Automation in photography: two sides of the fence

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Over the last few years, I can’t help but feel a lot of the thinking has been shuffled higher up the chain – be it when driving or making images. Cameraphones probably epitomise this, especially the iPhone: photography has been simplified so thoroughly that actual parameters are completely removed from the equation, leaving ‘focus here’ and ‘brighter’ or ‘darker’. Everything else is decided by a series of logical algorithms that are aimed at one thing and one thing only: a ‘nice’ picture, acceptable in the opinions of the largest number of people. There are tradeoffs made that accommodate the needs of the widest possible market – which for the most part, isn’t the creative experimenter. Results are acceptable, punchy, and well, homogeneously bland in a sea of literally hundreds of millions of the same devices with the same limited control. Yes, some of that control is now coming back and some of the UIs are starting to show the strain of accommodating feature creep, negating the literal point-and-click simplicity that drew so many people to cameraphones in the first place (along with convenience and social media).

Choice, has been removed. Is it bad? Well, I’m honestly not sure and arguments in both directions follow – but would love to hear your opinions in the comments.

Against
I start in the pessimist curmudgeon camp. What is composition if nothing but the expression of a photographer’s ultimate choice: do I include this element in my frame or not? Yes, it’s also the spatial arrangement of said elements in said frame, but nobody is forcing you to aim the camera in that direction. Nor is there anybody forcing you to freeze the moment (especially true of moving subjects) at any given time – when you do so is entirely the choice of the photographer, and can make quite a big difference. What about shutter speeds, motion blur, depth of field, perspective, focal plane and the other ‘technical’ parameters? Well, those are up to you too – and I don’t think anybody would argue that there are ideas and compositions that are decidedly more effective for instance with or without blur. This is true even if nothing else in the frame changes. However, the more automation we have in our hardware – the fewer choices we have to make, and consequently the less control we have over the image.

If everybody is working with hardware that’s optimised towards the same kind of output, then before you even make any compositional choices, you’re already inherently constrained to a much narrower set of choices than somebody with the ability to go all-manual. In the worst case, the focal length and perspective are fixed; the camera decides exposure and focus, and all you can do is choose aim and timing. Granted, this still leaves you with the two most important elements, but I’d argue that the nuance lost limits your tool to being a blunt hammer. For some this may not matter, but for those who have a clear vision of the final image – and especially where that vision diverges from what’s commonly accepted or expected or popular – frustration ensues.

The same goes for automated processing. I’ve long held that filters and looks and the like are merely a shortcut to visual homogeneity; especially where the processing dominates over the actual content of the image – and the people who tend to use such filters are the kind that don’t have a strong enough idea to begin with, compounding the mediocrity. Picking from a menu of defined options is merely the illusion of choice; if your images are unique, then why present them identically to other images that might be very different in intent?

But the thing that gets me most about automation is that the rules imposed and choices made during the programming of the device are often very different to what you want or expect as a creative person, or even as logical machine operator. There may be no apparent reason as to why a camera exposes the way it does, other than say a blanket “average histogram to level X” or “clip Y% of total image area at level X” – even though it’s visually illogical to have blacks and whites look identically grey. Here’s the problem: cameras aren’t smart enough to know if something is supposed to be black or white without a relative calibration point; your composition may well deliberately not include that. Art is the expression of your visual point of view, and good art is polarising because it tends to be polarising – i.e. different enough to everything else existing – to elicit an emotion. It’s very difficult to make different with the same, and that isn’t the point of creative photography.

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For
Hold on a minute, though. Yes, choice is good, but the photographic process is complex enough that there are whole load of purely technical choices (creative implications of said choices aside) that one has to make in a very short space of time, especially if there are moving elements involved. Shutter speed, aperture, sensitivity, focal plane, perspective, camera position/composition, timing – and that’s assuming that you’re using hardware that allows quick and intuitive access to these controls in the first place (most cameras do not; things like focal plane and sensitivity can be buried behind layers of buttons and dials and auto-ISO and pet smile face tracking and such). And modern cameras give you so much choice as to how they respond that it should be possible to set up the hardware to suit your requirements precisely. Surely something with 100+ setup options can’t be accused of not giving you choice!

