Pretty simple photo, right? The thing is, I thought my camera was set to Raw when in fact it was set to JPEG. Luckily for me I shoot as if the camera were set to JPEG anyway. I find that the less I trust my camera, the fewer mistakes like this I make and the better my photos are overall.
Long, long ago, back in the days before digital sensors, autofocus and autoexposure, cameras had a very simple set of controls. The camera itself had a film wind lever, a shutter speed dial and, if the camera had a built-in exposure meter, a dial for setting the film speed. Lenses had a focusing ring and an aperture ring. One-touch zooms combined the focusing ring with a zoom ring. Two-touch zooms had a separate zoom ring. Some lenses had built-in shutters, in which case the shutter speed dial would be on the lens rather than the camera.
That was as complicated as cameras got. The onus was on you, the photographer, to set the camera in such a way that the focus and exposure would be correct. If the exposure or focus were off you could reasonably assume it was your fault. After all, the camera didn’t set itself.
Most photographers at the time managed to cope with this primitive arrangement. A startling number could consistently produce high-quality photographs. As quiet as it’s kept, a small minority of today’s photographers still do.
The majority of us, however, use cameras that automate parameters you never would have dreamed of in the film era. You can now control white balance, focusing points, grid display in viewfinder, JPEG special effects, lens distortion correction, metering pattern… the list goes on and on. This dramatic expansion in features ostensibly gives us greater control over the camera and image than ever before.
Unfortunately, with this increase in control comes an increase in complexity. More control options mean more possible decisions to make. Instead of a half-dozen controls to concern yourself with you now have scores. There are now custom functions that control how the controls themselves function. As a result, instruction manuals, which used to be no longer than 25 pages, now have at least 250 pages or more. The instruction manuals are so complex and/or poorly written that there’s a now whole sub-category of photography books written to explain the manuals.
Some may argue that this complexity is not obligatory. You always have the option of setting today's cameras on full-automatic and letting them make all these complicated decisions for you. The catch is that photographers who do this pay an unnecessarily high premium for features they don’t understand, don’t need, and won’t use.
Despite all these advances in camera and lens technology, photography itself is the same as it ever was: You recognize a subject (or create one), then capture it with a camera in such a way that it will make an interesting photograph. It’s ultimately up to you to decide whether the camera you use is a help in this process or a hindrance. I suspect that many of the photographers who continue to use film cameras do so not because they are necessarily enamored with film but because they have so little interest in having to program a camera or in paying for superfluous features. They simply want to take pictures with as little unnecessary effort as possible. This is what today’s digital technology promises. Ironically, true simplicity can be harder to find than ever.