Following on from yesterday’s less is more article, I wanted to spend a bit more time about the implications of cutting your dependence on electronic nannies and going all manual – for both metering and focus. It’s actually nowhere near as intimidating as it sounds, and you’ll find that after getting over the initial hump, your photography will be both significantly more satisfying as well as compositionally stronger. You’ll get younger and lose weight, too*.
*Not guaranteed; results may vary from person to person. And you’ll have to walk a lot with heavy cameras to lose a significant amount of weight…
Given that automation has been improving significantly in recent years – and seems to be the one of the sole goals of the consumer end of the market – why am I eschewing it? Surely a camera that makes all of the technical decisions, leaving the photographer to focus solely on composition would be a good thing. Having shot at both ends of the scale and everything in-between, I find that compositionally, the stronger images tend to be the ones where I’m fully conscious and fully in control. I certainly have more fun when I’m driving stick; it’s the same thing for photography, and worth bearing in mind if you’re shooting solely for personal pleasure. If your income doesn’t depend on your ability to nail that tough shot in mid-air, or capture a particular starlet’s split second wardrobe malfunction, then you can probably relax a little. Letting go of inferior frames is not a bad thing at all.
Don’t get me wrong: on the tougher assignments I’ve shot – the Thaipusam festival – tracking autofocus and auto-ISO let me concentrate on timing my moments and being hyper-aware of facial expressions, or edge intrusions, or context. I shot with a D700 and the AFS 85/1.4 G. the problem was, I got artistically stronger images the following year shot with a Leica M9-P and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE – that set can be seen here on Flickr – despite having to not only focus manually, but also set exposure manually too – the M9’s meter is notorious for being distracted by any point light sources in the frame, resulting in wild underexposure. Given we were shooting at night inside a cave and that’s all the light there was, it meant I was pretty much on my own when it came to judging exposure, too.
So, what changed? I think most of it boils down to increasing conscious awareness of light; since you need to be constantly aware of how much light there is, you’ve also got to decide what exposure to set: do you meter for the highlights, the shadows, or somewhere in between? It forces you to think about how your tonal choices affect your compositional balance: if you expose for the highlights, there are going to be large dark areas that must be accounted for; conversely, if you expose for the shadows, what aren’t you going to be able to see because it’s now overexposed? On top of that, it’s necessary to think about the technical limitations of your equipment, too: jack the sensitivity too high, and dynamic range is going to be severely compromised. How does this affect your tonal scale, and in turn, the aesthetics of the final shot? The really important takeaway here is that there’s no such thing as a right exposure for any given situation: there’s a right exposure for your end intention, and it’s up to you – not the camera – what that should be**.
**I previously wrote a comprehensive article on understanding metering – though not really the focus of this article, it provides useful background reading if you haven’t already seen it before.
Think about these things enough, and you’ll eventually develop an instinctive feel for a given situation – not just in terms of what metering setting to use, but also what feel you want your final image to have. Having now shot seriously with film for several months, I can safely say that over time, you spend less time worrying about the exposure and more time thinking about your composition (having fewer shots available probably also has something to do with that). The upshot is that my hit rate with film – note: manual metering, manual focus, manual everything – the cameras I use are entirely mechanical – is much higher than with digital, simply because I’m forced to think more. I do try to bring that discipline back to digital, but somehow the temptation to keep iteratively hacking at a scene, refocusing, tweaking composition and adjusting exposure compensation is too great; we do it anyway, partially because we can, and partially because it’s just a very difficult habit to break.
I haven’t talked much about manual focus: why on earth would you consider using that at all? Simple: we’ve now gotten to the point that autofocus is so complicated that it’s actually quite a challenge to set it up in such a way that it delivers consistent and repeatable results, and even then, the camera can still be fooled. I’ve experienced this personally quite a lot, and to be honest, most of the time when I’m on a commercial assignment I’ll be focusing manually anyway – depth of field must be carefully managed to ensure your focal plane covers the critical elements of a scene, but you don’t kill image quality by stopping down too much to allow diffraction to take hold.
The only fly in the ointment is that modern cameras are simply not engineered for manual focus to begin with; the exception being the Leica M rangefinders. Our DSLRs have bright but small and not very snappy focusing screens; too many slow consumer zooms have necessitated this, along with the loss of the split prism or microprism focusing aids common to every manual-focus-only SLR. Why? Two reasons: firstly, to make a good focusing screen is very expensive; the best ones are made from precisely cut bundles of optical fibers, often have a fresnel grid cut over the top to enhance light collecting ability, and are both bright and snappy. The other reason is a technical one: the slow aperture zooms that have become so popular for the majority of the market do not work with split focusing aids – they will cause one half of the split to black out at apertures of f5.6 and below, rendering them useless most of the time. Compounding this is the lack of precise mirror adjustment: what you see as in focus is not what the sensor plane sees, simply because the distance between lens mount and sensor or lens mount and focusing screen is not the same. This costs money to properly align, too; it’s at odds with healthy margins on entry-level cameras. Even at the pro end of the market, alignment is dire: every single DSLR I’ve bought has had to be corrected for proper mirror alignment straight out of the box. Film SLRs? Rarely, and even then, only after decades of hard use.
What about mirrorless? Well, aids such as peaking, magnification, in-body-stabilization and true WYSIWYG viewing via EVF make manual focusing easy; in fact, much easier than with the current crop of DSLRs. Their limitation is that almost all of the lenses have fly-by-wire focusing rings with neither hard stops nor consistent lens displacement proportional to ring displacement; they tend to try and be too clever and move further when you turn the lens faster. Let’s just say it makes manual focus challenging, and pulling focus for video nearly downright impossible. If you’re willing to use an older legacy lens, it’s pretty easy to focus – but then you’re compromising end image quality by using optics that may have other compromises such as telecentricity or resolution.
I’m not saying the solution is film – though it’s great fun to shoot with the classics – all I’m saying is be in conscious control of the creative choices you might be otherwise outsourcing to the camera. Exposure affects composition, mood and aesthetics; focus affects subject isolation and identification. Both of these things are critically important to the making of great images; taking control not only forces you to make conscious creative decisions, but it also significantly increases your satisfaction level when you get it right: you know it was down to your own skill as a photographer, not the camera. MT
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