I just arrived home from a week’s holiday exploring the windswept landscape of Wales and thought that now could be an apt moment to talk about one of the hobbies I spent time developing whilst I was there: photography. I’ve had an interest in taking photos for a long time, which snowballed over the years as I picked up different cameras: first a basic point-and-shoot followed by another, slightly better one, then polaroid and film cameras, and in the last couple of years a DSLR.
Throughout most of this time, I’ve barely strayed from the automatic settings, too scared to put my camera into some mode I don’t understand, or over-complicating things to the point where I don’t want to do it anymore. The closest I ever really got to manual photography was setting the aperture and focus on my film camera.
You see, for me, photography has never really been about the tech stuff, learning about how all the buttons work or what different settings could achieve. Until recently, I was purely interested in capturing the shapes, light and colours of the world that fascinated me; I loved the idea that the constantly moving world could become frozen, and remain a snapshot of how something looked through my eyes in that one moment of time.
Because of this, I could never become absorbed by online tutorials or photography guides, if I was going to learn something about manual photography, it was going to have to be through practical experience.
And so I took this week in Wales as a chance to kickstart a new era in my photographic work; I challenged myself to spend seven whole days using only manual settings.
I’m not going to lie, I had moments where I felt a little frustrated when my images didn’t come out how I wanted, but the burst of warmth in my stomach each time I snapped something with the right settings outweighed the negatives by a mile.
Here are thirteen things I’ve learnt about my relationship with manual photography during this past week:
It’s a lot easier than I thought: I think the idea of having to control absolutely everything was a lot more daunting than the actual process.
I consciously thought in steps rather than ‘oh, that’s nice’ *snap* *snap*. I found that taking a photo transformed from being just seeing something and capturing it, two steps if you like, into multiple steps – white balance, ISO, aperture, shutter speed, focus… It was almost like having to run up every stair of a broken escalator rather than just stepping on it at the bottom and stepping off it again at the top.
Therefore, taking one photo took a lot more time, and took quite a bit more effort.
However, the pictures often came out better than when I left it down to the auto settings.
I prefer underexposed to overexposed photos. I got a lot of both this week, but found I quite liked the feeling of some of the slightly underexposed shots.
It’s much more satisfying when I capture something exactly how I wanted to. Like, I did that without the camera doing it for me?!
Using completely different settings can create a variety of equally great but very different images.
I love shallow depth of field. This was something I already knew, but having all the tools under control this week meant I had more influence over the depth of field, and the amount of blurry background photos I opted to take really did reinforce this.
I enjoy capturing character: I like the unique expressions that both people and animals present to the world.
However, my confidence in shooting street photography has a long way to go. I start getting self-conscious and sometimes anxious if I’m standing in one (busy) place for too long, or if I’m trying to capture other people.
Every failed photo is a learning point: whether that’s a deeper understanding of shooting with or without sunlight, in the evenings or in the rain, every ‘bad’ photo taken on this holiday has taught me something.
Having greater knowledge of the settings and how they work equals greater control and confidence over the images I produce.
The biggest lesson I learnt this week though has to be knowing I can do it: I now understand that I have a long way to go to be where I want to be, but that I’m a hell of a lot closer than I was a week ago. I have instilled into myself the belief that I will master the manual settings at some point.
So yes, I probably will flip back around to auto for some occasions in the future, but my default position has definitely shifted to manual. This is a surprising revelation and dramatic change after just seven days of shooting manual – it’s not been all that hard, and it’s been very rewarding.
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