I learned to drive in an old Volkswagen Golf with a manual transmission. Instead of racing around the city of Toronto like the racecar driver I imagined myself to be, I spent the afternoon in an empty parking lot trying to figure out how to smoothly change gears. As the late summer sun set in the west, I gingerly drove the car up a slight hill toward a not-too-busy street, confident that I could navigate —physically and intellectually — the mortal task of living with other vehicles on unforgiving roads. I turned into traffic without issue, but as I approached my first red light, everything I’d learned over the last four hours escaped me, and as I slowed I forgot to depress the clutch, causing the engine to stall just as I was ready to proceed. Every inch of road was filled with cars seemingly bigger and more intimidating than mine, and inside them were people ready to murder me for delaying their dinners. I panicked, pressed my leaden foot on the gas pedal and, when the car did nothing, felt like I was going to die.
Photography is beautiful because it forces you to humble before the tool itself even as your goal is to let the result speak for itself.
I made it out of there unscathed and, years later, remember that moment fondly. The tool I was using betrayed me, not because it was poorly made, but because I didn’t know how to use it. That’s how we learn; no one starts out a prodigy. The more difficult something is to master, and the longer it takes to get there, the more satisfying it is to reach. I no longer drive a manual car, and by extension, I don’t try to improve my driving. The activity is, to me, an occasionally pleasant and often frustrating necessity. But were I to begin driving manual again — who knows, maybe I’d begin to love it.
The memory of my failed first driving attempt came back to me earlier this month as I woke up at 4 am to take photos of animals in a small game park northeast of Johannesburg in South Africa. I’ve always enjoyed the technical aspects of photography, the relationship between sensor size, aperture, focal length, light sensitivity, metering, shutter speed, and physical proximity to an object. I’ve long derived tremendous pleasure from taking photos of my friends and family, balancing the needs of left and right brain to extract a beautiful photo that is also timeless. But as I built up the institutional knowledge to balance a subject as both emotionally and technically significant, it became quickly apparent that I would need to override the camera’s preset rules. I’d need to learn how to shoot in manual mode.
Of course, performing poorly holding a camera has few consequences, especially when compared to a novice driver navigating aggressive peers. Nevertheless, I take it seriously: I’ve now spent many years trying to understand the relationship between camera and shooter, and how many individual factors need to line up to produce a great photo.
In South Africa, I introduced a new challenge to the foundation I’d already built: manual focus. A few weeks earlier, I’d bought a new camera, an Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark II, based on the popular Micro 4/3 platform. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering, compact and substantial at the same time, with a variety of lenses that, as of writing, I’ve yet to explore. But I knew that I wanted to use this versatile camera to capture the elephants, lions, rhinos, giraffes, and whatever else I saw out there, so I needed to improvise. I inherited a 70-210mm telephoto lens from my father’s old Pentax SLR, which on a Micro 4/3 sensor would be doubled to 140-420mm, a focal length perfect for gleaning the details of a sedentary killer a quarter mile away. And while lens adapters are cheap and capable, they break autofocus, a feature I will never again take for granted. I would spend my bumpy morning and afternoon rides making minor focus adjustments to ensure that a rhino’s horn would be perfectly in focus, else the pictures would be unusable.
Thanks to a number of built-in camera features like focus peaking, manually centering on my unwitting subjects was relatively easy, but it still took me a few hours to get the hang of it. By the third ride out, I no longer had to think about my actions: my brain and hand were in perfect, balletic unison. I didn’t realize it until later, but there were enormous differences in quality — focus accuracy, yes, but also framing — between the first hundred and last hundred photos I took over my three days there. It was hard and frustrating and satisfying and exhilarating, and that’s exactly the point. It was manual.
I’m not sure I would do the same thing again, though: how important is the process in relation to the finished product? If a tailor-made autofocus lens produces better photos, would I love them less because I exerted less effort to achieve them? Would I actually enjoy driving more if I was more engaged in the mechanics of the vehicle itself? I’m not sure, but I can definitely say this: there’s nothing like an elephant deciding that it doesn’t like you and forcing your driver to reverse down a dirt road in the kind of all-enveloping darkness you can’t even imagine until you’re in the middle of South Africa with an elephant chasing you in the middle of the night.
Happy to be back after a few weeks away. Mobile World Congress, slow as it was this year, was a great way for the team to get together and catch up in person. We only get to do that a few times a year and I really enjoy it.
Next one is Google I/O, which is coming up in just about seven weeks. Given that Google just dropped Android P, renamed its smartwatch operating system, and is doubling down on Assistant, it’s a good time to be in the ecosystem.
Have a great week, and we’ll talk again soon.