A few weeks ago, a friend posted a meme on his Facebook feed for all his “shutterbug friends.” It said something about a woman hosting a dinner party and saying to a guest who was a photographer, “Your pictures are beautiful! You must have a great camera!” Later in the evening, when everyone was just finishing dinner, the photographer said to the hostess, “That dinner was delicious. You must have a great stove!”
This, of course, highlights the misconception that anyone can take great pictures as long as they have the right equipment. Sure, a well-designed quality tool can help a person do a job better, but it downplays to the point of insult the skill of the person wielding the tool.
Having said that, I do believe that the analogy only goes so far. After all, the only thing the stove can really do is get hot. The quality of the food that comes from this appliance is completely reliant on the skill of the cook.
Cameras aren’t quite as passive, however. To be professional and consistently good, the photographer has to have skill, to be sure. But these days, many people who might otherwise take mediocre pictures are helped along greatly by cameras that do much of the work for them. Digital cameras not only take care of things like exposure, film speed, and focus, they even erase a lot of other mistakes like sun flare or red eye without us even realizing it. Left to their own devices with just a tool that simply exposes light onto film and nothing else, could those people still take pictures as good as the ones from their do-it-all digitals? For them, is it truly a case of only having a really good camera?
No, this is not an indictment of digital cameras. First of all, there were plenty of film cameras that were fully-automated as well and that also helped out the person with the camera. Secondly, be it film or digital, the camera doesn’t do all of the work. A really good photographer has the skill and experience to know how to manipulate these automatic settings to do what he or she wants them to do and not just let the camera take the pictures on auto pilot. And that photographer also is the person who decides what would make a good picture.
Finally, the point of all this is not to develop a rant about automatic settings, but simply to explain the motivation behind my insistence on working with manual film cameras.
See, I am not a professional photographer. I don’t have the knowledge and confidence yet to know when I might want the camera to take care of one setting while I work on another. The closest I come to this is letting my digital camera auto focus most of the time (unless I am trying to do something that the auto focus doesn’t like.) I already know how to focus, so I let the camera do that while I keep my attention on how to figure out the other settings. Besides, the controls for manual focus are far too fussy for my tastes. If it were easier, I might still be focusing manually.
Beyond focusing the image, I am still learning, and to do as thorough a job of this as I’d like, I need to handle all the settings by myself so I know how the parts fit into the whole. I want there to be no doubt in my mind that it’s not just the camera but my skill with it that gets credit or blame for the image.
It’s similar to an owner of a restaurant starting as a busser and moving up the ranks, learning each job, each link in the chain before trying to run it from the top. This gives the owner a better understanding of the business and how each employee’s job contributes to the way the whole business runs.
My Pentax is totally manual except for a light meter. For years, I relied on that meter to expose the pictures properly. I just fiddled with the settings until the needle was in the right place and then I shot the photo. I was getting more lessons than I would have with an automated camera, but eventually I realized that even this was a crutch that I needed to get rid of if I ever wanted to get stronger.
And so off I go, walking the tightrope without a safety net. I hope I don’t break anything.
All the pictures above were taken with my Zorki 6 with Tri-X 40o. There was no light meter – just me and my Sunny 16 rules. Nor was there any post processing other than some minor cropping.