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With each generation of new DSLR released comes a whole new level of technology designed to make our photography experience that much better. But does all this new technology actually help us become better photographers? Now, I am by no means a luddite. I appreciate and use much of the technology of my Nikon D300 and I am very much looking forward to upgrading my camera body later this year to a new D800 or the rumoured D600. But while I enjoy the convenience that new technology brings to the game, I am unconvinced that any of it will make me a better photographer. Allow me to explain….
There are a number of fundamental photographic constants that every photographer needs to know if he/she wants to become proficient at the art. Fundamentals like the relationship between ISO/Shutter speed/Aperture as they relate to proper exposure must become second nature. While all DSLR cameras now offer automatic exposure modes such as Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority, and many of them offer ISO compensation when shutter speed drops too low or apertures become too large, the real question to ask is “do I want my camera to do my thinking for me?”.
I learned to photograph with a manual SLR film camera in the late 1970′s. That’s right, MANUAL! I could not afford the fancy Nikon, Pentax or Olympia cameras available at the time that had Aperture Priority mode. I could only afford an inexpensive Fujicon camera that had only Manual exposure capability. At the time that I bought it the camera sales person helping me make my decision asked me what I thought was a strange question: ”Do you know how to drive a standard transmission automobile?”. As I had learned to drive using a stick, I answered yes and he told me that I would do fine using a Manual exposure only camera. He was right. Using manual exposure meant that I had to learn to first think about doing three things at once, just like learning to drive with a stick shift (clutch, accelerator,
break brake and driving safety). Once I became proficient at the relationship between the various pedals, driving a manual transmission car became a lot of fun (it still is today).
Using a camera in manual mode is, in fact, a lot less complicated than learning to drive a standard transmission, but it still requires an awkward learning experience where a bit of fumbling with the camera settings will take place and a few poor photos will be taken. Once learned, however, there is no feeling at all like the total control of your exposure that Manual gives you. You may never even go back to Aperture priority again (well, maybe not, but it is a possibility!)
Using Manual only exposure taught me about the relationship between Aperture, Shutter speed and the film speed (ISO today) I had loaded in the camera. If I wanted nice bokeh, I needed to balance shutter speed with the desired aperture. If I wanted to capture fast moving events I had to ensure I had a fast film and a high shutter speed. Now, all of this seems elementary to you, I am sure, but try to do it without the camera helping. I needed to set the shutter speed and then adjust the aperture until the light metre showed a balanced exposure. I had to learn to compensate for exposure extremes like photographing somebody surrounded by snow or in the darkness…all without any feedback from the camera view screen, histograms etc. available today.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the technology in today’s modern DSLRs is amazing and I would never go back to a Manual film camera again. I do feel, however, that the technology has in many cases removed people from the basics of photography. In fact, most people today rely so much on the camera doing their thinking for them that when a poor photo is taken, they blame the camera.
Let’s not forget that some of the most iconic photographs ever taken were made by photographers using the technological equivalent of stone knives and bearskins compared to what is available today.
If you want to become a better photographer, give yourself a week using your DSLR in manual mode only. Give yourself permission to adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings as required in order to get a proper exposure. Hell, go ahead and use the view finder and histogram to check your work as you learn: There is no point in not using the technology to help us learn. The only thing I ask you to remain faithful to for one week is to not move your dial from the Manual setting. Learn to use the light meter. Learn to compensate for exposure issues without the exposure compensation button.
By doing this you will learn not only about the fundamental relationship in the exposure triad (shutter speed/aperture/ISO), you will also learn how exposure compensation can work: Try exposing an image using the reading of the exposure meter. Then, try to under expose the image by one or two stops. Try to over expose the image by one or two stops. How many ways or combinations of ways can you get those different exposures? Experimenting like this will teach you more about photography fundamentals than any online course or blog article. You will probably have fun doing it too.
So there is the challenge: Take a week and experiment with the Manual setting on your camera. Post some of your best photographs on Facebook, twitter or Flickr and send us a link. Tell us your stories about your experience in the comments here. The worst thing that can happen is that you learn a bit about photography that you didn’t know before. The best thing that can happen is that you will become a better photographer.