The thing is, if you actually think about how much most of these settings matter to the final image – you’ll find that the answer is very little. Whether you’re using ISO 100 or ISO 120 doesn’t matter explicitly, but it might matter if it makes the difference between having hand shake or not, for a scene that might not be repeatable. But if you decide that 1/50s is the absolute minimum shutter speed before you will see hand shake, then setting your auto ISO threshold at that level makes sense – and it’s one less thing you need to try to set on the fly within that fraction of a second before the shot happens. Similarly, I think it’s difficult to argue that autofocus isn’t the way to go 99.99% of the time, especially if it’s fast and accurate – and behaves in a predictable manner when it comes to subject tracking. I don’t even think it’s physically possible to match the speed of a good AF system if you’re working manually. Yes, most AF systems will require some setup and some getting used to – but you could argue the same about manual focus rings, too.

It’s not difficult to go a bit further and put the camera into a mode that lets you have control over what matters, prioritising that choice and leaving the rest automatic – e.g. aperture priority putting depth of field first. Exposure meters can be erratic, but then let’s face it: how many of us can get the exposure right by eyeball the first time? Not many, and even then, it’s easy to forget to change the shutter speed or be thrown off by very reflective (or unreflective) objects. One less mistake to make when you’re in a hurry. And there’s always the choice of manual, too.

Until not that long ago, I’d been one of the strongest proponents of a raw-only workflow; with the latest generation of camera processors approaching the quality of a well-processed raw file, I’m not so sure anymore. Especially in situations where throughput and time take precedence over the last couple of percent of quality; I’d rather have the time to make more images or do something else. Note this isn’t the same as accepting a filter; it requires choices to be made about one’s own personal style and then codified through the camera’s adjustable parameters. And it doesn’t apply to all cameras since some inexplicably still can’t get color or tone mapping right (surely it can’t be that hard to calibrate to a Gretag-MacBeth chart), or just don’t offer sufficient control. I’ll post process the raw files from my RX0II all the time; the D3500 some of the time, and the Z7 rarely. The Z7 offers one critical control over the D3500 – adjustable D-Ligthing (highlight and shadow recovery) that the D3500 merely has as ON or OFF. The RX0II is one of the aforementioned color-challenged cameras in JPEG mode. In short: more efficiency, more time, more headspace to think about critical elements, more images, more experiments, more better images.

And in the end?
The thing is, I’ve had strong results from both approaches: 100% manual with a 1970s camera and DIY film development and scanning with individual frame by frame corrections; and nearly 100% automatic with early iPhones that didn’t even afford exposure compensation. I have a higher hit rate as the manual-ness increases, probably because you are forced to consider every single element of the process more carefully, and my personality is quite OCD which probably suits this. Yet I probably have higher overall absolute yield of portfolio-grade images with a semiautomated process (aperture priority, auto-ISO with set thresholds, AF but with single centre point) – which suggests I’m better suited to the latter way of working. Most of the time it isn’t as satisfying, somehow – even if total quantities and absolute quality is higher. Or maybe it’s just the feeling that new hardware gives you – the impression of a loss of control. Over to you in the comments…MT

