made popular when the rock band R.E.M
released of the same name back in 1992. The album
was labeled by some as the "commercialization" of R.E.M.s
music, gaining them a wider audience by taking a new
direction. The same can be said for the trend in camera
manufacturers to produce low cost automatic cameras
for today's digitally smart, media hungry youth that
just want to take a snapshot and put it on Facebook.

auto image

Manual Image

From camera phones to 35mm Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras, manufacturers have been churning out automatic cameras designed to satiate the need of the D generation's appetite for instant gratification. For these people a manual aperture or shutter speed setting is as foreign a concept as cooking a well prepared home made meal from scratch. It's just something they don't want to know. It seems for these folks that is easier to shoot on automatic or go to the local fast food restaurant and order a #1 off the menu, than it is to learn how something works. Don't get me wrong, I have used automatic on my camera, but just like choosing a #1 off the menu at a fast food restaurant I don't do it all the time because it's just not good for me. Likewise shooting on automatic isn't good for your photography all the time.

Automatic settings on cameras have been around since the early 1980's and were a pretty unreliable method of recording images even then. Today with the advances in digital camera technology, automatic settings have gotten better, but they can not replace the intelligence of the human brain. So why do people continue to ignore this. I believe it is mostly because they have been lulled into a state of almost unconsciousness by the manufacturers. Being told to just trust the camera, so like lightning, they take the path of least resistance and we all know how things turn out when lightning strikes. It's beautiful with a quick flash, then a little scary with some thunder, finally leaving behind the destruction and charred remains of it's visit.

Auto Image

manual Image

I tell students all the time that they are smarter than their camera, they just have to give themselves a chance. Most cameras have some sort of manual setting included on them. You can easily find out if yours has a manual setting by looking at the printed manual that came with the camera. If you can't find that, try looking at the mode setting on the camera for a big "M". This is where the professionals shoot, most of them anyway, most of the time.

There are 4 settings on most mid to upper end DSLR cameras. They are P, A, S & M. If you see these on your camera, you are likely shooting with a DSLR or a high end point and shoot camera and have the ability to take your photography to the next level. Simply put the P is for Program total automatic. The camera is in charge here. A is for Aperture priority. You actually set the aperture on your camera to a setting that you want to use, either for depth of field or for lighting conditions, the camera decides the shutter and sometimes the ISO setting to use with that aperture. S is the Shutter priority mode, it works like the Aperture mode, freezing the shutter speed in one setting to meet the photographers' needs with the Aperture and ISO being changed by the camera. The final is the M or Manual setting, requiring the photographer to set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO to meet the needs of their scene. The funny thing about these settings is that those that work in Manual most of the time, understand them all. Those that have only ever worked in automatic likely do not understand any of the other settings or why they would use them.

Auto image

Manual

Automatic photography works because the camera has a light meter inside that tells the camera how much light is entering at any given time. Understanding what the meter is telling you is the first step to understanding Manual photography. Most light meters have a scale that runs from a -2 indicating a dark scene to a +2 for a bright scene. The center point or a "normal" position on the meter is where the camera has determined that the scene is well balanced. This is where your camera shoots everything.... everything when in the program or automatic mode.

In the manual photography mode, this center point tells the photographer where to start their exposure. The photographer then decides if this is where they want to expose the image or if additional changes are necessary. When the photographer is making these evaluations they consider things like overall exposure, depth of focus or even the amount of light or contrast in the scene before actually pushing the button. These critical changes can make a huge difference in a final images' quality. In a nutshell, automatic settings are a one trick pony that can't achieve the kinds of results available in the manual mode.

So if you are concerned that all the pictures you are taking may not be optimized or if you have spent a small fortune on your camera equipment and want to get the most out of it what can you do? Take time to read your manual, take some online courses or courses at a college near you or join a local camera club. Better yet, do all of these. You will not only find that your photography will improve, but your knowledge of the medium will increase, opening up new avenues of creativity, which is the reason most people get involved in photography to begin with. Shooting exclusively in automatic is the equivalent of the "dumbing of the consumer" mentality. I believe stifling creativity and options. Don't take the "Automatic For The People" attitude when it comes to your photography, remember that normal is not always normal and that you are smarter than your camera. - Aloha

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