Auto is a Four Letter Word

On June 1, 2010, in Photo, by psu

A recent article in The Online Photographer got me thinking about the role of automation in those machines that take pictures for us. It got me thinking about this even though the piece was supposed to be about what lenses you should own and carry because sometimes Mike rambles. Anyway, here is what I thought: certain people hate automatic cameras because they can be harder to control. But we should ignore those people.

Until around thirty years ago, cameras were primarily mechanical devices. A few had electronic light meters in them, but the user was still expected to set everything by hand. First, you would do it peer into the viewfinder of the camera and turn one knob until your intended subject appeared to be sharp. Then you would stare at the light meter and set the aperture and shutter speed accordingly. Then you would take the picture, confident that it would be perfect because you had spent so much time in thoughtful deliberation over all of these critical settings.

This usage pattern means different things to different people. For the non-enthusiast who just wants a picture, it is complicated tedium. For the professional photographer or photographic artist for whom the image is most important, it is a small bit of technique that is easily mastered and then forgotten about. Finally, for the enthusiastic amateur, it is a secret to be mastered and then cherished, since the actual photograph that he is taking probably isn’t all that interesting.

Not surprisingly, the advent of the automatic camera had a distinct effect on each of these classes of users. For the non-enthusiast, the more that can be automated the better. Automatic exposure, and later, autofocus is a great boon to these people who can now take pictures of higher and higher technical quality while never needing to think about it. Perfect.

Professional photographers also tend to be happy about these features. After all, on the high end cameras the most sophisticated automatic systems are mostly built for them. However, automatic cameras introduce layers of complexity that must first be mastered before a good photographer can take full advantage of them. The late Galen Rowell wrote about this 20 years ago when he compared using an automatic camera to flying a plane on instruments. Rather than interacting with the scene and the settings on the camera directly, you have to observe the scene and then also observe what the automatic system has done for you before you have confidence that the settings are right. Furthermore, when the automatic systems break down, you have to reverse engineer their logic to work out how to make it right. Thus, there is constant fiddling with exposure compensation or autofocus tracking or which focus sensor to use in the viewfinder just to trick the computer into making the settings that you would have dialed in by hand on a simple camera.

So here is the rub: with a manual camera you feel more secure about focus and exposure because you are setting them directly on the machine. With an automatic camera, the interaction is more indirect. You program the camera so that it will automatically do the right thing. This is inevitably difficult at first, but like everything with computers, once the basic abstractions are mastered they can provide a remarkable amount of leverage. Modern autofocus systems are so good that users expect to be able to set them up to accurately track fast and complicated action while still getting every shot sharp. You might have to dig through a dozen different menu settings to get things tuned the way you like, but a modern camera can do it.

In the modern automated world then, it is the poor amateur enthusiast who is left out in the cold. The more indirect way of working with the camera is the least satisfying for this user, because that tactile and emotional connection with the machine was at least half the reason he was using the camera in the first place. These people will complain that they don’t like “giving up control” to the robot brain of the automatic system, or that modern cameras have been “dumbed down” to cater to the uneducated masses. Analogies to automatic transmissions in cars will be made. This is because inevitably the camera enthusiast is inevitably also a car enthusiast, and driving is another hobby where the size of your private parts is reflected by your ability to quickly perform a mostly meaningless feat of marginal manual dexterity (i.e. shift gears).

Luckily, we can ignore the whining and moaning from this particular audience. The truth is that while they are unquestionably more complicated, modern automatic cameras can be mastered and controlled just as effectively as their older manual counterparts. And, while it is true that the someone really needs to take Canon and Nikon out in the back and beat them with a user interface design stick, I’d still much rather be using a modern camera for fast work under marginal conditions. When push comes to shove, the modern camera can hold focus wide open with a 50/1.4 lens at ISO 3200 better than I can. And then it can dial the ISO back to 200 when I go back outside in the sunlight without me babysitting it. That’s just great.

Sometimes the tactile wonder of a mechanical camera still calls out to me once in a while, but it’s mostly false nostalgia. I think the reality is that modern cameras really are better and any reasonably competent photographer should be able to learn how to master one. Of course, if you can’t you can always buy a point and shoot, like a Leica M9.


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