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Comments

  1. Hello Ming
    Interesting theme. In a way, it crossed my mind already, albeit only as a fleeting thought, did not stay. Kind: All those images today – what are you doing here, it has been made already thousand times over? They (images) all look the same today, you even do not want to do it that way! Are there going to be photographers or robots in future? What is art? It cannot be all those mainstream images, but on the other hand some art works are so very “art”, that one asks himself… E.g. there is a book out there of a pole on a plain and birds, which occasionally sit on it. Art? Definitions of art are so broad, that I leaned to – I have heard David Bowie said it – “Talking about art is like dancing about architecture”.
    I do landscapes/nature but no animals and only time constraint for me is weather and seasons. So for me naturally, “auto” never was very important. I did not need the speed and did not always trust the algorithms. It started many years ago, B&W all manual. Than came autoexposure. That was precise enough for me and I embraced it. Afterwards came autofocus. That was not always good, often enough I felt it disturbed my “dof-thinkflow”.
    I am not a purist as a self-imposed promise. But sometimes all those features and functions are just of no use for me. But when they are I am all for them. But: do I know what it does? Example focus-stacking in Nikon bodies: I can use steps 1 to 10. What exactly is it? I guess they could document it in detail, but I most probably would not read such tome, let alone remember it with all those primes, zooms, apertures, formats, etc. So the feature is somehow auto, somehow exact, and forces me to make one or two or three variants to get the image I want.
    iPhone? It is very good. My wife uses it extensively for impromptu images and short movies. They are really very nice and suprised me: I noticed, she sees things I do not see and she has talent for the spontaneous moment, although she did not use a camera for most of her life. That was my territory and familiar “responsibility”. Lately she started to talk about not being content with iPhone macro – we shall see, if a real camera body hinders her or helps her. For me, iPhone -and I tried it – does not do it. I already am in trouble to hold it. I do not know exactly why, but those negatives are not yet “good enough” for me. Surely my printing is not as good as it should be and partly I am spoiled by FF and MF.

    Automation seems to me good for “normal” light, events, etc., where quick documentation, be it news or remambrances is asked for. I have heard once, auto-mode is perfect for 95% situations. Run and gun in a way, make more than one photo, change perspective a bit etc. to get over 95% and the document (or mainstream) is accomplished and ok.
    For other occasions, more control is possible and perhaps wished for. It might be, that I live in self-deception thinking that I am in control. I think it is important to know it (that there are always borders to control) and I think of it as a way to understand what is going on in the camera, PC and printer a bit better.
    Before I start to run in circles between technics and nihility even more 😉 my conclusion: It takes probably both – “auto” and “non-auto”.
    Take care

    • It’s a good question: why make images that have already been made before? The automation can make the entire imaging process require so little thought that the attitude transfers to composition, too. On the other hand, allowing the photographer to focus solely on composition and not have to think about the technical bits is not a bad thing… once again it ultimately comes down to the operator.

  2. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    “I’ve long held that filters and looks and the like are merely a shortcut to visual homogeneity.”

    Beautifully put. The drive towards automation has pretty much extinguished 99% of my passion for photography. The images I see out in the greater photographic community forums all are gravitating towards looking the same. It is profoundly boring. It’s all been done before. Your photography being an obvious exception.

    Just like I like my cars, my cameras are fully manual, without any automation at all. Time may have to march on towards full automation, but I’ve stepped off, forever. I’m old enough that I can almost certainly complete my driving life without ever owning an automated car (33 years of manual transmission driving here) and I have manual cameras that will well outlive me. I no longer buy cameras or lenses and haven’t for 6 years now. Great peace has been finally achieved.

    • We can’t entirely blame automation for the homogeneity – there’s also the whole self-reinforcement of social media that tends towards either completely ignoring anything different, or glorifying it to the point everybody then copies – either way, there is convergence…

      I’m quite happy with an automatic in the traffic we have here (or at least a clutchless manual) but definitely three pedals for fun!

      Longevity is something missing from pretty much any consumer product these days – ironically it feels as though the measures taken to try and stimulate upgrading and spending are what’s killing the industry because nobody wants disposability even if it means the latest and greatest minor increment…

  3. Ming
    I find it strange that the camera world is still so tied up with having a computer (with a sensor and lens attached) translate digital function to operate to film era based control systems that were efficient with a one particular film at a time non automated workflow. It was one specific film for every situation for many photographers.

    Most processing programs/apps have evolved from a commanding it ‘how to do ’ the processing, to a commanding it ‘what to achieve’ control system . Obviously that is an over simplified statement however I feel that we are still in an analogue photography with digital sensors mode when it comes to capture. It is interesting/ironic that (according to reviews) it is the Leica, Hasselblad or the phone cameras that are leading the digital capture control interface and haptics.
    Regards Noel

    • One through full manual simplification because it’s cheaper to develop. The other through full automation because it’s simpler to do than explain to the audience…

  4. Appreciation MING.
    I would like to comment from my oil painting artist side rather than my photography today. Initially I bought all the shades of paint I could lay my hands on and only much later did I get to the place of mixing everything with only a few from my inner being, using the brushes that work for me. Like the good and great artists teach and taught. And yet no two have ever worked the same. You cant copy them closer than maybe. And the colour permutations are inexhaustive, like the ways of seeing. I see that in my photography too. And in those I that admire.
    Johan.

