What would HAL do if he could take a picture? He’d probably look me straight in the face and say, “I’m sorry Dave, but I can’t let you do that.” In all seriousness, your camera is a lot like HAL. It’s got all this technical gobbledygook and sophisticated light metering algorithms built into it, but it still can’t do what you do. Camera are tools for making pictures. They don’t work unless you bring the vision.
You need to think of it like this. Your camera was built to find an average. Why? Because camera manufacturers don’t know what you’re going to be photographing before they make the camera. They have to build the camera to “guess” what the best possible photograph will be, no matter what you’re pointing it at. Unlike HAL, cameras aren’t that smart. Sure, all that data from outside world goes through the lens and gets recorded, but there’s nothing there to interpret what’s going on in the scene. In short, your camera doesn’t know what’s important.
You might know that you want to emphasize the blue in your aunt’s sweater, but to your camera, all colors are the same. Your camera doesn’t want to emphasize anything. It just wants all of the colors to be balanced and even. It wants there to be just as many light colors as there are dark colors, a sort of average. Sometimes this works, but in a lot of situations, it leads to boring and bland photos. Your camera has eyes, but it has no vision.
So what is a photographer like you to do? The answer is quite simple. You need to abandon automatic photography completely. Now I know that’s not such an easy request, and I’m sure there are plenty of times when you’ll just want to take a quick snapshot and automatic mode works for that. However, if you want to create photos with true artistic merit, if you really want to improve your photography, you need to start learning manual mode.
In manual mode, you get to decide what you want to emphasize. If you’re shooting the sunset, you can tell your camera that you want those pinks to be a little more bold. You do that by decreasing the shutter speed more than your camera would typically allow. Your camera wants the sunset to have no silhouettes and shadows. It wants the photo to be average looking. But you want there to be areas of pitch black because that’s the sacrifice you have to make in order to get the vibrant purples.
Your camera doesn’t make sacrifices like this. It has no concept or understanding of how to make an artistic decision. Photography isn’t just about capturing what we see in the world. It’s about taking what we see and picking out what we like about it. I happen to love bright orange skies. I learned manual photography so I could make my sunset pictures more orange.
The lesson is simple. Don’t turn control of your photography over to HAL. Your camera manufacturer might try to dazzle you with all the fancy schmancy things like autofocus points and light sensors. They’re cool, but they can’t do anything near what you can do. Unless they invent a camera with a genuine brain attached to it, I’m not convinced there will ever be an automatic mode that will give me what I’m looking for in an image.
Just think about it. What happened to Dave when HAL took over? He got locked out of the spaceship. In many ways, that’s exactly what happens you use automatic modes. Your camera locks you out, and you get whatever it decides you want. That’s no way to learn photography, and it’s certainly no way to get better at it. Learn to live without HAL, and you’ll improve like never before!
Here is some additional reading to start learning more about the more advanced modes of your camera:
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