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July 19, 2011


I'm with you on this. It isn't just about the really good gear. You do have to put some work into how you want your image to turn out. Adjusting your settings is part of the job. It's baffling to think that anyone would buy an advanced camera thinking they didn't have to learn how to use it. That's the whole point of graduating to a more complex camera and shooting in manual mode, right? To be be able to manipulate your exposure and white balance settings so that the camera doesn't just do it for you?

I have found all of the different camera "modes" to be useful at one point or another. I use more Auto ISO as time goes by, since the penalty for a wrong choice has decreased while the automation intelligence has improved.

In situations with high dynamic range, I control exposure. In closeup situations... aperture. Moving subjects... shutter speed.

A lot of upset people on the Internet are just pushing too hard. Playing with highlights close to clipping all the time, maybe because someone told them to ETTR for that extra smidge of quality, for example. There's something to be said for playing it safe with Auto - applying some exposure compensation and shooting in RAW just in case. But maybe they can't use RAW because it reduces their FPS and they're trying to use AF tracking and burst shooting to catch that moment :)

A reasonable burden of testing the camera should fall on the manufacturer ... but these days corners are cut frequently, and some of the real defects can be quite surprising. When one gets blindsided, it can be upsetting. Especially when you're unsure whether it's the camera or you. There's something to be said for having a spare camera around to cushion the fall, but just like in computers, nobody budgets for backup.

Gordon, you are completely missing the point. The complainers and excuse makers will never make competent photographers, but they buy cameras. And they upgrade regularly with every new model that comes out, thinking they will succeed if they have the best gear. And this expands the customer base for camera makers who then can produce cheaper gear for all of us. The least we can do is nod empathetically and pretend to feel their pain. If we confront them and expose their position they will take up golf or fishing, where they will have a better audience for their complaints and excuses.

What really annoys me are the people who only shoot JPEG on the basis that this a more `pure form` of photography. They make statements like " I never edit my photos , they're straight out of the camera.. just like film." I hate this almost elitist view.
I want to knock these people's heads together and shout " It`s NOT film ... it's DIGITAL!"
If you like what film gives you then buy a film camera, but if you shoot digital then embrace what digital provides.


Calm down, my friend. Any momentary satisfaction you get from knocking heads together won't be worth it in the long run. Besides, the topic of this post is automation, not JPEGs. I shudder to think what fate you'd have in store for those who claim that automation (or shooting manual-only) is the holy grail.

- Gordon

Whenever I see these discussions, I always think 'Stay with the basics.' It should be about 'what does it take to get the shot' and 'pick the right tool for the job.' I've shot from full manual to full auto, and it's just about choosing the right tools for the job. And about being well versed enough in the basics/your equipment to make intelligent choices.

Karl, anyone who thinks traditional film photography was "straight out of the camera" is completely ignorant. Developing plays a big role in how your images turn out, and in the printing process one can dodge and burn to bring out or de-emphasize things, and manipulate the image in various other ways. Even back in the 19th century people were compositing images together. One common practice with some landscape photographers was to replace the sky with one from another (often completely different) picture, because the old emulsions were sensitive mostly to the blue end of the spectrum and thus tended to wash out the sky if you correctly exposed for the land.

Gordon, I basically agree with you. The problem is twofold: clueless users (I won't call them "photographers") and camera makers who exaggerate the merits of their technology to boost sales. Ultimately, the technological problem is that the camera does not and cannot understand the user's intention. It can make reasonable guesses a fair amount of the time, but it will fail on some shots because it guesses wrong about what you want to focus on or what you want to expose for. There is no substitute for knowing what you are doing, but the camera makers don't want to say that to the general public; they'd rather encourage people to think that their cameras are magical and psychic and will do what you want every time. It sells cameras to people who don't know any better. Most people refuse to accept that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Oh, and I forgot to answer your question! How much control do I want? Well, nearly all the time, I shoot with manual focus, and often in manual exposure mode too. With some of my cameras, there is no other choice. I like it that way. If the picture comes out wrong, I want it to be my fault for mis-estimating the exposure, botching the focus, or using the wrong filter, rather than a decision made by a machine that has no way of knowing my intention and no real understanding of what it sees.

I love automation. It lets me focus on the more important elements (to me, at least) of photography, i.e. composition and the interplay of light and color, foreground and background. I think it's liberating that I don't have to worry about exposure knowing that my Nikon matrix meter will get the exposure right 90% of the time, and that I can override it for the more "difficult" situations. To me it's all about the photograph, and not how I got there.

You just gave me an idea. Take a competent automatic camera. Put it on full auto. Attach it to a servo-controlled tripod - pan, tilt, rotation and perhaps also elevation. Then connect it to a computer.

We have plenty good image analysis libraries today, able to extract a lot of low (and not so low) level features. It would be challenging but doable to search for features that fulfil the standard rules of composition, such as the rule of thirds, enclosure, vanishing lines, dynamic balance, humans, movement flow and so on, and have the program search for and select a good framing, then take the shot.

