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Automatic for the people?

Imagine the shame – someone at the photo club noticed that my camera was set to Program mode. Even worse than being drummed out of the Brownies would be to be stripped of your spot-meter and have the covers torn off your copy of The Negative.

I know someone who has a very capable full-frame digital camera and always shoots in manual. Yes, I can see the point when the lighting is tricky or you are after a particular effect that would fool the meter (rather, the computer), but is there an acceptable level of assistance? Do real men twist their knobs?

What about aperture priority, where you take control of the depth of field but let the camera choose the shutter speed? Or shutter priority, where your choice of shutter speed is important? A lot of old manual cameras were probably used as virtual shutter priority: you would pick a shutter speed and leave it, as changing it meant taking the camera away from your eye and fiddling. So you would raise the camera, twist the aperture ring until the meter said go, and take the shot. That’s shutter priority using you as the actuator.

The reason that the camera-makers developed and sold automation was the delivery of the original Kodak promise: ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. Adding automation to a camera made it more likely that the results would be acceptable. And acceptable meant what what most people wanted – reasonably sharp and exposed. Most people wanted pictures, not cameras. Hence the rise of the point-and-shoot and the supremacy of the mobile phone.

So program mode was perfect for someone who wanted the potential for greater quality from a better camera without having to fiddle with the settings. Fiddling would mean less chance of getting an acceptable picture, negating the advantage of a better lens or bigger sensor. Automation also means speed and coping with changing conditions. I’ve been out in changeable weather with a manual camera, and it can be a pain to have to constantly check the light level. Really, this is what (many) digital cameras excel at: take a test shot, chimp it, apply a bit of exposure compensation if needed, then blaze away with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Prog mode
The work of the devil?

And then there is autofocus. We all use it, but pretend it’s not automation. Of course it replaces something that the whole of camera design was meant to make easy, but it’s just so durn useful. When you throw facial identification and follow-focus at sports or kids, it beats twisting your ring. And let’s be honest, if rapid manual focusing was so easy, the street-shooters wouldn’t all be using zone focusing.

What about image stabilisation? Yes, we know that Eisenstadt could hand-hold on the subway at 1/20th second. I’d love to see those contact sheets though – I don’t expect every frame was sharp. I LOVE having stabilisation on my digital camera, particularly as it works with any lens. I don’t even think of it as automation – it’s not replacing my finely-honed skills. Not really. Besides, nobody can see that I’m using it.

There is a more serious problem though, than the ridicule of my peers, and we have seen it already in artificial intelligence. Once an AI is trained and produces good results, we either forget or we don’t know how it works. And then it stops being accurate or it has an inbuilt bias, and we can’t tell or correct it: we just do what it says. The AI does magic and becomes a god, and we perform strange rituals to it (like peering at the back of the camera and chanting ‘ooh’). So perhaps there is some logic in knowing how to do it by hand? Even Lewis Dartnell’s book on rebooting civilisation from scratch had a section on recreating photography.

And anyway, what about light meters? Unless you guess the exposure, you are relying on at least some form of automation.

So where does this take us? There is no shame in automation. It is a tool that can increase your success rate. One should never be dependant on any particular tool existing, but there is no harm in using it well when it does exist. In a phrase used by an old friend “always use the most powerful tool for the job”. Automation can increase your options. But do learn how and why stuff works, it could save you from the cooking pot come the apocalypse.


Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

One thought on “Automatic for the people?”

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