My first camera was a manual-everything Pentax K-1000, purchased in 1982. Okay, I did buy it at Sears and that was the name on the outside, but I swear it was a real Pentax. That old girl lasted me for 15 years until she quite literally died at the Alamo (or at least outside the historic fort on a trip to San Antonio). Despite the lack of bells and whistles, some very good photos came out of that old camera.
My next camera (purchased at the Ritz Camera at Riverwalk Mall on that same trip, thereby doubling the cost of that trip) was a Minolta Maxxum. By this time, it was well into the automatic era, autofocus and program exposure and, quite frankly, my photography took a nose dive. Nothing seemed to turn out quite as good as it had with the old Pentax. I thought I’d lost my photo-mojo and, quite frankly, somewhat lost interest in photography.
The rise of digital began to rekindle my passion for those handheld image capture devices and, in 2007, I purchased by first digital SLR, a then-spanking new Canon Digital Rebel XTi. Three years later, I upgraded to a 7D. I also re-discovered another aspect of photography from my Sears/Pentax days: the joys of doing things manually.
Back when I first acquired the Minolta, I was suckered in buy the notion that the cameras automatic focus and metering was far smarter about these things than I ever would be. Boy, was that dumb. The gizmos inside those cameras aren’t really that smart and the more you can ignore them the better. To be fair, any halfway-decent autofocus is probably much more accurate than my aging eyes, but the exposure meter in even the most expensive camera is always going to be a poor substitute for experience and good eyes. Of course, the rise of digital means that bad photos don’t cost anything and no one but the photographer ever has to see them. The ability to read the LCD and check the histogram while you still have the subject in front of you makes shooting manually a lot less scary.
You might think, “Hey I just dropped two large on this new camera! You want me to turn stuff off?”
Not all the time. There are occasions when aperture priority or shutter priority are going to save your ass, but there are many other times when learning to trust your judgment over the cameras is the path to better, and more satisfying photography. That’s one thing I learned out in the Arizona desert, with my $1,500 Canon 7D, going pure manual and depending on the age-old “Sunny 16” rule for my exposure.
The more I put into the photograph, it seems, the more I get out of it.