    • Thank you! Eventually I think it’s easier to settle on fewer tools as an artist once one becomes familiar with the possibilities of each…which can only happen by trying them. The same is true be it for sculpture or photography or oil painting…or even photoshop retouching.

  5. tokyoinpics says:

    I’m for the democratization of any process. Everyone should be allowed to play. Then the how far can you go in your in your trade/craft or game is up to up, to an extent. Your success will be mostly decided by the viewer. If 1000s or more enjoy a certain person’s work, there is nothing wrong with that. Look at pop(ular) music. How many bands or singers have we endured over the years, but seen other people admire and love. The answer would be many, many, many. Some bad groups have become popular because enough people liked them. How many politicians, that we’d never vote for, have been successful? Many. What they did worked for them. If the public doesn’t like it they criticise (politely), ignore or just move on.

    So whether a person is full manual or not, filtered or not … how many of us are going to know or actually care? Well, I think Instagram can detect Photoshop now, so forget I said that lol. The important thing is to enjoy what you do and hopefully the viewer will enjoy it too. Our success is up to our viewers or clients anyway. They are the people paying anyway.

  6. David Burns says:

    As ever, an interesting article Ming.

    Like many people these days, I almost exclusively use auto ISO and Manual exposure control but am perfectly happy to over-ride anything as required. My camera equipment is superb and allows me to take images that once would have been impossible (for me at least). One of my grandchildren running along a beach and caught in mid air, arms outstretched and squealing with delight and freedom for instance.

    But there is something else that for me is very important. I am quite sure that it would be possible for someone (not me!) to have set up a camera on the beach on an automated track, with an automatic follow focus tracking algorithm, a series of infra-red triggers and a remote control for me to start the whole process going. My interaction with the image taking would have been to cue the grand-daughter to start running and to have pushed the remote control button. I am certain that the series of pictures resulting would have been superb, probably much better than the ones I took with my D850, 70-200f2.8 and manual setting. In a time gone by, if I had been shooting an advertising shot, I might even have paid someone to set up such a rig. Now, as an amateur, my pleasure in taking a shot in this fashion would be very little. The way I did take it was totally involving, personal, tactile and required considerable commitment and some skill. I like taking pictures like this, using equipment that requires some input and understanding and for which I have affection.

    I am aware that many people do not really understand this, as is made apparent when I frequently see people taking pictures with their phones and not even taking the trouble to look at the image on the back of the device before pressing the button. Their involvement in the taking process is virtually zero and for me would be without pleasure or interest. Looking carefully at the image that I am about to take, through a viewfinder (not on a screen held away from me at arm’s length and that is virtually invisible in sunlight) and setting the camera to my own parameters is pivotal, for me at least.

    I still use a 5X4 (4X5 for Americans!) film camera and get more pleasure using this than I do with any other sort of camera. It is time consuming, inefficient, incapable of taking a whole range of images, difficult to use, cumbersome, often a PIA and with a fairly high failure rate for various reasons. However, when everything goes well, the results can be breathtaking and it is very fulfilling to use. Probably as far away from a phone camera as it is possible to get- thank goodness!

    • Thanks. Some people enjoy the process; some enjoy the images; some enjoy the evolution of process > image > process > image etc that can only come with iteration and conscious evaluation between stages. I too have shot family with MF, LF, an iPhone and everything between; there are different times to use different tools and for different intended outcomes. There is no better or worse, but merely suitability to intended artistic outcome.

  7. Jos Martens says:

    THE question is : is your tool ( the camera ) and its controller ( the photographer ) able to record the image you have before you ( the input ) as a starting point for the image ( the output ) that you have in mind. All technological evolutions and possibilities in taking the image and bringing it towards the desired output contribute to give the photographer more and easier options towards this goal.
    Some people just want to record a moment without much artistic aims, iphone is a fantastic and easy tool then. Some people have more creative aims, they should learn to define them, and how to achieve them choosing the tools required to achieve their goal.
    Better, faster and easier tools are generally taking away a technical burden or limitation. They leave more time for creation as well as opening new possibilities for creation, impossible or unthought of with the older tools.

