Using a digital camera in manual mode requires a zen mentality

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Taking pictures is not something that typically makes my head spin. I have taken plenty of pictures with a manual film camera. It was a while ago, but I figured shooting photos was just like riding a bike: do it once and you never forget how.

For this Teaching Multimedia exercise then, shooting 10 different photos with 10 different types of exposures from shallow to wide depth, to panning, to exercising rule of thirds, I figured I had it made. Using a digital camera had to make that job easier, even if I was using one to shoot in manual mode, especially since, I would not have to worry about wasting film. Photography had been an expensive prospect back then.

Well, what I learned from this assignment, then, was that taking pictures, while it concerns the same concepts, is a much different operation on a digital camera because the equipment has so many options. With all that power in the camera, even shooting in manual mode requires a zen mentality, one that keeps circling back to single idea: keep it simple.

For my first shoot, that is the last thing I did. (I went on four shoots for the assignment.) For my subject that first time around, I chose an abandoned school on a well-traveled boulevard. I circled the school, changing settings indiscriminately, toying with the ISO, shutter speeds and f-stops. I figured I would upload the pictures to the computer when I got home and figure out how exposure worked at each settings. Genius, if I do say so myself.

But about half way through the shoot, I decided to check the LCD. No, genius here. I got what I deserved: a bunch of overexposed and underexposed images. That sent me back home to review the assigned videos and readings, and then our weekly online chat for more answers.

What I learned from the experience was to employ that zen mindset by slowing down, sticking to a single ISO (400), setting the f-stop intentionally, metering each picture intentionally (this poses problems of its own, since it is easy to override the settings I was aiming for with a twist of a dial), adjusting intentionally, shooting intentionally and reviewing each picture on the LCD screen before moving on.

Of course, I learned that I really did not have a good idea of exposure. Clarity came only after I sought out the photography teacher at my school and explained what I was doing to get to snap a silhouette. He stopped me and shifted into teaching mode. He told me to stand where I was–inside the room–while he stepped into the hallway. As he stepped into the hallway, he turned off the light in the room. He explained to me that I was shooting light. He pointed to his chest and told me, no light here. He pointed behind him. There’s your light source. Voila, he explained and showed me “silhouette.”

That is when I realized that a “the picture” is not what I see but “a picture” is a record, an exposure, of the light–or the lack of light. It took me a few more shoots to connect my understanding of f-stop and aperture to this concept of exposure. I must have understood this at one point in the past because I took some pretty nice photos in unusual lighting with a manual camera. Having fallen out of practice erased my understanding. Granted, that said I need a lot more practice. (And, yes, I know I can shoot in auto mode, but I like having more control over the material. Besides it is more fun, but only after practice makes these steps permanent.)

Apart from the exposure hurdle, I remembered how much I love looking at the world through a viewfinder. I don’t know if it is because the view manifests the order that is there or imposes it on the world. It really does not matter. For instance, the rule of thirds always provides a new way of seeing, offering an angle that highlights a component of a photo in a way that lets it speak for itself.

Then, there is editing a photo, such as the one of my grandnephew running through the yard. Editing can be just as exciting as taking a photo, as a minor tweak brings the image more alive. (Yes, even though in shooting it, I broke a cardinal rule, cutting off part of his image. How great is the expression on his face!)

The point here for a teacher, at least from my perspective, is to remember to have each student slow down, start with a step-by-step procedure, proceeding one step to the next, and then after a picture is snapped, to have the student review it in the LCD display to see if the exposure fulfills what it is the student is aiming for. (Still need some work on panning action.)

When the thinking and muscle memory fuse, then a student will be on her way. Before then, no matter how many instructional videos he watches, nothing is going to hit home. And there are quite a few videos out there to help, from our instructor’s, King’s Klass Blog, to those on (paid site) and YouTube (requires a search).

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