Going manual

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Three controls. Take control of the two that normally get delegated.

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…

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Less is more: what does a camera really need?

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I’ve long been threatening to post a photograph of a toilet as an example of a minimalist everyday object made interesting – its basic form has been decomposed down to the bare minimums; ornamentation isn’t necessary, nor does it sell more toilets: less is more. Appropriately, this was also shot with a minimalist camera: an iPhone.

Here’s an interesting question: how many of you have given some thought to the bare minimum of what a photographic device needs to be used as an effective camera? The problem today is we’ve become far to accustomed to camera makers stuffing in additional software features in order to sell devices; none of which are useful, most of which don’t even work properly. Think back to when you last used one of the headline ‘new features’ of your last purchase – pano stitching, for instance; or 10fps tracking; or the ‘supergreen national park-like foliage mode’. Probably only once – shortly after unboxing it – and then never again. I’m willing to bet you can’t even remember which combination of button presses is required to activate it. But judging from current product offerings and advertising, the concept of selling a camera with less features in it is one that simply makes no sense…or does it?

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Less is more

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Too many options can be a confusing thing. Leica M8, 21/1.4

This article started out as an exploration of the liberating experience when shooting with the compact point-and-shoot camera. It then morphed into a small dissertation upon the use of the Sony RX100 is a street and travel camera; in the end I landed up rewriting the whole thing because I think there is a larger topic at hand here which is probably of more use to the photographer at large.

In previous articles, I have dealt with subjects such as using just one lens for a trip and shooting with compact cameras professionally. The August competition was the compact challenge which required participants to shoot solely with a fixed-lens, small-sensor point-and-shoot camera. I have also talked about points of sufficiency, and knowing precisely how much resolution or how much told you need for the job at hand. What I want to cover in today’s article, is something a concept spanning all of these subjects, and perhaps a little bit more.

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Ninja coffee. Leica M8, 21/1.4

Let’s throw the entire photographic rulebook and all of its associated dogma out of the window for moment. What really matters when you’re making an image? (I recently dealt with this too in a two-part article here, and here on what makes an outstanding image.) What is it that you audience sees when they look at your photograph? It certainly isn’t the camera, in so far as in that it created the image and the lens and format used enforce both perspective and depth of field properties; going beyond that, the View of a photograph sees light first. In fact, that’s pre-much all they see because without light of some sort, it is impossible to make a any photograph. Thus, the sole function of the camera is reduced to a light capturing, measuring and visualization device. Beyond this, it is all fluff and gravy.

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Color coordinated car. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 2.8/21

Suppose for a minute that a photographer has no preference for any particular focal length, is able to see compositions everywhere they go, and utilize perspectives correctly. In short, they could use any camera and any lens/ field of view combination and still produce strong compositions. Let us continue to assume, that the same photographer also has the ability to recognize interesting light. He or she should also have some modicum of technical capability – perhaps the minimum required to understand the basics of exposure and mechanics of taking a photograph. Last, but not least, they should also be able to recognize interesting subjects. In short: we want a photographer who knows how to see, aim the camera, and press a button.

I don’t think this is a very difficult set of criteria to fill; I’m sure there are many, many people out there who would have no problems in meeting the brief. Now, notice how much the camera has been decoupled from this entire process; in fact, not just decoupled, but completely relegated to being almost unimportant. Photography is about writing like to create images. If the mind of the author is clear, and his command of the language strong, then the type pen and paper employed simply do not matter.

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Perfect spacing. Leica M8, 50/1.4 ASPH

In practical terms, what does this actually mean for photographers? Once a photographer has mastered the use of light, composition and perspective, identifying subjects, and I suppose the degree of postprocessing, it means that they are able to create magnificent images regardless of the equipment to hand. I remember personally going through this moment of liberation – a kind of ‘eureka!’ – after which I realized the camera really does not matter; any focal length or format is fair game. Light and composition take center stage, and all else is secondary.

Many of you have probably noticed a high level of consistency in the look and feel of the images I present on the site, regardless of whatever camera was used to capture them. I have actually been criticized for this in the past, with the prosecution claiming that I do not allow the natural qualities of the camera/ lens I am using or testing to shine through in the final image. I beg to differ; I believe that the ability to produce exactly what you envisioned in your mind at the time of pressing the shutter button means that your artistic vision is not compromised or tempered by the equipment. This is not to say that you may not choose to use a particular piece of equipment because of its artistic qualities; however, one needs to know exactly what these qualities are, and how their use affects the final pictorial impression of the final image.

