My very first 35mm camera was a spiffy Kodak Pony IV that had its very own flip-down leather case. I was 11 years old, and while I thought the camera was cool it was truly mystifying to me. I couldn’t just point it at something and push the button– there were all these controls I had to set. The one that controlled the distance made perfect sense, but the shutter and aperture controls baffled my young brain. What the heck did they do?
The back of the camera had a slot where you inserted an exposure table for whatever kind of film you were using. I think I only had one table, but that seemed OK. I spent a lot of time deciding whether a shot was bright sun, hazy sun, or cloudy bright. I guessed a lot. I got surprisingly not-horrible pictures.
In my high school journalism classes I learned to use an SLR– a Pentax K1000. The Pentax was completely manual, although when it had batteries installed it had a light meter. A light meter! You could look through the viewfinder and twiddle the dials, and a little needle would go up or down to show you when you had the right exposure. I didn’t really understand what the dials were good for, but I sure knew how to put that needle in the middle of the indicator.
In my early 20s I scraped up enough money to buy a Nikon N2000. This was about the time that autofocus cameras started getting popular, but they were comparably expensive. Who needs autofocus anyway? I shot bejillions of rolls of film with this camera and the cheapest lenses I could find, and I bought books on photography so that I could understand what I was doing. I started to grok f-stops and shutter speeds and why they might matter.
In 1995, just before taking off to spend the summer in Europe, I impulse-bought my first digital camera. It was a Logitech Pixtura, which I didn’t know at the time was a rebranded Kodak DC40. I also set up a website to chronicle my travels, and the combination of the two was truly amazing. I could sit on the beach in Cannes and take pictures of my hotel, then dump them on the computer, touch them up, and send them out to the internet for my friends to view. (These days, such a site would be called a blog, though the concept didn’t exist at the time.) While the computer made life wonderful, switching to digital meant that I no longer controlled my exposures like I did with an SLR. Instead, I picked things like portrait or landscape by turning a dial to a picture of a head or a mountain, then let the camera do the work. I could always fix it up later if there was a problem– that’s what the computer was for.
I owned several digital cameras over the years, but a couple of years ago I bit the dust and bought my first dSLR– a Canon Digital Rebel XT. The Rebel did everything automagically, just like my earlier digital cameras. All I had to do was turn the dial to the mountain picture to take landscape photos, to the flower for macros, or to the portrait for people. What could be easier? For maximum laziness, I could just set the camera to fully automatic mode and let it figure everything out. Cameras are smart, and I let mine do all of the thinking for me.
When I looked at my photos they were OK, but very few seemed to be good. Was the camera junk? Was I a bad photographer? I spent a lot of money on this thing, and I wanted it to do better than it was. I thought about my old Nikon and the photos I took with it, and wondered how to get similar quality from the dSLR. Maybe film was just better than digital.
As I was drifting off to sleep one night, the answer came to me. The camera couldn’t read my mind, and it didn’t know much about what I was shooting. All it could do was look at the scene and guess what was going on, but it couldn’t know that I wanted to capture a bird in flight and it had no idea what to do with a sunset. I got out of bed, read the instruction manual from cover to cover, and took the camera out of automatic mode. With practice, my photos improved until I could occasionally get shots that I didn’t hate. I even got a few that I liked quite a lot.
My camera hasn’t been in auto mode since, and I’m much happier. My newest dSLR, a Canon 5D, doesn’t even have pictures of mountains or flowers on the dial. If I want it to be good, I have to work a little bit. I don’t mind.
Enough about me. Let’s talk about you for a minute. You bought a dSLR because you wanted to take good pictures, but you’re just using it as an overpriced point & shoot with interchangable lenses. You want to do better, but you don’t know an f-stop from a bus stop and you’re afraid you’ll get a ticket if you set your shutter speed too fast, if only you knew what too fast was.
Let’s fix that. I’ll do my best to explain the concepts in simple language, and I’ll use lots of illustrations to help make things clear. I’m not a professional and I’m not an expert– I’m basically a photography hacker who isn’t afraid to read and experiment and figure out how it all goes together. I take lots of crappy, badly-focused pictures just like you do. My birds are blurry and my highlights are blown out, and every time that happens I look at the picture and try to figure out what I could have done differently.
Together we can learn what the camera can do and why we might want to twiddle a knob a particular way. Our photos will get better, and maybe some day they’ll even get good. I only ask for one thing– promise me that you’ll take your camera out of automatic mode and keep it out.
Ready? Let’s go.