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My Nikon Coolpix 995 with built-in flash ready

Using Automatic Cameras
Nikon D100 digital SLR camera

   Digital and automatic film cameras have all the features of manual cameras, with the addition of full automatic operation and many automatic functions. Point the camera at your subject and press the shutter release—the camera does everything else: focus, aperture, shutter speed, flash operation, or any combination you select. Is it really so easy? Yes! Modern automatic cameras are almost foolproof, and that offers the photographer/explorer a much simpler world.
   Many photographers (I was one of them) don't feel comfortable with a machine doing for them what they've learned to do for themselves. The reality of the situation, however, is that most camera manufacturers no longer make manual cameras. When your camera finally wears out, you'll need to be ready to start using an automatic camera–there probably won't be any other kinds available.
   There are many automatic cameras, and new models are introduced frequently. I can give you a very useful general orientation; but to learn to operate a specific automatic camera you must read and understand its owner's manual. Since many cameras have online operators' manuals, you may be able to read before you buy! The right column has a few links that I've found useful. Give them a try.
   The rest of this article generally applies equally to digital cameras and automatic film cameras.

Some links to technical data:

"P"—Program Automation
Types of Automation
   Automatic cameras offer four levels of automation. From most to least automatic, they are:

Focus and compose your picture and shoot. The camera controls all the variables. But be sure and read the manual—the program that controls this mode may make decisions different from yours. For example: in "P" mode, Nikon digital cameras will attempt to use shutter speed to control the camera. When a limit is reached, then aperture adjustment comes into use.
   "P" mode requires special motorized lenses, but it is extremely effective, as long as the photographer keeps his/her eye on the settings the computer selects.

"S"—Shutter Priority Automation Select the shutter speed you want to use, focus and compose your picture. The camera adjusts the lens aperture to produce a correctly exposed picture. This mode requires lenses with internal motors, generally much more expensive than normal lenses.
   "S" mode allows the photographer to control his shutter speed, and therefore avoid camera motion apparent in pictures made with speeds too low for hand holding.

"A"—Aperture Priority Automation This was the first type of automated operation to be offered commercially, because it works without special, expensive motorized lenses. All the automation can be built into the electronic shutter control.
   Select an aperture, focus and compose your picture. The camera adjusts the shutter speed to give you a correctly exposed picture.
   This is a very effective automated mode. I used it for years in Nikon FE and FE2 cameras. It almost never failed.

Nikon FE2: An advanced manual camera with "A" mode automation
"M"—Manual operation—No Automation at all! You focus and compose your picture; you read the lightmeter; you set the camera controls to match the meter and make the picture.

   All automatic cameras are generally similar, but they differ in the details. Since the specific settings are critical, you must read the owner's manual carefully to get the most out of the camera.

Automatic film loading, advance, and rewind
Other Automatic Functions
Insert the cassette, position the film leader, and close the camera back. The camera reads the ISO index code printed on the film cassette and sets its lightmeter, and at the touch of a button, advances the film to frame one.
   After each frame is made, the next frame is advanced automatically. After the last frame, the camera senses the end of the roll and rewinds automatically. You can also rewind at any time by pressing a button.

The pattern printed on the cassette sets the camera ISO index
Automatic focus With special auto-focus lenses, top of the line automatic cameras will focus critically without any help from you, other than composing the picture. Even on small consumer film and digital cameras with built-in lens autofocus is always included. On the Nikon Coolpix 4300 and on my Coolpix 995, there is even a mode in which it is impossible to make a picture if it is not in focus! As far as I have seen, all automatic focus cameras have an indicator for focused/not focused. It is usually a small green lamp near the viewfinder eyepiece.

How to defeat autofocus? Just let the battery go bad.
Automatic Flash

Even my old Pentax has autofocus and automatic flash
The camera's built-in flash is programmed to work with the camera's light measuring system to produce good flash results automatically—even to the point of suppressing its flash when it isn't needed!
   When you use an external flash designed to mate with the camera (called the "dedicated" flash) the camera and flash work together as a system: automatic film speed setting, automatic exposure, automatic distance compensation, automatic shutter speed selection for flash synchronization. Most automatic cameras require their dedicated flash, but many can use an adapter module for mating a non-dedicated automatic flash.

Caution! All digital cameras require digital speedlights!
Using a regular flash on a digital will almost certainly damage the camera! Be careful!

