Switch2Manual - An Interview

I stumbled across an interesting site this week called SwitchToManual. If you've visited more than one of my posts you know how I rant and rave about manual exposure decisions and intelligent metering ummm a bit too often. Well these guys are definitely on the same page but a little less of raving lunatics than I am. You definitely want to check them out.

They took the time to have a brief chat with me this week and here is a short interview about what they are all about. Two long time pros Antonio M. Rosario and Tom Martinez passionate enough to spread some creative and technical know-how in what looks like a very fun and accessible way.

RB: I was fascinated when I ran across your new endeavor on the web "Switch2Manual". Mostly because I myself rant and rave about the topic about using manual exposure on my own blog in every other post. I usually do it as an aside versus any kind of focus on the topic. To be candid it was refreshing seeing a couple of photographers that think this is essential besides my own self in a world of camera reviews and technical articles that all have the same refrain - "And the exposure on this camera is sooooo good it just nails it every time". I am like "nails what?" what the hell are you talking about. What exactly is "Switch2Manual"?

Tom: Well you're certainly speaking our language, Robert. One of the main reasons we're so crazy about switching in manual is the notion of creative control. We rankle at the idea that there's one ideal exposure out there. Any photographer worth his or her salt is going to play within a certain creative range of exposures, depending on all sorts of factors (availability of ambient light, time of day, subject matter, color–or lack thereof, etc.). It would be like trying to program a computer to spit out a Picasso. So we're with you one hundred percent. The whole idea of switching to manual is to wrest control away from the camera's computer to begin exploring one's own creative vision.

Antonio: I just thought of this analogy last night, which I think fits what we're trying to do. Some people are content with driving an basic automatic car. For them, the car is a means to an end: driving to get groceries, or pick up the kids. Then there are those people who like to drive stick. These people buy a car specifically because they want to drive the car. The car is not just a means to an end, it is the mean. They like to feel the car grip the road. They want to decide how far to push the engine. They want to chose the curvier roads. They want to drive.

I think the same thing applies to people who want to take pictures. For some, the camera is a tool to help them achieve whatever it is they want in photography. Taking pictures of their kids, or a rock band, or Yosemite. These people are probably just happy they can get a decent photo whenever they can. Then, there are those people (like us) who want something more from their photography. They are not satisfied with just "taking pictures." I know I was like that when I was 13. I knew my Instamatic (dating myself here) wasn't satisfactory. I had no control.

Photography is all about control. What better way to take control than to drive stick? Antonio M. Rosario</site>

StM is really about getting back in touch with the fundamental part of photography which has really never changed since the first camera was invented. In a way, it's actually quite freeing. Two simple concepts, shutter speed and aperture and to some extent, ISO are really all one needs to learn in order to operate a camera. Ok, there's the on/off switch too. We want to give people the confidence and skills to use this tool so that it augments their creativity and imagination and doesn't get in the way.

RB For me coming from a world of Hasselblad 503Cxi's and F2's a lot of exposure automation feels very much like I am trying to outsmart what the computer and multisegment meter might do and then arguing with it via compensation… In other words I am lazy and rather just set it and forget it to get exactly what I want for a scene and situation versus arguing with the stupid computer when I reframe or recompose the exact same scene in the exact same light. What kind of things were going through your head when launching "Switch2Manual" and why do you think it's important to share these thoughts with other photographers?

Tom: While our goal to help beginners move beyond automatic, we're not exactly suggesting a "Terminator" attitude toward everything mechanized. Our focus is on the amateur enthusiast who wants to wade into the water of manual shooting. Given that, the shutter priority and aperture priority modes are of course helpful as folks first begin to transition into manual. One of the initial hurdles we want to help people leap across is that moment of terror when you "switch to manual" and then draw a total blank as to where to begin. Our suggestion (to borrow from our "Manual on Manual") is to take a shot in automatic, then review it in information mode. Now you've got a starting point for both aperture and shutter speed that you can depart from, depending on what sort of image you're after.

Antonio: You know, having owned an iPhone and iPad for so long, I almost forgot how to write in long hand on paper. I'm now writing in a journal every morning to try to get those muscle memories back.

