photographer's meditation: focus on manual


When I bought my first SLR camera back in 1994 (!), I enlisted the aid of a friend, Josef, to help me shop for the perfect camera.  Josef was a professional fashion photographer here in Houston, and he made the most beautiful images, so I knew he'd give me great advice on where to buy the camera, and what kind to buy.

Josef insisted I buy a second-hand camera (always a good idea if you're not entirely sure whether you're going to get into photography or not), and he took me to Houston Camera Exchange for the purchase (also a good idea if you're in the Houston area -- they're the best).  I was horrified when Josef insisted I spend at least $500 for the camera (this was the mid-90s, remember!), but I did as I was told:  I bought a 15-year-old Nikon FE series manual camera and a 25-year-old manual-focus 50mm 1.4 lens for $501.

The camera doesn't work anymore, I don't think -- I tried opening it as I was writing this post, and it was stiff and cranky; but I think I might see if I can restore it.  But the old lens (which is now approaching 50 years old!) is still one of my favourites in my camera bag.  I don't use it very often, because using an auto-focus lens is so much more convenient; with the manual lens, I have to make sure that my focus is perfect, and then hold my breath when I squeeze the shutter.  It's sort of a pain, really.  But yesterday, I decided to dust the 50mm off and take a few shots around the house.


It really is a beautiful lens, man.  It's something about the glass -- they just don't make 'em like they used to.

I've mentioned before that one of the reasons I love my Hasselblad is because it forces me to slow down:  when you have to manually focus, and reframe things in square format, it takes some time.  But as I walked around the house, I realized that simply having the manual lens on my camera was enough to get me to slow down (even though, unlike the Hassie, I obviously had the instant gratification of knowing exactly what the shot looked like from the back of the digital camera, instead of having to wait to get the film processed).  Since I tend to shoot with the aperture wide open (which means that my images result in blurry backgrounds, remember?), the slightest motion can put the image out of focus, so I'm forced to be extra careful. 

Shooting with a manual lens requires me to slow down.  To breathe.  And it gives me time to notice details in a way that I don't with an autofocus lens.

Not unrelated, I recently started doing yoga -- a 30 day course with my friend Marianne Elliott -- and shooting with my manual lens today felt a lot like what I've started to notice my reaction is to this new little yoga practice of mine.  This is the third week of the practice, and while I am getting more bendy (a shock in its own right), I'm also noticing that I'm breathing deeper, and my mind is actually engaged while I go through the poses. 

For example, in the set I've been doing for the last 2 weeks, there's a 5 minute savasana, or "corpse pose" -- where I lie on my back perfectly still, breathing slowly.  When I first started doing this, the 5 minutes felt interminable:  30 seconds in, I kept thinking about how I needed to get on with my day, and a few times, I actually popped up from my mat and headed toward my computer, before I caught myself and forced my body to lie back down and finish the rest of the pose. 

This week, however, the 5 minutes have felt more like a minute long.  I'm finally relaxing.

And so it is with this lens:  when I first put the lens on my camera, I found myself rushing to focus and take the shot, and was even a bit frustrated when my subject would move in the wind, or I would fail to hold the camera perfectly still, so that my focus was lost.  But eventually, I realized I had to slow down -- that the shot would come if I was patient, and that by waiting, I would notice details in the frame that I might not have noticed if I were using an autofocus lens.

As I was walking around the house enjoying the lens, I suddenly remembered that back when I was shooting with that Nikon FE exclusively, I had invested in a couple additional lenses.  So I went looking through some closets, and discovered I had a vintage, 30-something-year-old 100mm 2.8 in great condition, as well.  I'd forgotten about this lens -- I hadn't shot it for at least 15 years.

So naturally, I had to take it for a spin, too...


... including forcing poor Marcus and Alex to sit for me.


It was like finding a brand new lens, except I'd had it all along.


The point of all of this is twofold:

1) While I probably won't be using either of these manual lenses in any sort of high-pressure situation where I have to focus and shoot quickly, they might just have given me a new practice of mindfulness and slowing down; and

2)  If you're something of a shutterbug who also is looking for a way to slow down during busy days, allow me to suggest simply switching your lens to manual focus, and then taking yourself on a little photo walk.  And notice if the practice changes you in any way.

SongSunrise by Norah Jones