    • Exactly – and to those who just want to record, the control isn’t even required. But for a lot of more creative things we need to have the option…

      • Jos Martens says:

        But also the option to have it lazily easy commanding the “creator” camera as simply as an iphone enjoying also its computational photography strengths , tap where you want focus and lighting, maximum depth of field, in camera panorama, good looking colour, …
        though with a better wide angle or even more important a long focal, not necessarily for printing but for viewing on a reasonably large screen

        • You’ll get no argument from me there – I’ve long said the main strength of the iPhone is it’s ability to get out of the way for the most part, and be ‘good enough’ for most current applications (especially in its most recent iteration). It’s very tolerant of poor shot discipline and rewards care. I use mine a lot…

  8. Pierre Lagarde says:

    As a computer worker, I must say this has not been even a question for me. I provided some kind of automations all my professional life and they are just tools that cover needs to my sense. So, maybe the safe way is just to use what you need for the job, may it be rely on machines or take the control of most of the process, or a mix of both (can be a creative mix of both, by the way).
    Though, I understand the question may be more philosophical about the usefulness of mankind, and the relation to creative process.

    • Bit of both questions for me. If you understand what it’s doing and are okay with it – no problem. It’s when automation is relied on with blind trust and not full understanding of the possible envelope of outcomes that problems arise…

      • Pierre Lagarde says:

        Quite right. I understand what you mean. It’s indeed a question of trust, and it’s hard to do when you don’t even know what’s going on. Anyway, I don’t think there’s much to be worrying about concerning cameras.
        The worst I can imagine is problems with security while connecting through network by wifi.
        I’d be more nervous about smartphones, though. And that’s precisely because I know a bit how it works ;)…

        On the other hand, In a social aspect, the problem of people massively using technology without conscience is indeed a big concern.

        • Security is another thing entirely. In this case I’m more concerned with you missing a critical shot because the camera locks up or does something unexpected…

          • Pierre Lagarde says:

            Maybe I’m not as much concerned as you are because the main reason I can miss a shot is still me, most of the time, whatever is the camera I use :D.

            • It’s sometimes me, but most of the time not…

              • Pierre Lagarde says:

                I would have bet ;)… on the other hand, you have professional needs. I’m only a hobbyist, so automation only need not to get on my way to photographic pleasure. And of course, relation with technologies involved is more relaxed, in this case.

  9. There is no problem with using cruise control, (speed control), while driving a long distance down a major highway. You have told the car how fast you want to go, and it will maintain it automatically, which can make for a more comfortable and fuel-efficient journey. But, you, not the car, have decided how fast to go. A useful tool, simply taking over a mundane task, keeping the car at the speed you want.
    Like yourself, I also generally shoot aperture priority and auto ISO, set to my own parameters. In virtually all of my photos, shutter speed will make no difference, but the aperture will. Auto ISO will work together with auto shutter speed choice to make sure I don’t end up with camera shake. Useful tools, again taking over a mundane task.
    Auto focus is fine, if you are deciding what to focus on and not the camera. I have mine set to spot, then focus on what I want to be sharp, half-press the shutter to lock it, look at the image to double check DOF and composition, and shoot. The camera can focus more quickly and accurately than I can, but is told, by me, what to focus on. Another useful tool.
    Like many things in life, you often end up with a blend, a co-operation, in this case, letting automation go only so far and no further. I have never, in about fifteen years of digital photography, set any camera I have ever had to “P”. The automatic shutter speed and ISO and auto focus are tools, the “P” setting on a camera is a crutch.

    • I had a follow on thought on the automation: it’s good if it does what you expect and you’re confident it’ll always behave that way; when it does something else at a critical time is what we worry about. The only way to fully understand what it’s going to do at any given point is thorough testing…

      • Could not agree more. When buying a new piece of equipment, get out there and put it through its paces. There will almost always be something you have to adjust for.

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