Should all cameras have manual settings?

Tourist snaps like these are what I think of when I think digital compacts

My very first digital compact camera - back in the late 1990s - had an astonishingly powerful manual mode: You could change the ISO, the shutter speed, the aperture. These days, you're lucky if you get a compact where you get to change anything at all. On the ubiquitous Canon ELPH/IXUS cameras, you do get a 'manual' mode - but the things you are allowed control over are laughable. You can turn your flash on and off, adjust your exposure bias, and you can change your ISO. Ansel Adams is spinning in his grave as I'm typing this, I'm sure. Ladies and gentlemen: That is not manual control over your photography.


Lack of manual control - A Bad Thing

Now, you can take the most amazing photos with the simplest of cameras, including a camera as laughably simple as the Apple iPhone - Here's how, and I collected 100 examples of lovely photos, too. I firmly believe that the biggest bottle-neck to taking great photos is the photographer, not the camera. It's what I always tell my students. But, there is a whole world of photography you're missing out on with just a point-and-shoot.

For some photographers, this access to easy-picture-making-machines and the lack of manual control is a Very Bad Thing. It really bothers them. In fact, some experts even think that so much automation is actually damaging to photography as an art, a point eloquently argued by my fellow Pixiq writer Jose Antunes in his article Compact Cameras limit your creativity.

Antunes' article got me thinking. On one level, I completely see where he is coming from. The lack of manual settings on a digital camera could cause people to give up on photograpy too early: it installs a 'glass ceiling' in how far you can get with your digital photography. But on another level, I have to disagree. Let me explain.

Lack of manual control - A Good Thing?

The (sad) truth is that many people who buy compacts simply have no interest in photography as an art form: They want to take photos to stick on Facebook. To remember the festival they went to, perhaps. To have a record of their children growing up. For them, manual control isn't important. Being able to take a picture is. Honestly, I think that is fair enough.

A friend of mine recently bought his wife a compact camera. Now, my friend is an avid photographer, so he bought her a compact that he'd be happy to use. The problem is that every time he plays with its settings (i.e. leaves the ISO setting on 80 instead of 'auto', or has played with the exposure compensation), his wife is unable to take photos until he 'repairs' her camera. Some of you reading this will probably sneer in derision at my friend's wife - how can she be so stupid?

To you and me - photography nuts with a passion for the art of photography - it seems obscene that a camera should 'stop working' over something as trivial as an ISO setting that's set too high or too low. We might take a photo or two with the wrong settings (we've all been there), but then we'd figure out something was awry, and we'd set it right. However, not every person using a camera is a photography nerd like you and me.

The dark art of product design

Product design is a complicated dark art. The main problem is that, in the past, engineers were building cameras that they would like to use, ignoring the fact that photography is no longer an enclave reserved to us photo nerds. As I'm sitting here right now, I can't think of a single person I know who doesn't have a digital camera - but I guarantee that not a lot of them call themselves 'photographers' - and that is where the key difference comes in, I believe.

There is an amazing book written by Donald Norman, called the Design of Everyday Things. It was first published many years ago - well before digital cameras started surfacing - but Norman has a great idea at the core of his book: User-centred design. Norman has a lot of very good ideas, but the key point he keeps coming back to is that a product designer is designing something for his or her users. If the users are doing something wrong (or even: If the product is designed in such a way that the users are able to do something wrong), the product is not designed well enough.

I am an avid motorcyclist and a bit of a car nut, but my approach to both cars and motorcycles comes from two sides: My every-day car must start. Every time. It has to be able to keep running until it runs out of fuel. That's the level of maintenance I want, because honestly, that's what my everyday car is for: Bringing me where I need to go. Give me a Honda or a Toyota with bullet-proof reliability any day. At the same time, I have a passion for motoring. One of my favourite cars ever was an original Mini Cooper 1275cc - and it was so simple that I could take it apart and put it back together again myself - but nobody else was able to drive it because it had so many quirks.

If the automotive simile doesn't flow your boat, think about computers: About 10 years ago, you needed to know a lot about computers to be able to do anything. These days you can buy laptop computers that are so easy to use that even my grandmother can connect to the internet. But if you really want to get persnickety, there's always Linux...

I'm starting to think that a lot of us photographers are 'Mini drivers' or 'Linux users'. We love being able to 'get under the hood', and we are perfectly happy with the fact that our cars might not work properly unless you have set the carburettor just right. We're comfortable with the fact that, if you drive through a big enough puddle, that the engine will stall. "You shouldn't have driven through that big a puddle, then, shouldn't you?" Or - in photography speak - You shouldn't have set your camera to 'M' and started fiddling with the shutter speeds. Of course you can't take pictures indoors at 1/2000 second shutter speed and ISO 100. Du'h!

But every time I hear that argument, I can't help but feel a little bit sad. There is a huge number of people out there who don't give two hoots about ISO. They just want a car that starts the first time, every time. Not only do they don't know how it works: They don't care.

In a way, it's great that camera manufacturers are cranking out compact cameras that are 'dumb'. From a product point of view, there is something wrong with a product that gives people a load of buttons they don't want, need, or know what to do with.

Being spoiled for choice is a good thing

Aspiring creative photographers have never had it this good. You can buy the Canon Powershot S95, a sub-compact camera with full manual controls, RAW file formats, and a nice, bright lens. You can buy slightly larger cameras like the Canon G12 that have all that, with even better lenses and the ability to use external flashguns. Entry-level dSLR cameras are higher quality and lower priced than ever before. The hybrid cameras that fall between the G12 and the SLR models are on their way.

For all those people who want to take photos to stick on Facebook, to remember the festival they went to, and to have a record of their children growing up, there are basic entry-level compacts that just take pictures. And why shouldn't they have the best possible tools to take impressive photos at the press of a button? If for no other reason, it'll mean that I'll get fewer daft phonecalls from people like my friend's wife whose camera 'isn't working' because the settings have been altered so I can spend more time teaching people who really are interested in photography.

I know where all of our time is better spent.

A huge thanks to Daniela Bowker of Small Aperture fame for helping articulate some of the finer points in this article.

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