From time to time people ask why in this modern age I bother with manual focus photography? People are also often amazed to learn that I actively avoid the heavy use of tools such as Photoshop for other image post-processing. I mean, heck, I’m a technology guy so I should use all the technology, right? Wrong.
For me, photography is both an intellectually as well as physically creative medium, and in my life where technology plays such a huge role I find it necessary to set some of the tools aside and challenge myself in different ways.
On the intellectual side, photography to me is all about composition and exposure. When I look at something and want to capture it, what will it look like in the frame and how will it appear as a still image. Although I use autofocus lenses from time to time, when I’m imagining an image that incorporates a fairly shallow depth-of-field, I find autofocus gets in the way. In other words, I need to convince the camera of my creative intent, thus adding another step in the process.
Turning to exposure, I now concentrate on what I can capture within the camera itself. Like in the days of film, one had to make a choice as to what to shoot by loading a specific film into the camera. I treat my little Lumix G1 the same way. Some images really are best in black and white. So, counter to what many, many photographers recommend (and I’ve been in many, many a heated debate about this) I switch my camera into dynamic black and white mode and capture the image. Why? Well, it all boils down to the intellectual side of photography. I see a monochrome image in my mind and I want to capture it as I “see” it at that moment. Taking a color image and transforming it in Photoshop later is not the same thing. I don’t “see” the image anymore — I am left to recreate the vision I had at the time I snapped the shutter. For this reason, I avoid Photoshop.
Some equate Photoshop to working in the darkroom and for them, that’s great. Go for it. However, I really was never a darkroom jockey and only learned how to develop black and white which was a set of skills I only used for about three years. Therefore, Photoshop does not mean the same to me as others.
On a technical skills level, I’ve been using Photoshop since version 1.02 (yes, way, way back) and I know I can get my images into any shape I want them, so what’s the challenge in that? Capturing the image the way I “see” it in the first place is a greater intellectual challenge, so that’s where I place my effort.
Photography is also a physical medium. What I mean by that is like a painter, the tools one use to create a piece connect the artist with the work at a much deeper level. One artist may choose a particular brand of brush, opt for a palette knife, or switch to a different type of paint to achieve a very different result of the same scene another artist is painting. The same is true for photography — physical choices will dramatically influence the creative outcome.
There’s been much debate around which system to use, which is best, etc. but to quote Jonathan Eastland where he his talking about arguably the most respected camera system on the planet, the Leica M-system, “the rangefinder camera is a fairly unsophisticated box for carrying film” and “it only remains for the user to point the lens and shoot, composing the final image in the mind’s eye as the camera is aimed” (Leica M Compendium: Handbook of the Leica M System, Hove Books 1994). The same is true for any camera, film or digital. In the end, the camera body is simple a fancy box that captures an image. It is in the process of capturing the image where individual expression occurs. It doesn’t matter what brand of system one uses, the type of camera, or approach; it is how one translates one’s own vision into the still medium that matters in the end.
For the longest time I fell into the tool trap — namely, got to get the best because that will create the best images. It wasn’t until I started building my own tilt-shift/bellows lenses when I realized that’s simply not true. I remembered Jonathan’s statement about a Leica rangefinder and started thinking more about how one captures an image. At that point, optics really entered into the picture. In the last couple of years I’ve had a blast exploring different types of lenses (from the common to the bizarre) to help capture what I “see” onto the imaging element of my digital camera. It is that physicality that challenges me creatively. Picking a lens, learning its strengths, exploiting its quirks, fussing with its mechanisms all play in to the creative process not unlike selecting the appropriate brush for a particular painter’s effect.
So, in short, settling on manual focus and avoiding Photoshop is a creative choice that best suits me any the way I approach photography.