I have nothing against automation, per se, but I think learning and maintaining some basic skills are important. These days people are becoming "photographers" by just buying a camera and hanging a shingle on their door. This method is skipping over the years of photo history and lighting and camera skills one learns in school. Not to say there's anything wrong with that -yeah, right!, but the basic disciplines are skipped over.

Now, I don't think we're on any crusade to get people to understand the basic roots of photography; that would be rather quixotic. And, with all due respect, we're not trying to be the Bob Ross of photography either - remember him, the soft spoken painter with the Afro? What I'd like to share with photographers is that there is a whole world of potential creativity out there that can be accessed by just learning a few extra skills.

Sort of like the "Matrix." We want people to take the red pill and see beyond the four walls of automation. Yes, it'll be a little scary at first, but with guides like us helping them along, it won't be that bad.Antonio M. Rosario</site>

RB: Yea sometimes I wish I would have taken the blue pill but that’s another conversation. So you guys are sort of issuing a license to drive - figured I would torture the metaphor a bit more. I try to do the same thing with highlights and highlight warnings in some of my workshops - histograms need a context to be meaningful. Even then creative thought process enters into it just as much as context. Maybe I should literally issue a printed official looking license. Note to self - this may actually be something I do.

How much can you really learn in a three or four hour workshop? Do you guys only talk about shutter speeds and apertures and ISO's - for me that would be like, hey this has been fun… see you guys some other time…

Tom: We've divided up our workshops into Switch to Manual STM I and STM II. In STM I we do mostly focus on shutter speed, aperture and ISO, the idea being once you grasp the basic relationship between these three key settings you are off and running, able to self-correct to fine-tune your settings. Again, the idea is not to chase after a generic ideal so much as learning how to tweak these exposures to enlarge one's overall palette. The point being switching to manual is not exactly rocket science. It's just a bit overwhelming to consider doing when you have no idea what each of these settings does or how they relate. So in four hours we're walking people through each setting, taking time to practice and have fun, dispelling fears around letting go of auto, and providing a chance to practice in a supportive environment.

In our follow-up STM II workshop we go deeper into the inter-relationship between ISO, shutter speed and aperture. We also get address composition and flash/lighting issues.

Antonio: How much can you learn in a 4 hour class that took me more than 8 years to grasp? Not much! Ha Ha. No, really. I don't expect people to be walking out of an StM class and turning into an Ansel Adams and neither should they - is it ok to be this honest here? What I do want to give them in a four hour workshop is a really good "sample menu" of an upcoming exquisite dinner, so to speak. We want to begin to refine their palettes in regards to photography and their own picture taking.

Our workshops will be broken up into two sections: the first part is a "classroom" style where we go over the basics of the camera. The second part is going out in the field and applying what they learned while actually shooting. We want to keep the workshops small so that Tom and I can give each student as much personal instruction as we can while we're practicing taking pictures. Part of this workshop is also helping the students understand their particular camera model and how to access these manual controls.

I once took a four hour class in wine tasting. Now, I don't consider myself a wine expert by any means, but I'm now equipped with some basic wine tasting vocabulary. My palette is not refined, but I now understand a little bit more when a sommelier describes my dinner wine (so many food references here). Same with our workshops. We want to equip photographers with some basic language and skills so they can have more control over their experiences.

RB: Okay definitely up my ally. Some of the technical and the how with an emphasis on the why and the creative thought process. What about the photo-walks - is that like a workshop? what's the difference? Which one should people do or better how does one decide between a workshop or a photo-walk?

Tom: Our photo walks don't have the classroom component so there's less instruction and more experiential learning. For the photographer who's eager to learn how to shoot in manual mode we'd suggest jumping in with both feet and signing up for a workshop. But someone who simply likes to shoot and simply wants to experience the fun of doing that with a group of photographers and some hands on instruction might want to start with a photo walk.

I think we'd like to see our workshops as lead-ins to our photo walks. Take the four hour workshop with us, then come on our supervised, instructional photo walks to test your skills. This is why we are charging much less than half our workshop fee for the walks. We are choosing locations in The NYC area - mainly Brooklyn for their photographic and touring fun and as a place to test the basic skills people will have learned in our four hour class.

