When I learned about photography for the first time, it was in my high school’s darkroom with a fully-manual Pentax K1000, which was at one time possibly the most prolific and popular SLR camera on the market. Why, you ask? Because it was built like a brick (which is mainly what makes them a popular decisions for school boards around the world), have a fast maximum shutter speed, and don’t have very much else. After all, there is nothing more detrimental to the learning process than distractions such as buttons, knobs, and menus. Most people today are learning photography on entry-level DSLRs, which, while more basic than a fancy high-end digital, are still needlessly convoluted and, worst of all, easy to use!
When you learn something new, what is it you want to know first? Most people would probably agree: the basics. Manual cameras are nothing but basics, and they will start your education from the very foundation, leaving you no choice but to meditate on composition and the exposure triangle of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. In this video, the infamous Kai W explains why he believes that the art of photography is best learned on a manual film camera:
To recap his 10-point argument, everyone should learn on a manual film camera because:
- It’s so old-fashioned, it makes you look cool. Enough said.
- Film is unforgiving – it demands hard work, as well as some trial and error, to get a good exposure.
- No automatic settings. You must become familiar with the principles of exposure, or suffer blank frames.
- Exposure – If your camera is of an age before light meters were invented, you may have to use the “Sunny 16” rule of thumb to gauge what settings you should be using (in full sun, your exposure will be f/16 at a shutter speed equivalent to your ISO – 1/100th sec at 100 ISO, 1/400th sec at 400 ISO, etc).
- Manual focus – you must consider which part of the picture should be in focus, rather than letting the camera hook on to some random spot.
- Nobody will steal it. Even previously high-end film cameras aren’t worth much anymore.
- The ISO isn’t auto. With digital, the effect of ISO has been largely forgotten by many, but because you have to use the same ISO throughout a roll, you have to come to understand its role in your exposure.
- Slow you down. Manual settings, as well as the consumption of valuable film, forces you to put more thought into each shot, which has obvious positive effects on the learning process.
- Cheap gear – everyone thinks film is dead, so you can pick up your equipment for a song, or sometimes for nothing at all.
- No need to upgrade – there are very few film cameras in production anymore (though there are some), leaving you to think about your photographs instead of your equipment. Not to mention that in the days of film, cameras were built to last a lifetime, rather than the short wait until the company’s next release.
More often than not, when a person buys a new DSLR, they use it on auto mode indefinitely. The pictures they produce are great, and they feel satisfied with that. This is a fine course to take for anyone who just wants to preserve memories, but if you’re really serious about learning how to make a great image, it won’t be long before you’re watching YouTube tutorials and bugging your local camera store clerk for advice on how to go further with your photography.
For those who are really serious about understanding these machines, the modern DSLR, with all its complex bells and whistles, can be convoluted and difficult to understand.
Successful images may make you feel good about yourself, but it’s through failure that we all learn best. The constraints imposed by manually-controlled film photography force the mind into a place of problem-solving the deep intellectual involvement, which ramps up our brain’s ability to absorb information.
By limiting our possible shots from the thousands down to a 24-exposure roll of film, we have no choice but to consider our every move, our every shot; to think critically about what we have done in the past and what we should do in the future, and to engage our minds in the acquisition of a valuable new skill.
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