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Lean On Automation, Rely On Manual


Dallas
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Humans are always leaning on automation to make their lives easier. Car transmissions, garage doors, automatically tuned television shows, monthly bank payments. The list is endless. So it is not a surprise at all that cameras eventually also began adding automation in the electronic age. 

 

Automation in cameras started off with metering light through the lens (TTL) which then evolved into automation of various related exposure functions, such as deciding what shutter speed would be appropriate for a given aperture and vice versa. Thus were born the modes we still find on cameras today, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority, which take half the legwork out of the way things had to be done in the manual only days when it came to deciding on an exposure for your shot. 

 

Things evolved even further when manufacturers began adding automated flash exposure into the mix, resulting in some of the most sophisticated automatic flash exposure systems around today. Just this year Canon introduced a speedlight that automatically tilts its head to the correct angle to provide optimum bounce when photographing portraits in a room with an appropriate ceiling or other wall to bounce off. It literally takes the guesswork out of the equation, allowing the photographer to focus purely on composing and directing the subject matter. Speaking of focusing, as we know that too was automated in the 80’s and today’s cameras boast some incredible autofocusing technology, capable of achieving accurate focus in a fraction of a second and then also being able to track a subject if it moves anywhere in the frame. At one point Canon had also implemented an eye controlled auto focusing method that selected the focus point based on which AF point it saw your eye looking at. It came out in a couple of models, including the EOS 30 and I think the EOS 5 too. For some reason they didn’t pursue this technology beyond those models. I found it worked quite well for me. 

 

So these days learning photography as a process has become less about mastering manual concepts and more about understanding what each automation we have available does and how to apply it in any given situation. I will admit to leaning on technology to help me get better at what I am doing with the camera than ever before. It’s not a bad thing, provided you use it well and you don't skip the logic behind it. 

 

When I bought my first SLR camera in 2000 I had no idea what any of these automation functions were doing. I put the camera into the Program mode, composed my shot, pressed the shutter button halfway, waited for the auto focus confirmation beep and then took the shot. As I progressed I carried a little notebook with me and wrote down the settings I had used for each photo, keeping in mind the things I had learned about exposure from books I got out of the local library (the internet wasn’t as awash with photography information in Y2K as it is today). When I got my prints back I put this prehistoric EXIF information onto stickers which I put in my little sleeve albums along with the matching images. My wife said I was ruining the viewing experience with gobbledegook. I was just trying to figure out what different things were doing.

 

Gradually I moved on from Program to Aperture Priority mode, which I still use today for 90% of the images I take. I find it amusing though that younger photographers picking up their first cameras with manual controls today will put them into M mode and fiddle about with both aperture and shutter speed when taking a photo because somebody has taught them that this is the way professionals do it, without fully explaining that as along as they understand the effect of either aperture or shutter on a resulting image, they only truly need to set one of them and allow the camera to automatically adjust the corresponding value. Monkey see, monkey do I guess. The only time I use M mode today is when I am using flash, and the only reason I use manual flash is because I don’t trust the Olympus TTL metering. When I was shooting with Nikon I only used iTTL because it worked so well and always did a good job of balancing the ambient light with the flash. I suppose that when I could no longer lean on that automation having to learn manual flash opened up a whole new world for me. This has really been a game changer. I am a lot more confident of the results I get at events now using manual flash than I am with the automation I used before. Scored point for relying on manual knowledge. 

 

Auto-ISO is an area of automation that I never realised the power of until one of my guests on a safari back in 2012 pointed out to me that if you set your camera to manual mode, choose your aperture and a suitable shutter speed, the camera will float the ISO values according to what it thinks will give a correct exposure. This way you can decide on the reciprocal shutter speed for your focal length (say 1/250 for a 200mm lens) and choose the aperture that is best for that lens (maybe f/4 is sharper than f/2.8) and let the camera select the ISO based on those values. It was so logical that I switched to using it immediately and even today I have Auto-ISO on all the time together with A mode. The camera is smart enough to know to use the lowest possible ISO for the reciprocal shutter speed based on where the lens is zoomed to. 

 

What has been your favourite photography automation and where do you prefer to go manual? 
 



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For landscape images, most of what I shoot, I shoot in fully manual mode with spot metering or mostly manual in aperture priority with center weighting nearly all the time including manually focusing my lenses, usually with live view. I should be shooting a view camera.

 

I've been shooting Nikon cameras since the 1980s. I owned the FA, Nikon's camera that pioneered matrix metering, several other film-based cameras with matrix metering and now several DSLRs with MM. Try as I might, I have never warmed up to matrix metering. Nikon's algorithm is heavily biased to set exposure based on what is under the focus point. I frequently want to focus and recompose which causes MM to fall apart. If using flash, I do take advantage of Nikon's creative lighting system -- it is a big help with managing multiple flashes and getting the exposure pretty much where I want it the first time. If there is any action in the scene, then of course I will move to auto-focus with aperture priority. I have found that Nikon's newer cameras with 90k pixel RGB sensors (D750 and up) do a fabulous job of focus tracking. Earlier and lower-end cameras with 2k pixel RGB sensors are much less capable of focus tracking. Some of my habits come from the film days when I shot transparency film  nearly all the time. You simply had to set exposure based on the highlights or be faced with a slide with annoying texture and color-free highlights. While digital sensors today have far better latitude and range, I still do much of my metering for the highlights.

