Much has been written about the technical benefits of shooting in Manual mode, and while these articles do well to explain why shooting this way can improve the quality of your photographs they don’t always address an additional benefit, and one which may be far more impactful than just making prettier pictures. I’m talking about the ways shooting manually can improve your quality of life.
Turning dials and rotating rings means more than just capturing the right amount of light or creating brilliant bokeh. The benefit of shooting manual cameras reaches to a far deeper level. The more primitive your camera, the better your fundamental experience with photography will be. Occasionally ditching digital in favor of a sixty-year-old camera will not only improve your photography, but it’ll also amplify your happiness, enhance the way you experience life, and help you understand more of the world around you.
The snarkiest among us may scoff derisively, regarding these sentiments as hyperbolic and pretentious, but read on before passing judgement. From the newest, casual shooter to the weathered old photographer, the decision to occasionally shoot like it’s 1959 could be one of the best decisions a photo-geek ever makes.
Tips for Choosing Your Camera
The first step, if you don’t already own one, is to get yourself an old camera. How old? This depends on what you want. In my opinion, the older the better. The goal of shooting manually is to remove the crutch of technology and stimulate the brain. The best way to do this is through exercise. If your camera uses auto-focus, auto-exposure, and suggest settings for a shot, then it may not be the right machine for this exercise. Even cameras from the 1970s might be a little too advanced.
While the AE-1s, Nikkormats, and Minoltas of the ‘70s are amazing machines, they all feature light-meters to tell the photographer what settings will result in a correct exposure. That’s great for making decent images, but does it help today’s shooter trying to detach from the grasping hand of technology? Not really.
Consider for a moment the benefits of shooting without a light-meter. If you’re looking at a light-meter you’re not looking at the world around you, and you’re missing out on something more important than a properly exposed photo. For this reason we feel that those looking to get more out of their experience with photography would be served well to buy a camera with no light meter.
Luckily there are many such machines out there, most famously the Leica M3, M2, etc. You don’t need to rush out and buy a Leica, I only mention it to illustrate the fact that the absence of a light-meter and automatic controls in no way implies a camera is inferior. Some of the best photographic machines ever created operate in this way. If you’re not independently wealthy, don’t worry; find a Petri rangefinder, a Minolta Autocord, or any number of other vintage machines for under $100 and get to shooting manual without devastating your budget.
Tips for Shooting
Now that you’ve got a machine, there’s nothing left but to go out and shoot. It doesn’t matter where you go. It can be someplace new, or a familiar and well-loved location. City streets or mountainous woods, shooting landscapes or people; it’s all the same. The point is you’re no longer careening through space shooting everything in sight. You’re taking your time, concentrating on the world around you, and in some cases seeing these places for the first time even if you’ve been there a hundred before. It sounds like nonsense, but it’s not. Shooting this way is an eye-opening experience, both literally and figuratively.
Try to bring the minimal amount of gear. The philosophy of this way of shooting is to distill photography down to its essence. Bring only the gear you need to achieve this end; a camera, a single lens, film, and possibly a tripod.
So you’re in your location of choice and you’re ready to shoot. You’ve stashed your phone away to avoid distractions, and you’ve only brought the gear you need to take some beautiful shots. What next? It’s pretty simple.
Take a moment to observe your surroundings. Are you in front of a wooded path leading into a vast forest? Did you climb the steps of a subway station to emerge onto a bustling city street? Are you on a beach watching the careless waves lap lethargically at the shore? Wherever you find yourself, observe that place with keen intent.
Look for moments and places that you’d like to capture. Look for leading lines that would be striking and impactful in a captured image. Locate the sun, or the moon, or observe the clouds, and see how the existence of these constants affects your environment. Are there brilliant shadows slicing across the urban sprawl? Or perhaps the silverlight of the moon rippling across the evergreens? Whatever is happening in your environment, see it clearly, and try to imagine how everything would look when framed in the focal length of your camera.
As for getting a proper exposure, don’t stress too much. Often, the most interesting and halting photographs are the ones that are a stop or two over- or under-exposed. Think of all the amazing images you’ve seen with technically blown out highlights, or those photos that show so much motion blur that it’s almost impossible to discern what you’re looking at. This type of photography is the most exciting. When it’s not completely obvious what kind of image you’re going to make, interesting creations become an almost common occurance.
That said, don’t just go off flapping your mirror without a thought to exposure values. Once you’ve located a subject that you just have to capture, take a moment to really think about it. How much light are you seeing? What’s the primary light source? Is there a secondary source? What facet of this subject draws you to it? How can you accentuate that facet of its existence with your camera? If you can ask yourself some of these questions, and others like them, you’ll be well on your way to understanding exactly the kind of images you love to create, and how best to create them.
…don’t stress too much. Often, the most interesting and halting photographs are the ones that are a stop or two over- or under-exposed.
