Why You Should Never Leave a Robot in Charge: Get your camera (and your brain) off the Auto setting

Every December the 'Round Robin annual news round-ups' plop predictably through my letterbox.

“We went to Cornwall. Archie finally had his bowel lining surgery. Betty attained Grade 26 on the tuba, I passed my health and safety assessment, the cat got  run over by a truck. Happy Christmas.”

So what is it about those innocent little notes that leaves me cold?

It’s because they are a list of unrelated, unemotional facts. They leave me little evidence of where this family are on their happiness barometer and what has *really* been making them tick over the last 365 days. I know this family is lovely and interesting and unique but I’m just not getting that from their newsletter. They might as well just type “WE’RE STILL ALIVE” in 200pt Helvetica.

Which brings me on to photography…

Snapshots are the visual equivalent of Round Robins.

Turn the camera onto Auto, find attractive view, place children in front, stand 10 feet back, request a smile, press button.

Do you know what that will tell us in 20 years’ time?

We went to the beach. It was sunny.

OK, so that’s an adequate method of factual record keeping. But we’re family storytellers, collectors of emotions and memories and real family life. So what do we REALLY want to remember about that day?

It was unusually warm, our ice creams melted in the heat. Charlie made the best sandcastle ever, with a seawater moat. He turned his first cartwheel. Lucy laughed until she cried when her brother put a crab on her daddy’s back. The sea sparkled. We all went home with salty hair and pink noses.

It is in stories and not hard facts that we find comfort, happiness and meaning, that’s why we don’t read the telephone directory to our children before we kiss them goodnight. I want my son and daughter to open a photo album in 20 year’s time which  makes them want to say “we had an amazing childhood” instead of “we went to Cornwall a lot”.

Getting your camera (and your brain) off the Auto setting.

The best way to tell beautiful, real stories about your family is to learn to take control of your camera: put behind you the days of relinquishing all creative decisions to the DSLR’s robot brain, standing 10 feet from the kids and pressing the button. That may be adequate if you want a visual round-robin of your lives, but I’m pretty sure you want more than that.

Digital SLR’s are wondrously clever beasts, capable of sophisticated decision making and fine-controlling. They pretty much have a setting for everything (what do you mean you haven’t found the whales-doing-sports-in-low-light mode yet?) but they all lack one very important thing: cameras do not feel emotion. They can’t tell that the vase of flowers next to your daughter isn’t the important thing to focus on. They don’t know that if your son’s face is thrown into silhouette as he sits in front of a bright window, that beautiful smile he had on his face will be lost forever. They don’t know, and they don’t care either.

Great photos convey emotion.  Ultimately, we like or dislike them because they make us FEEL something. The camera settings that are selected before we press the shutter button play a major role in helping to breathe feelings into the image.  So if Auto is your mode of choice, you are asking your emotion-free camera to make all your emotional decisions for you. 



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