Over the last several weeks, I’ve been writing about taking more control over your camera in order to have more control over your photography and the final appearance of your images. Today, we’re going to do a 180-degree turn, and I’m going to tell you to throw all of that out the window from time to time.
It may sound as though I have something against shooting in automatic, or against compact cameras. I don’t. What I do disagree with is not using those controls when you have them, turning an SLR into an oversized Brownie, or having a point-and-shoot mentality toward photography. I also think that, from a control standpoint, having a degree of control over your settings, knowing what they do, and how/when best to use them can be essential building blocks in becoming a better photographer.
My first cameras – an Imperial Savoy and a Kodak V1253 that I still have (and have used for a handful of images that have appeared on this site) – weren’t the best out there by any stretch of the imagination. Neither granted much control, but at the time, I got them because they were what I could afford. Perhaps more importantly, I simply wanted to photograph things.
With all of that being said, the knobs, dials, and buttons are only one (small) part of an equation with lots of variables. Not least of these variables is composition. Let’s face it, the more variables you remove, the more you can concentrate on what’s left. If photography, stripped to its barest essentials, is all about light and geometry, and you’ve already surrendered most of your control over light, about all you’re left with (with the exception of exposure compensation, which nearly every camera allows you to manipulate) is the geometry, and paying attention to how the available light interacts with that. It encourages paying attention to texture, line, and form, and also gets you used to some of the quirks of exposure (sometimes frustratingly so).
Another variable is just taking photos in the first place. You should always have your camera. An SLR, because of its size, weight, and tendency to call attention to itself, isn’t always a camera you’re going to want to have with you. Many compacts will easily slip into a shirt or jacket pocket, out of sight ’til they’re needed. With the exception of pancake lenses and small primes, you won’t be able to “pocket” much of anything on or about an SLR, and trying to put it in your jacket will just make you look like you should be in the nether reaches of some cathedral or other, ringing the bells.
Another issue, as we discussed earlier in the week, is control – not just controlling the camera, but the control issues we can sometimes have as photographers. The average compact is a control freak’s nightmare; many don’t have manual controls, and they have other limitations as well when it comes to high ISO performance, camera shake at longer focal lengths, inadequate flash… the list goes on and on. I grew frustrated sometimes with those limitations; over time, however, you come to realize that limitations can be something you either obsess over, or use as a learning tool. I chose to do the latter, and to try to get the most out of what I had. Instead of worrying about ISO or flash (neither of which the Kodak does very well), I was free to concentrate more on composition. If you can’t zoom to 300mm (to say nothing of the ridiculously long 600-800mm equivalent range on some current superzoom models), you can either whine, or learn new ways of seeing things closer to you, also paying closer attention to how you frame the shot when you can’t rely on the zoom to do all of the work.
If you’re wondering what your first camera should be, or if you’ve already long since made the jump to a system camera of some sort (SLR, micro 4/3, or anything else with interchangeable lenses), don’t neglect an automatic compact. I’m not about to give up my SLR, but neither would I give up my compact. It’s a fantastic learning tool, and its simplicity allows you to forget for a while about the technical stuff, and get back to focusing on what makes a good photo.