Case in Point
This past weekend I was in snowy Newport, Rhode Island for a brief stay-over. Spending the night in an historic hotel led me to crawl the hallways late at night. The sense of emptiness, age, and mystery were damn-near tangible as my feet sunk silently into the hallways’ plush carpeting. All around me, glistening objects of brass and crystal caught the light of countless chandeliers as they glimmered in the still darkness. It was a fairly magical setting, and I wanted to accurately capture this moody environment in which I found myself.
I’m not the greatest photographer, but when I shot the very first of a dozen crystal chandeliers in Aperture Priority mode, I immediately knew that things just did not look right. The room was rendered nearly invisible due to the darkness, as the camera decided to expose for the brightness of the chandelier’s rather dominant light signature. What I ended up with was a terrible image.
I knew that the camera would never figure out the vision that I had in my mind for the way these shots should look, so I switched to Manual mode and spent the next hour or so hunting down all the various chandeliers and candelabras the hotel had to offer. What could have simply become a few decent shots of a couple of somewhat pretty lights turned into one of my favorite experiences of the trip.
I prowled the hallways in near silence, capturing images that clearly represent the feeling within that sleepy hotel. Speeding up the shutter so as to capture the beautiful aspects of each hanging light, I was able to record their intricacies while still allowing the overall decor of the hotel to creep dimly into the edges of each frame. I was able to create images that show the glowing reach of each light, and the way their bulbs fought feebly against the encroaching darkness.
For every frame, I carefully considered the lighting of the room, the subject, the additional light sources, how much of the background I wanted to be in focus and lit. Then, after spending a good while considering all of this, I took the shot, and when the shutter released and sprung back to its rest position I smiled, knowing that for better or worse I had gotten the shot I envisioned in my mind.
But enough about me. The real lesson here is that even if the shots we take aren’t very spectacular, the act of taking them is certainly worth the effort. In that hotel I was firmly within the present; experiencing every creaking floorboard, every whispering curtain, and every distant figure who floated ghoulishly across the end of a long hallway. I connected with the camera in a way that’s impossible when shooting in aperture- or shutter-priority, and certainly impossible in program mode, where pointing and shooting is the modus operandi.
And this is the real gift of shooting primitive cameras and Manual mode. You slow down. You think. You contemplate. You smell the restaurant’s scent wafting through the alleyway. You feel the snow fall silent against your skin. You hear the song of a bird, as it replies to a distant friend. In short, you experience the essence of whatever environment you find yourself in, and you feel life all the more for it.
Why Shoot Film
It’s perfectly fine to shoot a digital camera. In fact, it’s perfectly fine if you’ve already closed this window and moved on to reading the latest DxOMark Scores. I don’t pretend to know what’s best for every photographer. I’m only making the point that shooting this way will be a personally rewarding experience for some photographers. If you can’t bring yourself to ditch technology completely, shooting a DSLR in Manual mode might provide much the same sense of Zen that I’m talking about here.
But shooting film will make it just that much more powerful, and I think this comes from the idea that, with film, every shot is precious. With film, every frame is a moment captured forever, and these moments don’t come cheap.
With digital photography, we immediately see the image we’ve made. While this is useful, it can also be a distraction that yanks us forcibly away from the environment. As soon as you look at an LCD screen you’re no longer looking at the world. You’re self-critiquing, correcting, getting frustrated, or feeling overly accomplished. You’re taking the same shot ten times. You’re getting tired. You’re squinting at a camera when you should be staring wide-eyed at your surroundings.
How many interesting people have streaked past you on the street while you’re watching a 3-inch television? How many glittering photons have escaped your lens while you’re holding an LCD to your nose? What are you missing by shooting digital?
Shoot film. Observe your surroundings. Trust your judgement. Take your shot. Move on. You’ll feel better about your photography and you’ll enjoy your day a hell of a lot more.
Afterwards, enjoy the thrill of anticipation as you wait for your film to develop. Experience the joy of using different types of film to achieve different results. Revel in the feeling of satisfaction when retrieving your prints from the developer shows you’ve made some truly fantastic shots.
I admit that some people will never understand the thrill of film, but for rendering photography to its essence it’s simply the most effective medium.
The act of slowing down to truly observe where we are in the world is crucial, and while this more thoughtful method of photography isn’t always perfect (nothing in photography is ever perfect), don’t stress over it. There will always be other shots to take, but there’s only ever one moment in which we’re living. Take the time to detach from the addictive speed of digital technology, and immerse yourself in the here and now. Interestingly we’ve found that getting to the heart of the here and now is often easiest with a camera from the distant past.
If this sounds like something that might appeal to you, make it happen. Make the choice to step back in time and explore your present. Buy a camera, buy some film, and go shoot. I know it may not be for everyone, but I think you’ll thank me if you try it.