Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Abandoning Automation

As I've hinted here frequently in the past, I love using my old Manual Lenses on my newish Digital SLR. It's plainly obvious that almost all Digital Cameras now offer the ultimate in automation - absolutely without precedent in the photographic world. Now away beyond autofocus, auto ISO and auto-exposure, todays' digicams, and even smart-phone cameras now have completely automated the creativity of photography, with features like face-detection, smile detection, pet-recognition, and even the ability to stamp the exact location info to your photo's via GPS, and automatically upload to Social Media via wireless networking. This has even already gone past being a revolution; there has been a totally new photographic aesthetic created with all this capability, and the results have forged forever an entirely new entertainment sector, based on photography and video making. I'm rather new to the whole thing but really beginning to enjoy it. I would now much rather look at people's spontaneous Instagrams and amateur Youtube videos than to watch sit-coms on TV any-time.

But when it comes to taking pictures, I'm still split 50-50 between the deep past, and just plain having fun with my Android phone camera. It's truly amazing really how there seems to remain a huge void in "real camera" design and the remarkable miniaturization accomplished with the smart-phone. I had mentioned before that serious camera enthusiasts still really have only one choice - the Digital SLR. Why would I say that, especially with the recent pitch toward Mirrorless Interchangable Lens Cameras (MILC's)? Because to perform creative photography accurately, you still need an Optical Viewfinder (OVF), and very few of the MILC's have one. Sure there have been great strides made with the rear LCD display (the only choice available for phone-cams, yes), but these are still difficult to see in bright sunlight, even the best of 'em. Many Mirrorless cameras include, either built-in or optional, an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), a miniaturized LCD display housed in a small view-finder-like window, which can be easily used in bright sunlight. My last experience with one of these was a few years ago, and the resolution was so poor, I found it next to useless - I know there have been vast improvements lately with EVF's so I really should give these another chance. But still, it's hard to substitute the focusing of your picture through the real glass of a Digital SLR.

Obvious question - why am I talking about "focusing" when the camera will do that for me? This brings me back around to the main reason I'm writing this - I only have one autofocus lens, which cost me over $600 (which is not that expensive as far as decent DSLR lenses go). It's wonderful, but is also very large, bulky and heavy, with it's 17 glass elements, autofocus motor, and image stabilization mechanism. Aside from this, I have 11 other lenses. They were all made in the 1970's for use on film SLRs, all totally manual, and on average, have cost me around $20 each. Most of them are superb, some were state of the art and very expensive in the '70's, and optically every bit as good as today's new mid-range lenses.

So, what I'm saying so far is that I like viewing the world through real glass, and old manual lenses provide a very inexpensive way to do it. But I'm losing all the automation that my new-ish digital camera gives me. What other advantages, if any, make up for that loss?

Let's consider "automation" for a minute. It is truly wonderful to have, but in a sense, there's still a lot of manual effort involved. Think of it this way - the camera's built-in computer is making all the adjustments for you, right down to detecting when everybody is smiling, and delaying the shot until then. Great stuff. But to use it most effectively, you still have to tell the computer your intentions, like do you want it to wait until there's a smile on everybody's face, or do you want your shot instantly? Or if there's a lot of back-lighting, do you want the subject to be correctly exposed against it, or do you want silhouettes with lot's of rim-lighting effects? Such decisions are still very possible using a totally manual approach, obviously, because photographers were doing it with great success for decades before digital cameras came along. Getting things set up for automation can be more puzzling, with all the camera menu choices that have to be made, than it is with the purely manual approach of twisting only three dials - shutter speed, aperture and focus, and clicking the shutter at the exact right moment and having your camera respond instantly. That's the beauty of abandoning automation for the manual approach - it's actually much simpler when your whole mind and emotions are connected with what your eye is seeing, and in control of taking a picture, as long as you're familiar with a few basic optical principles.

Let me summarize by listing all of the advantages of using old manual lenses on a DSLR - viewing through real glass all the way, much cheaper for equal quality, greater simplicity in using your camera, greater involvement of your inner self in the process, the lenses are almost always much smaller and lighter than their newer automated equals, and there's an added benefit of much nicer industrial design with the old style lenses.

Finally, as I've hopefully shown by way of previous postings, I can still participate in the "new aesthetic" by post-processing my photos, and uploading them afterward, which adds another advantage - I'm spending lots of time with my own pictures.

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