Enough with the Training Wheels Already:

By ralph

And a more relevant way of saying that would be, "Get on Manual".

The last time the OC Camera club had a studio night (model night) the commonest problem, as usual, was figuring out how to make all the amazing new gee whiz cameras work with a wholly separate flash system. Make no mistake - even if you've paid several hundred clams for one of those sit-on-top-of-the-camera units, flash on camera is still the poorest kind of lighting. You only achieve roundness and depth and occasionally dramatic effects with carefully arranged, generally multiple, lights that are pretty far from the camera itself. The lighting then has to be plugged into and tripped by the camera. That's where the problems start. Some of the fanciest cameras don't even have a PC outlet where you can plug the wire in. There should be a special place in hell reserved for manufacturers who make such equipment and to hasten them on their trip they ought to be shot, strangled, poisoned or boiled in oil. (Well I finally got THAT out of my system). Having saved themselves a dime by leaving the PC connection off, most of them offer you a converter for 10 or 20 bucks that plugs into the hot shoe and gives you a PC plug. Did you ever see a crocodile smile?

The next problem with hooking up to a studio flash (or any flash) system is to use the right shutter speed. The generally preferred speed is the highest one where the shutter is fully open for an instant - usually 1/125 or 1/250 and marked in red or with an X or something (but this can be as low as 1/60 on some old cameras). If you were to shoot at higher speeds you would only get a narrow strip of the image. On the other hand any lower speed would "synch" but you would get an increasing amount of background light as the speed went down, a nifty way of brightening a background fireplace or the candles on a birthday cake, but not such a good idea if you're in bright light where moving objects might register as smears ---the choice is yours. A lot of shutterbugs are unaware of this choice because the act of plugging their flash unit on the camera top (or turning on an internal one) sets that optimal speed for them. Most of us have to set it ourselves and that requires switching out of auto and into manual so that the speed can be set directly.

And that's another problem. I ran into such reactions as, "What's manual" or "I don't know how to switch to manual." To answer the first, manual simply lets you set shutter speeds and apertures directly. You still have the built in meter so after choosing one setting you can find the other one by a sort of "match needle" or zeroing approach. It may be a bit slower but imagine if you wanted to shoot deliberate over and under exposures (bracketing). In manual you can do it directly, often without taking your eye from the finder while in auto or program modes you have to override the "default" settings like the ISO, separately for each exposure. So if you don't know how to get into "manual" I suggest some serious reading of the book that came with the camera, (they're not all the same).

Now that we're in manual the next thing we have to do to hook up to a studio flash system is set the proper aperture. There's no auto setting on a camera that enables it to read or respond to a separate flash system so you have to read the light with a flash meter (or find someone who has). Keep in mind that all the auto systems in cameras drive essentially mechanical devices, the shutter and aperture, and are vastly too slow to react in a flash. Dedicated flash is the big exception of course but then you're back to on-camera-flash. I don't believe they've ever come up with dedicated (in camera) control for studio flash systems.

The next step up in automation from metered manual was shutter or aperture priority where you could pick which ever one seemed important to you (like 1/500 at a foo
all game) and let the meter pick the other as the light dictated --- a pretty neat arrangement that still made it easy to plug into the flash studio situation.

"Program" was the logical ultimate in exposure automation. With the camera free to pick the largest aperture and lowest speed at the dim end, or the highest speed and smallest aperture at the bright end it could automatically adapt to light variation of many thousands to one, but you weren't always aware of what settings were in use and unfortunately a lot of people seemed not to care. The downside of "program" was that in the middle of the range where you could normally enjoy some creative choice among the various expressions of the same exposure (reciprocals) like shooting for depth in a garden at f16 at 1/125 or for a day at the races, using f5.6 at 1/1000, the camera came up with something in between. Manual retains your control in this case.

Then to alleviate the non choice imposed by "program", the next idea was to bias the programs with such choices as "action" or "landscape", but some of the most "advanced" cameras have created such a hash of choices between various auto modes like "sports mode" "portrait mode" ,"close-up mode", "action mode", and "depth mode" and then throw in other choices like "aperture priority" or "shutter priority"-not to mention having to choose which autofocusing points to lock in or what meter pattern to use, well it's no wonder that many aspiring photographers never seem to find their way out of that maze and achieve a basic understanding of camera settings.

Some high end cameras like the Minolta 9Xi turn their nose up at the rather amateurish modes and eliminate them altogether just leaving the user with very flexible control of the reciprocals. For instance a quick spin of one knob gets you from that f16 at 1/125 to the f5.6 at 1/1000. (if that was the auto exposure). That sounds reasonable but unfortunately the 9Xi seems to meet every new situation around a default setting of 1/90 sec. That means you just can't whip out the camera in a hurry and shoot a picture without fiddling with the reciprocals wheel. Obviously there are lots of cases where 1/90 sec. simply can't cut it, in fact it's too slow for even the most sedate hand held work. Shutter priority would handle this situation better. Left at 1/250 sec. (best for hand held steadiness) it would be able to get a fully metered shot instantly, any time you wanted it to. Many other ponderously important high end cameras make some excruciatingly bad choices, generally from poor default settings. Some shoot even slower than the 9Xi, yet in one test of an earlier Canon EOS it seemed to prefer to shoot everything at 1/2000 sec, often with the lens wide open. Unlike settings in a computer these default settings are just not within the users control.

How did things ever get this crazy? How did the desire to simplify lead to excess complexity? I sometimes find my gaze drawn to several older cameras lying close by. There were only three things to set; the aperture, shutter speed and focus (by eyeball, the old fashioned way). What a concept of simplicity. Of course you had to understand about stops Vs. speeds --- but after spending 20 minutes learning that the rest was easy. Okay, adding the onboard meter doesn't seem to have a downside but when you get to the "modes" things start going downhill.

So knowing how to work in manual also gives you a sort of escape or exit strategy. Its like keeping the distance short to the front door when you're in the company of someone who's getting a bit loony.