The “Big Lie” Regarding Digital Cameras

Front of Nikon-Coolpix-P7100

Non-professional photographers come in several shades of gray.

There are the ones who unabashedly belong to and support photography clubs. These folks are generally found huddled in the back of club meeting rooms comparing the lengths of their lenses. Once the meeting starts its off to “pixel-peeping” land. A guest judge starts pontificating on the use of color, composition and focus in the rendering of images that despite their best efforts are much like ones you have seen in just about every camera club competition since film reigned as the medium of choice.

There are also the ones who spend most of their time buying, selling and trading cameras. The bulk of what they accomplished between bouts of ownership of this or that camera often amount to little more than test image making. But what they lack in true experience they make up for in downright haughtiness when it comes to the offerings of others who deign to share their images on photographic forums. These are the now famous “Drive-By Shooters”.

I actually like the camera club scene. It at least means that the folks who own the expensive cameras are using them as more than paperweights. And for the most part the camera club participants have to “put up or shut-up” where images are concerned. You cannot simply talk about how great you are as a photographer come printing judging time. You can either produced images or not. There is no in-between.

The forum denizens however have the luxury of swapping lies about themselves all day long without ever having to produce a single image worthy of criticism. These “Drive-By Shooters” only feel it necessary to tell one another what kinds of cameras they own. The more expensive the camera the better the introduction and the more believable the lies. In fact for the most part devoid of an online gallery of some sort or even a website to which one can go to view their work, it becomes increasingly difficult to take these folks seriously.

But once you get past all the blather about which cameras they own, you encounter the other area where their arrogance prevails. And that is in of all things their fiercely held resistance to using AUTO controls on their digital cameras. It never ceases to amaze when that anyone using a digital camera would find AUTO controls anathema. But they do. Why?

Well it frankly is part of the “religion of photography”. Only the high priests are able to adjust their shutter speeds and aperture openings with any degree of success, right? So when you pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for one of these digital marvels the first thing you do it take it out of its factory settings and rely on one of four exposure modes:

P – Programmed Exposure mode
S – Shutter Priority mode
A – Aperture Priority mode
M – Manual Exposure mode

For the mere laity of photograph there is a fifth option called Smart Scene Selection mode which is suitable for their wives and other non-photographers who went present with a 5 pound camera and a 15 pound lens fail to see the beauty of lugging the damned thing all over town while on vacation. These high priests disdain the notion that one could walk down the street press the ON button on a camera and from Smart Scene Selection mode snap a picture of a balloon vendor or a sculpture or some other street scene without spending a good four minutes fiddling with their camera bags to find the right lens and then another couple of minutes pressing buttons to get the right aperture or shutter setting before consulting their live display histogram to confirm that the image they are about to make is kosher in terms of exposure.

Meanwhile the wife is frowning and the kids are going bananas while Dad spends precious time sorting out a picture which when inserted into their vacation slideshow is unappreciated when compared to their spouses point-and-shoot images of the kids with ice cream on their faces.

I liken this behavior in avoiding anything AUTO to salting your food before ever tasting it. It is reflexive and about as meaningful as buying a car with an automatic transmission and then insisting on driving it around town in manual mode! Silliness. But male egos are legendary.

So let’s back up and assume that they are correct. You need to avoid the AUTO modes when dealing with exposure. But frankly you cannot EVER do that so long as you are using anything other than the MANUAL exposure mode. The P-S-A modes as well as the Smart Scene Selection modes are ALL forms of AUTO exposure.

Programmed mode is merely the camera suggesting an optimal beginning shutter speed and aperture combination that you should consider. But the exposure calculation is done automatically by the camera. The same is true of Shutter- and Aperture-Priority modes. Once again the camera calculates the exposure but this time offers you the chance to set threshold values for either the shutter speed or the lens aperture.

Focusing on cameras today is always done by the device. You can choose areas in the viewfinder or on the rear LCD display where the camera’s focus decisions should begin but the old focus rings on zoom lens are all gone. In fact you are more than not unable to find many prime lenses. Zooms have become the standard and with good reason. In the decades of the 1950s these lenses were not as sharp as they are today. What has changed the game is the way in which lenses are manufactured. No longer are skilled workers grinding lenses by hand. It is all automated and then the glass surfaces are coated to increase the image quality (IQ) of even inexpensive lenses.

In fact the designs of the lenses themselves are now done on computers. Everything is automated, everything. So it seems comical to hear a chap touting the fact that one a camera which is essentially a marvel of automation he has steadfastly clung to his manual habits from years ago. Again, silliness.

The speed of the processors inside these cameras which are in essence small computers with lenses attached allows for images to be made in bursts. And much to my amazement the darned things are able to maintain focus and adjust exposure at rates of 5 frames-per-second and more! You now longer have to guess an exposure or drag out a handheld meter and try to find the point on your subject where a middle gray tonality would lie and then spot meter it to gauge your exposure.

Most photographers in the “old days” took an incident reading and used that. Spot meters were for the guys wielding view cameras and using the Ansel Adams’ Zone System. But all that stuff has become obsolete. Most of the hassles of slapping on a filter to change the gray scales of your black and white images can be done in the post processing phase. In fact you can shoot in color and render it later in black and white. You can shoot in near total darkness and bring up the shadows afterwards.

But the high priests of amateur photography cling to the notion that what separates them from users of point-and-shoot cameras (mostly they assume these to be women) and themselves is their manly ability to shoot in something other than AUTO mode. And that simply is not the case. Using MANUAL mode on even a high end DSLR is increasingly less likely with each passing year. P-A-S modes are far more likely and they are as I said before merely variations on the now widely available AUTO modes on these cameras.

I, frankly, welcome the new order of things. Putting the point-and-shoot camera to my face or the mirror-less camera or the DSLR should be for composing the image not adjusting settings. Even the flash units these days are using in AUTO mode. Only we call it i-TTL mode because that sounds a heck of a lot more priestly. But in the final analysis the camera is reading in real-time the amount of light returning to the sensor and shutting off the exposure in time to avoid highlight blocking while allowing control of the effects of the ambient lighting.

We need to expose (pun intended) the hypocrisy of this self-ordained priesthood. They are for the most part either frauds or merely self-deluded. Photography like automobile driving no longer requires “mechanics”. Cars which have automatic transmissions can be trusted to get you from point A to point B without fear. I wonder what these pompous asses will do when confronted with the soon to be available driverless automobiles?