Back to the future with cameras

Back to the future is a play on words, meaning sometimes we need to go back and look at how we use to take pictures, before we can head into the future with the complicated cameras of today. I started in the early 70’s with a 35mm SLR camera called a Pentax Spotmatic II. It didn’t have all the wiz-bang features of todays cameras that have auto everything. In fact the old Pentax actually had auto nothing. It did have adjustable shutter speed, aperture and film speed. It also had a center-weighted light meter to help you set the proper exposure using the other adjustments and of course had manual focus. I used this wonderful camera for over 30 years until I bought my first digital camera in 2003, a Fuji S602Z, then a Pentax *ist DL in 2006. In 2009 I switched to a Nikon D80, which fulfilled my needs quite well, even though it is no longer being made. In August 2013, I purchased a Nikon D5100. This camera has a fully articulating LCD and live view, which is perfect for shooting wildflowers and landscapes. I have really fell in love with the quality pictures and handling of this camera. The D80 is now my backup camera.

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Big Twin Sister lake with Fuji S602Z

The thought of using a digital camera for 30 years is a pipe dream. I have had four digital cameras in a ten year period, all auto everything (enough said on that). The point I’m trying to make is sometimes we need to go back to where we started and review what we have learned in life. The Pentax Spotmatic forced me to learn about things like aperture and shutter speed and the different affects that it can have on a picture. Using lenses of different focal lengths taught me how perspectives can be changed using a telephoto versus a wide angle lens. We’ve all seen pictures of a gigantic Sun rising over the ocean.

The camera market is geared to try and get you to upgrade every year or two. To do this, they add new features and more megapixels to help reel you in. The cameras now even have video capability, which doesn’t make sense to me for still photography, but to each his own. They have so many features, that just about the time you start to feel comfortable with one, it’s time to upgrade again and start all over. What the future holds for photography, no one knows for sure, most likely 3D and maybe holographs, like in Star Wars. Having said that, they will never make a camera that can duplicate the work of Ansel Adams or the other great photographers. You see, it’s not the camera, but the knowledgeable eye looking through it. With my DSLR camera, I can always select “Auto”, hold down the shutter, let the buffer fill and hope I get a keeper. Unfortunately, I have not tried this yet, but it might work. But then again, maybe we need to use the manual camera settings again and slow down the picture taking process a little. In other words, as one photography instructor I had liked to say to us, “work it”, using good composition and the creativity of you and your camera.

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Horses on Mima Mounds with Nikon D5100

Because of all this, I use manual modes (mostly M and A) and set up each shot as I did with the old Pentax,¬†often using manual focus¬†with live view, which is the way to go for macro’s and landscape’s. Now photography is fun again, I have full control over my pictures like before and besides, it makes me feel important. I’m in control, not the camera. So let’s review four basic things that still apply today, despite auto everything. Let’s go back to the past, before we move forward to the future. Forget all the wiz-bang stuff, a camera still works the same basic way it always has. Memorize the first three items below and use your light meter to ensure the correct exposure. By changing these three settings, you can come up with many creative variations for the same exposure. There have been many thousands (perhaps millions) of pictures taken of Niagara Falls from the exact same spot, but they don’t all look alike. The reason why is the decisions made by the photographer with the adjustments below and the way he sees and handles the light in his composition.

  1. Aperture – Use to control depth of field and exposure. Common stops – f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, f/32.
  2. Shutter Speed – Use to control or enhance motion and exposure. Common stops – 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000.
  3. ISO – Use to set sensitivity to light, graininess and exposure. Common stops – 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400.
  4. Light Meter – Use to set exposure via aperture, shutter or ISO. Changing any two allows creativity with the same exposure. Changing only one affects both creativity and exposure.
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Sunrise on Naches Heights with Nikon D80

Master the four things above and you will improve your photography. The one unknown factor in all this is light. Photography literally means “drawing with light”, so always be aware of how the light will affect your picture. You may need to change your perspective, the time of day or sometimes use filters, reflectors, diffusers or try different exposure settings. Don’t give up until you get the look and mood in the picture you want.

With digital cameras, make a habit of using the correct white balance (unless you’re trying to be creative). Learn how to set a custom white balance and see if this improves the look. Avoid the blinkies (highlight warning) on your preview screen as much as possible. Along with this, learn to use your camera’s histogram function as a final check on proper exposure. Also, don’t be afraid to switch to manual focus and get precisely the right spot of your composition in focus. The Nikon D5100 is great for this in live view with the articulating LCD, as it lets you enlarge the focus area and view it at a comfortable angle when photographing close to the ground wildflowers.

One last tip. Whether shooting in JPEG or RAW format, try using one of the excellent software programs available to set up a digital darkroom on your computer. If it’s a good picture, its worth your time and effort to make it a better picture. If it’s not a good picture, maybe you can improve it in your digital darkroom. This is often called post processing and brings out the Ansel Adams in all of us – Bruce Perrault

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