You could plant the camera anywhere, then have it upload the best images (as determined by the software) automatically to the image site of your choice. Would they be masterpieces? Nope. Would they be decently competent records of a particular scene? Probably.

If I didn't have a job at the moment I'd be tempted to build this...

Good post. You're preaching to the choir here Gordon. As good as the new automated programs are, I still prefer to spot meter and shoot in manual mode wherever possible.

I`ve calmed down Gordon.

Really missed the point of your post this time but in my defence I`m working nights this week and everything can be a bit fuzzy when I work nights (perhaps a good reason for full auto mode, LOL ).

I think there is a time and place for all the automated features most DSLRs offer today.

Would I buy a camera without all these `automated` features ... certainly not ... I`m a man after all and the fear of standing next to another man whose camera might do something my camera does not is just too great.
Another good reason for `Automation`.... `Excuses` for why something has failed, like I said I`m a man and one of the first survival instincts we learn is having a good `excuse` and if we can blame a dumb machine all the better.
How many of the automated features do I use? ... about 25%.
How many times do I adjust/fiddle about with these auto features? ... almost always ... I`m a man and I`m not having some dumb machine tell me whats right or wrong.

It isn't just cameras. I was a computer hardware tech for 25 years and you saw the same types there. It was never their fault but the computer's. It didn't matter that the computer was totally automated and automation is only as good as the input. The complainers were the ones who created the input. Garbage in, garbage out.

A fully automated camera can be as fun as a stern manual-control one, provided that you know what you are doing with either. Mastering a tool, no matter its degree of technical refinement, is all about awareness, knowledge and experience. This said, it's good to know that, thanks to technology, anyone can take a technically decent photograph nowadays. I'm not jealous.

I don't think I've ever blamed my camera for screwed up images. Every single botched shot has been my mistake, not a hardware problem.


Your attitude will help you grow a lot faster as a photographer. The only way to learn from mistakes is to "own" them. When you take the time to discover and understand what happened and why, you're in a much better position to prevent similar mishaps in the future. Those who simply blame botched shots on the camera often end up selling their old camera and buying a newer, "smarter" one--and you can guess how well that solves the problem.

Interesting question Gordon! But are you making the assumption that all people who take photography seriously want to be a photographer?

For some people it's only the picture that counts - in the sense that picture taking is not about photography, but about illustrating a subject - and it's this subject that is important to the photographer.

My spouse is a photographer like that. She needs pictures to illustrate her research and her publications. She doesn't care about aperture or backlight compensation or other technical aspects of photography any more than she cares about how her computer or phone works. Since these technicalities are unimportant to her she keeps forgetting them. What she does remember a real lot about is her research and all the technical know-how she needs to do that. That is interesting to her.

For a person like that there is a genuine need for a camera of high technical picture quality which can achieve that quality automated. In this case the photographer is very concerned about what's in the frame, but not how it's exposed correctly.

Sadly that camera is not around... We have gone through quite a few trying to find one though...

(The other option is of course hiring a photographer every time you need pictures taken, but not many research institutes will fund that)

I have always enjoyed learning to know every potential and limitation of my cameras/lenses and get the most out of them. I don't mind. But when my spouse was dissatisfied with her results I offered to teach her what she needed, but it's not what she wants to spend time doing.

She wants the picture - for her it's about something else.

>>are you making the assumption that all people who take photography seriously want to be a photographer?<<

Not at all. As I wrote in the original post, there's no law that says you have to be knowledgeable and involved in photography to buy a camera and use it. There's nothing wrong with wanting to take the shortest possible path to producing technically competent photographs. And for the most part, today's automated cameras do a lot better job than if the casual shooter had to set everything manually.

On the other hand, until some brilliant company comes up with a camera that can read your mind and guess your intention--assuming there is one--then the casual shooter will have to accept the current limits of automation. Automation lacks imagination, inspiration, passion, empathy, humor, and all the other messy emotions that make us human and help our photographs rise above the ordinary. That's the stuff money can't buy and I pray that's what my camera needs me for.

Great post and good discussion!

For myself, I enjoy having the choice of how much or how little automation I want. I often do multiple shot using a variety of tools to get a wider variety of effects on a given scene. It's part of challenging myself to do something different and not keep shoot with what I think works best in a given situation. Often the results get me thinking of new ways to do things that might produce better pictures in the end.

I love having a lot of choices and not being locked into one way of doing things. It just feel more creative to me.

For me, digital photography ended the "realism" I sought in the film world and now I'm very open to using a variety of camera tool and software tool to create pictures that grab me.

I tend to leave it on M and only use (old) manual focus lenses. I treat my DSLR like I did my Spotmatic. In fact, there's a lot of gizmos and menu settings on my camera that I'm not even aware of because I just don't need them.

Spot on, I'd say. Nice balanced sensible point of view. I'd only add to this that many people I know who have only ever known automatic cameras seem to think that the camera makes some complicated arcane decisions about settings for every single shot, irrespective of unchanging conditions. This has the effect of distancing them even more from the simple "override/manual as necessary" mindset that you are encouraging.

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