So, for instance, one photo walk locale is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This place will allow people to,test what they've learned about depth-of-field, using close ups of the flora as a great example, or shutter speeds for capturing the flight of birds. Other locations are Coney Island and a dual bridge photo walk over both the Brooklyn & Manhattan bridges. The Metropolitan Museum of Art will be a great place to test one's skills with setting ISO and handheld shooting. Also, we are choosing photo walk locations for their "off the beaten path" status too, like Red Hook, Brooklyn.

We're hoping that the photo walks will also attract people who don't take our class and just want to be led on some great little urban adventures. The one thing we'll always do on the walks is be available to everyone to show them how to use their camera and answer, as best we can, their photographic questions. All the walks are instructional and will be a great option for those who are not able to devote half a day to a workshop. We're also hoping that the walks will drive some people to take our workshops. The walks are a great taster for photographers to see if they want to learn more about using their camera in manual mode.

RB: Next time I am in NYC count me in for the bridge walk. Sounds like a lot of fun. Who is this for? People with DSLR's, pro photographers, point and shoots? What can people at different points in their photographic experience take away?

Tom:

The ideal workshop participant would be that person who started with a point and shoot and then gravitated to a SLR but doesn't really know how to use it. That said, many point and shoots have the capacity to shoot in manual and we're even encouraging folks with iphones to sign up for our walks. We're hoping people at all levels will walk away with a firm handle on how to self-correct so that everybody, regardless of their prior experience, will be able to take their work to the next level.Tom Martinez

Antonio: Yes, we would like to have photographers who've recently graduated to DSLRs, since those are the more likely cameras to have a manual mode. People with point & shoots will be a little more frustrated since their own cameras usually cannot shoot in manual. But for those people, at least in the classroom part of our workshops, will get a chance to learn on a DSLR as we intend to have one available for instruction purposes. So, if they don't have a camera that can switch to manual, they can still learn how to. Also, if someone is considering moving up to a DSLR, taking our workshops will help prepare them for their new camera.

For our photo walks, as long as they have a camera, they're good to go. Between Tom & I, we can probably figure out how to use any modern camera and help people to take better control of them.

One more thing: we'll also soon be offering both a class and photo walk for people who want to learn to take pictures (and process them) on their smartphones. We think there will be a good audience for this. Yes, it moves away a bit from learning to shoot in manual, but smartphone offer their own challenges and can be just as rewarding as manual photography. We think this could be a lot of fun.

RB: Maybe even how to trick iPhones into doing exactly what you want? Any promotions - discounts - special deals - freebies - give-aways?

As a matter of fact we do have a promotional special running as we prepare for our spring launch!

Since we're looking kickstart our launch, we're offering $50 off our four hour workshops - $199, down from $249 and a 10% discount off our $99 photo walks. Use this code - SWMN213 - when signing up for either a class or photo walk and the discounts will be automatically applied. We'll also be offering more discounts regularly, so people should follow us on Twitter @switch2manual and "like" us on our Facebook page.

We're in the process of adding more photo walks which will be run weekly in more NYC locations as well as adding more StM four-hour workshops to our schedule.

We'll also start making a presence on both Flickr and Google+ soon as we want to start making StM a photographic community as well.

Our blog, which we're also getting off the ground, will have great photo tips, as well as photo news and photos of cool locations. We're also going to be aggregating a list of camera manuals in PDF form on our site. This way, people can hopefully find their camera listed and get access to a PDF version of the manual.

Our loftier goal would be to open StM franchises all over and hire more photographers to help instruct people to use the manual setting.

RB: This sounds great. I can think of a million reasons why this kind of thing in some sort of loose franchise would be fantastic and have a lot of benefits to a lot of people. Count me in.

Hope you enjoyed this little transcription of our chat. If you are anywhere near New York City - or if you are going check these guys out. I certainly will my next trip there. Always nice to have some locals with you - especially ones that can give you some new takes on the creative process.

RB

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