 

My initial Nikon camera, the FG, had Program mode. I did not use it then and believe I've never used it.

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Back in my youth we used exposure meters, in my case a "Gossen Lunasix", for many years, and then of course built in meters which over the years have become more and more sophisticated now we've reached the stage where the built in meters are very reliable and accurate and to my eyes Aperture Priority mode rules allied with auto ISO  a very good system indeed, now in my case bolstered by IBIS. So at the moment no need to use manual at all.

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Since moving most of my photography to Fuji, I have increasingly used manual exposure and ISO settings.

 

Perhaps it is the Fuji manual controls which have influenced this.  I prefer to think that I am thinking more carefully about exposure and dynamic range as I learn more.

 

One thing which has influenced me is the fact that Fuji sensors are almost ISO invariant - I can obtain the same shadow benefits in the computer as I can in the camera (except that once I go much above ISO 200 it makes sense to move to ISO 800).  

 

It was photographing church interiors which really brought this home to me.  I can underexpose (compared with the meter) the body of the church so as to avoid blowing out the stained glass windows, and recover the highlights on the computer.  To my eyes, the raised shadows are identical, whether this is done on the computer or by raising ISO on the camera.  The advantage of the former is that I can still protect the highlights.

 

So now I often set the aperture and shutter speed I want for dof and blur (or lack of blur), and use the computer to compensate for not raising the ISO.

 

A further advantage of setting the exposure manually is that I decide, not the camera, which highlights and shadows I wish to protect.

 

For sports photography I almost always use manual exposure, as the changing light as I follow the action can lead to the wrong exposure in an A mode.

 

Having said that, I still use aperture priority most of the time, as it usually gives the best results.

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35 minutes ago, Anthony said:

....

A further advantage of setting the exposure manually is that I decide, not the camera, which highlights and shadows I wish to protect.

 

For sports photography I almost always use manual exposure, as the changing light as I follow the action can lead to the wrong exposure in an A mode.

 

Having said that, I still use aperture priority most of the time, as it usually gives the best results.

I use a very similar reasoning as Anthony, 
Aperture priority for a lazy shooting, matrix metering

Manual for sports, the varying background can cause the auto modes to set a wrong exposure, usually spot metering protecting the highlights

Landscape, manual, spot metering  

 

Focus I rarely use manual with an AF lens

 

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59 minutes ago, Anthony said:

Since moving most of my photography to Fuji, I have increasingly used manual exposure and ISO settings.

 

Perhaps it is the Fuji manual controls which have influenced this.  I prefer to think that I am thinking more carefully about exposure and dynamic range as I learn more.

 

One thing which has influenced me is the fact that Fuji sensors are almost ISO invariant - I can obtain the same shadow benefits in the computer as I can in the camera (except that once I go much above ISO 200 it makes sense to move to ISO 800).  

 

It was photographing church interiors which really brought this home to me.  I can underexpose (compared with the meter) the body of the church so as to avoid blowing out the stained glass windows, and recover the highlights on the computer.  To my eyes, the raised shadows are identical, whether this is done on the computer or by raising ISO on the camera.  The advantage of the former is that I can still protect the highlights.

 

So now I often set the aperture and shutter speed I want for dof and blur (or lack of blur), and use the computer to compensate for not raising the ISO.

 

A further advantage of setting the exposure manually is that I decide, not the camera, which highlights and shadows I wish to protect.

 

For sports photography I almost always use manual exposure, as the changing light as I follow the action can lead to the wrong exposure in an A mode.

 

Having said that, I still use aperture priority most of the time, as it usually gives the best results.

 

Very interesting insight into your processing, Anthony. I might give this a shot in my system to see how different it looks between using ISO and lifting exposure in post. 

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I have for years used aperture priority on my Nikons but since buying a Leica rangefinder I have so enjoyed going back to manual, including manual focus of course, that I am now using my Nikon in similar fashion with the exception that I stick with auto focus. I don't enjoy manual focus on the Nikon.

I have found that going manual has slowed me down again, making me more thoughtful regarding exposures. It's as if I only have a roll of film at my disposal as opposed to a virtually unlimited frame count where I can use a machine gun approach, bracketing just about everything in the hope that one exposure is correct.

Yes I agree that modern cameras are capable of nailing the exposure most of the time but they are not infallable and that's where the manual approach, or the understanding derived from it, can pay dividends, particularly under difficult lighting conditions.

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