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Questions or directives? Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

I think this liberation came about for me around the end of 2008, or perhaps early 2009. I was shooting with a Nikon D3 at the time in Japan; I carried lenses providing continuous coverage from 14 to 300 mm. Needless to say, this was an extremely heavy way to travel. By the end of the trip, I was leaving everything except my 24-70 zoom in the hotel room and just walking around with one camera and one lens. After a couple of hours, I realized that rather than seeing compositions which I was unable to execute because I wasn’t carrying the right lenses, I was now seeing only the ones I could; a little while after that, I was seeing potential shots everywhere I went.

The second phase came later in 2009. I spent a couple of weeks with the Leica M8.2 whilst writing a review for the magazine I served as editor of at the time; I was only given one lens – a 35/2 (45mm due to the M8’s crop factor). Being completely unfamiliar with the operation of a rangefinder; I stuck to that one lens just to try to familiarize myself with that way of working and seeing. Guess what: I liked it so much, and found the small size and unintimidating nature the camera so liberating, but I landed up selling my D3, and most of my Nikon lenses in order to fund the exact same combination for my personal use. I was never able to afford more than one or two lenses at any given time, given the price of Leica glass, and my humble occupation at the time.

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Looking for company. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 2.1/28

This austerity by necessity actually forced me to focus on improving the quality of my images through the strength of the compositions; more importantly, I learned the skill of previsualization of both composition and perspective even before bringing the camera to my eye. The were occasions, for instance social gatherings, where I felt the need for a smaller one nondescript camera. I landed up purchasing the smallest Canon point-and-shoot I could find. That IXUS SD780IS landed up following me everywhere, riding shotgun in a pocket – simply because it was so small and unobtrusive. However, I don’t think it was the camera or its size that did this; rather it was me applying the previsualization techniques learned with the Leica M8 to the smaller format. I was getting images I liked, and which were compositionally strong – regardless of the format or type of camera. For the first time in my work, the camera became transparent.

Now, rather than buying something because the spec sheet looked good, or because it came with bragging rights, I bought equipment because it allowed me to achieve the specific look or feel I desired. Coupled with my postprocessing experience, I now felt completely in control of my images; I could create and share exactly what I saw in my mind’s eye.

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Rushing for the train. Canon IXUS 100 IS

Let’s take a step back and deconstruct my experiences along the road to compositional liberation into something which any photographer might find useful and actionable:

1. You have to begin with a reasonable degree of understanding of the technical skills for both capture and post processing. However, remember that these are merely tools, not an end in themselves.

2. Force yourself to shoot for an extended period of time with what you would perceive to be a limited set of equipment. This may be one zoom, or one prime; the point is that it conditions your mind into recognizing what you can capture and ignoring all of the things that you can’t.

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The ladder. Canon IXUS 100 IS

3. The ultimate distillation of this is using prime lenses, shooting a good number of frames with each. By using nothing except a single perspective on extended basis, your mind is trained to pre-visualize the angle of view before you look through the viewfinder. You know when you have mastered a particular focal length or field of view when you start seeing compositions everywhere, and you can execute these with the proper perspective and relative prominence of foreground and background. It’s even better if you can do this with the lens stopped down; by eliminating shallow depth of field as a compositional crutch, you are forced to fully think about and utilize all of the space in your frame. You cannot simply fill it with a merely pleasant-looking but non-contextual wall of blur. This of course leads to developing full control of composition, even in the out of focus areas of your frame.

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Canterbury Cathedral. Canon IXUS 100 IS

If you are able to shoot with a compact camera or perhaps a camera phone, and achieve the exact composition you intended, you have come full circle. Image quality, is of course the subject of a completely different discussion. Although many photographers believe that they could manage with much less equipment, or much simpler equipment than they currently have, almost none of them put it into practice. Even I find it difficult to select which get bring on a trip; I am sometimes drawn into the trap of bringing something ‘just in case’ rather than picking a practical selection and concentrating on working with it. It requires a strong and conscious effort to avoid this. (Once again, if I am on assignment then I have the opposite philosophy; this is because you have to be prepared for contingencies, and failure to plan and deliver because of oversight is simply unprofessional.)

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A little urban abstract. Sony RX100

Unfortunately, the fastest – and perhaps only – way to truly experience this liberation, is to go through the process. (If any of you have managed by other means, I would love to hear from you in the comments.) But I think it is important to at least try it if you’re serious about taking a photography to the next level; in my article on the stages of evolution of a photographer, you’ll remember that the most difficult thing to achieve is the ability to visualize your image first, and then execute it as intended. Strength of the idea and how obvious it is to your audience is paramount. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Service. Sony RX100