Learn to be a better Photographer the Old Fashioned way…

With each generation of new DSLR released comes a whole new level of technology designed to make our photography experience that much better.  But does all this new technology actually help us become better photographers?  Now, I am by no means a luddite.  I appreciate and use much of the technology of my Nikon D300 and I am very much looking forward to upgrading my camera body later this year to a new D800 or the rumoured D600.  But while I enjoy the convenience that new technology brings to the game, I am unconvinced that any of it will make me a better photographer.  Allow me to explain….


Learn the Fundamentals

There are a number of fundamental photographic constants that every photographer needs to know if he/she wants to become proficient at the art.  Fundamentals like the relationship between ISO/Shutter speed/Aperture as they relate to proper exposure must become second nature.  While all DSLR cameras now offer automatic exposure modes such as Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority, and many of them offer ISO compensation when shutter speed drops too low or apertures become too large, the real question to ask is “do I want my camera to do my thinking for me?”.

Use the Manual Exposure setting

I learned to photograph with a manual SLR film camera in the late 1970’s.  That’s right, MANUAL!  I could not afford the fancy Nikon, Pentax or Olympia cameras available at the time that had Aperture Priority mode.  I could only afford an inexpensive Fujicon camera that had only Manual exposure capability.  At the time that I bought it the camera sales person helping me make my decision asked me what I thought was a strange question:  “Do you know how to drive a standard transmission automobile?”.  As I had learned to drive using a stick, I answered yes and he told me that I would do fine using a Manual exposure only camera.  He was right.  Using manual exposure meant that I had to learn to first think about doing three things at once, just like learning to drive with a stick shift (clutch, accelerator, break  brake and driving safety).  Once I became proficient at the relationship between the various pedals, driving a manual transmission car became a lot of fun (it still is today).

Using a camera in manual mode is, in fact, a lot less complicated than learning to drive a standard transmission, but it still requires an awkward learning experience where a bit of fumbling with the camera settings will take place and a few poor photos will be taken.  Once learned, however, there is no feeling at all like the total control of your exposure that Manual gives you.  You may never even go back to Aperture priority again (well, maybe not, but it is a possibility!)

Learning the Exposure Triad

Using Manual only exposure taught me about the relationship between Aperture, Shutter speed and the film speed (ISO today) I had loaded in the camera.  If I wanted nice bokeh, I needed to balance shutter speed with the desired aperture.  If I wanted to capture fast moving events I had to ensure I had a fast film and a high shutter speed.  Now, all of this seems elementary to you, I am sure, but try to do it without the camera helping.   I needed to set the shutter speed and then adjust the aperture until the light metre showed a balanced exposure.  I had to learn to compensate for exposure extremes like photographing somebody surrounded by snow or in the darkness…all without any feedback from the camera view screen, histograms etc. available today.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think the technology in today’s modern DSLRs is amazing and I would never go back to a Manual film camera again.  I do feel, however, that the technology has in many cases removed people from the basics of photography.   In fact, most people today rely so much on the camera doing their thinking for them that when a poor photo is taken, they blame the camera.

Let’s not forget that some of the most iconic photographs ever taken were made by photographers using the technological equivalent of stone knives and bearskins compared to what is available today.

A Learning Challenge

If you want to become a better photographer, give yourself a week using your DSLR in manual mode only.  Give yourself permission to adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings as required in order to get a proper exposure.  Hell, go ahead and use the  view finder and histogram to check your work as you learn:  There is no point in not using the technology to help us learn.  The only thing I ask you to remain faithful to for one week is to not move your dial from the Manual setting.  Learn to use the light meter.  Learn to compensate for exposure issues without the exposure compensation button.

By doing this you will learn not only about the fundamental relationship in the exposure triad (shutter speed/aperture/ISO), you will also learn how exposure compensation can work:  Try exposing an image using the reading of the exposure meter.  Then, try to under expose the image by one or two stops.  Try to over expose the image by one or two stops.  How many ways or combinations of ways can you get those different exposures?   Experimenting like this will teach you more about photography fundamentals than any online course or blog article.  You will probably have fun doing it too.

So there is the challenge:  Take a week and experiment with the Manual setting on your camera.  Post some of your best photographs on Facebook, twitter or Flickr and send us a link.  Tell us your stories about your experience in the comments here.  The worst thing that can happen is that you learn a bit about photography that you didn’t know before.  The best thing that can happen is that you will become a better photographer.


  1. Neil Pedersen August 22, 2012

    (clutch, accelerator, break and driving safety) – should be brake.

    Great article. I took out my old Yashica fully manual and find that I enjoy it even more now that I have the modern toys.

    It forces you to slow down and think, both for camera settings, and the cost of developing the film afterwards.

    • Doug August 23, 2012

      Thanks for your comments, Neil (and the spell-check!)

      The cost of film was always an issue for me in the old days (being a starving student), so I like the immediate feedback of digital. But I also appreciate what you are saying about taking your time and doing thoughtful photography rather than the spray and pray approach.

      I had forgotten that Yashica had a camera. It is cool that you still have it.

  2. Ken Barnes September 3, 2012

    Spot on article. I was fortunate enough to begin photography before the advent of cameras with all the bells and whistles. I still rely heavily on the manual settings, but am thankful for the new cameras. I still challenge myself in using the old Kodak sunny 16 rule to see if my eye is still accurate or not.

  3. Tammy October 29, 2012

    I am new to your newsletter and webpage/website. And, I have to say I am intrigued! I have been slowly learning about manual settings, how to achieve different shots etc. I unfortunately was not lucky enough to begin with a manual camera then onto an automatic. So, for me, the learning curve has been somewhat challenging. I am definitely going to do what you have suggested and put my dial on manual for one week, maybe more. I’m sure I will finally have a better understanding and hopefully acquire a bit more experience and confidence! Thanks

    • Doug October 29, 2012

      Congratulations on taking the plunge. Let us know how your experience works out.

      • Tammy October 29, 2012

        Thanks Doug! I appreciate your encouragement! I’ve already intentional put myself in multiple situations to test settings… and I’m catching on more so than a few hours ago.. This is great! I know I have a long way to go for it to become second nature, but I’m going to keep on keepin’ on! :o)

  4. Tammy December 3, 2012

    Well, it’s been more than a week, but… Just a catch up on things…..I’ve been practicing and practicing…. My Dad is such an inspiration and great teacher! He has taken so much of his time to ‘draw me the picture’ in order to comprehend aperture, shutter speed, ISO etc. He’s a professional photographer & has been since he was a teen, some 55 years plus ago. :o) I’ve always wanted to be a photographer, but have always been stuck in ‘Auto’ mode and concentrated more on posing, background snafu’s etc.. And now, I’m happy to say that I am finally getting it thanks to my Dad. Which of course made it much easier for me to take your suggestion and switch the camera to ‘Manual’! What a great suggestion! It has created many challenges in a fun way. In some situations I’ve been able to accomplish many more shots than ever before by experimenting and experiencing. I’m having a lot of fun with the new lenses I’ve purchased including the the Nikon 50mmG F-1.8 lens. I really love learning the art of light.
    Thank you for sharing your experience and advice! :o) Merry Christmas to you and yours!

    • Doug December 4, 2012

      Wow. Congratulations on your successful experiments. It is great to hear about your experience.

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