One of the features of new cameras that I find very annoying is the settings priority mode that doesn’t allow the camera to take a picture if it hasn’t achieved the proper settings. When you press the shutter button, the camera may or may not take a picture. I understand why the manufacturer’s put the feature into their cameras. Their product is quality images for their customers, and a camera that will trip the shutter without having the right settings leads to lower quality pictures for beginners. I’m willing to risk getting many terrible pictures in the hope of getting one unique shot, though. It’s one of the first things I turn off when I reset the settings on my camera.
Photography is a dynamic art form that relies on sub second timing on the part of the photographer to capture the right instant in a sequence. I was taking a series at the local zoo once. I found a butterfly garden with a small bridge over a pool of water. In the pool was a large ceramic plate, split in two, that had coins scattered around and in it. I was happily experimenting with different settings and angles when I noticed a woman at the end of the bridge trying to catch a monarch butterfly. She was trying to gently cup it in her hands. Without changing any settings, I zoomed in on her hands and dropped the shutter. It was a wild chance of a shot from which I didn’t expect any results. The moment I saw the preview, though, I knew it was a good shot. The focus and settings were close enough to get a good picture, but the camera would not have tripped the shutter if settings priority had been turned on. There is some grain in the final image. The exposure was only saved by the ambient light from outside the butterfly net. My settings had wandered a bit as I dialed them in for the dark pool.
Even when I was using film in my cameras, I was learning not be afraid of a “wasted” frame. Film was the cheapest thing in photography, there was little penalty for taking a bad picture. Today, with digital cameras, the only penalty for taking a lousy shot is the second it takes to delete it off the memory card. Good photography relies on the operator being familiar with their camera and using that instrument to measure their world. It takes a long time to learn the intricacies and science of photography, but it can take just as long to learn how to let those rules go. After spending so much time poring over the manual and testing settings, it’s easy to become bound by that knowledge and miss opportunities. The satisfaction of tailoring your settings to a situation and getting a good result is one of the best feelings in photography. I used to play a game with my girlfriend at the time. She would point the camera at a car fender or a tree, and I would try to guess what settings the camera had chosen. I cheated sometimes by setting the camera to a spot meter… then it was just a matter of figuring out what she was pointing at. That’s the science of photography, knowing your instrument well enough to predict how it will react in most situations. I let the hubris of that familiarity keep me from winging it, though. That’s part of the art of photography, taking chances.
For a long time, I had a mental settings priority. Unless I could configure the camera before taking a shot, I wouldn’t take the picture. I went on a cruise once that stopped in St Martin. I took an excursion on a boat to tour the harbor and the island. I took some satisfying pictures which have left little impact on me except to remind me of a fun day. The image that remains is one that I didn’t take. As we were taking the launch back to the boat, I was in line on a narrow dock. The line was moving forward at a steady clip. As I was reaching the boarding ramp, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a dinghy submerged next to the planks, with just its transom above the water. On the transom, in stark letters was the name “Titanic”. In the distance, I could see large modern cruise ships moored in the bay. I let the stream of passengers push me onto the launch, and didn’t get the picture. I remember thinking the camera is set up for telephoto, I have the wrong settings, I have the wrong lens on, they won’t let me stand here long enough to switch everything for this shot. I should have just pushed the button.