Nikon D100 with dedicated flash
Special metering modes: ...including automatic compensation for backlighting and automatic fill flash compensation, multiple metering patterns. Most digital cameras I have used have three modes: matrix (recommended!), spot, and center-weighted averaging. Read the manual on these!

Automatic Exposure Compensation This very valuable feature allows me to set an automatic correction to exposure, either ambient light or flash or both. For example: I can make the camera automatically overexpose all pictures by a fraction of an f-stop and underexpose all flash exposures by a fraction. How to use this? I found that pictures I made with my Coolpix 995 and the internal flash were harsh and washed out. I reduced the light output of the flash while keeping ambient exposure the same. Now they balance very well.

Automatic Exposure Bracketing How to be sure I always have at least one good picture to use? The secret is bracketing. With automatic bracketing my digital camera makes one picture at the measured exposure, one overexposed one stop, and one underexposed. One of them is bound to be usable. Surprisingly, most digital cameras I've examined will bracket, but read your manual to learn about this one; it can be a little tricky to understand. It works great, though.

Automatic Firmware Downloading I was amazed at this digital camera feature! When the manufacturer makes improvements to my camera's internal program, I can download that file from his website and load it into my camera. Presto! A new, better program.
   I tried this with my Nikon Coolpix 995 (which I obtained used from a local camera store). In only moments I updated firmware version 1.6 to version 1.7–like magic.

   Now that's a lot of automation; and on most digital cameras, that's just scratching the surface.

Nikon Coolpix 4300 digital camera

Operating Automatic Cameras
   Step one in operating your automatic camera is to read its owner's manual. With this brief introduction as home base, you'll be making pictures in a half hour or less. Since this is the third time I've mentioned reading the owner's manual (that's number four!) I hope you recognize the importance of this step. There's no way to master a complex modern camera by guesswork, so—

1. Read the manual!

2. Check the camera batteries; the manual tells you how. With all the automatic features, the batteries work very hard. Fully charged or fresh disposable batteries are vital to finishing your job. Buy them at a discount store and keep plenty on hand.

3. Verify that film is loaded properly and actually moving through the camera; the manual tells you how. This is a common source of error with cameras that use 35mm film, so check this special requirement carefully.

4. Set your automatic mode and proceed.

5. At the end of the job, turn the camera off to conserve battery life.

Is Anyone Still Using Film?

Tiny Pentax Efina automatic camera uses system film

   Yes, I for one. I enjoy my digital camera, but I'm not keen to trust it in the harsh environment of the New Mexican desert, for example. No electricity for battery charging; too hot for comfort; too many rocks to drop it on.
   In the desert I still like my old Pentax with its crude version of "P" automation, autofocus, popup automatic flash, and disposable AAA batteries. I mail the film off when I get back to town, and the prints are waiting for me when I get back home. Spare AAA batteries are cheap at my local discount stores and easy to carry in my pack. And a built-in flash, too!

Digital or Film? Trade-Offs.
   What's your ultimate goal: color prints on paper, to share, or color photos to send by email or present on a web page?

Color Prints on Paper If you really want color prints, an automatic film camera is simple, direct, and fairly inexpensive to use. If you need to send an occasional picture by email, you can always scan that one or have a friend do it for you.

   If you want pictures to share on the web, go digital. You'll probably need to edit them, but that can come later. If you need an occasional print on paper, you can still make it from the digital image (after editing, of course).
   Hey! One other thing. Digital images can be pretty big. Sending them over email can tie up your recipient's computer for a l-o-o-o-ng time. (1) Send the pix, but be considerate; just send the good ones.

Color Pix for the Web

(1)I estimate about four minutes per pic over an ordinary modem!
Olympus d595 compact digital...
The Future?
   The trend in newer digital cameras is toward smaller size, increased automation, and fewer personal choices. Some old-timers, like me, will miss the endless choices so many digitals have offered. But the new cameras are quite easy to use and probably produce more good pictures of excellent size and resolution for the average user. I suspect these new cameras will require a lot less reading of operators' manuals.
   Newer digital cameras frequently do without the small control panel used on older cameras. Many have removed the viewfinder as well, in favor of the built-in picture monitor. The goal is to make the cameras as small and as cheap as possible, but I miss these two features. Pop-up flash has also been replaced with built-in.
   Another change that goes with the steadily decreasing size of new cameras is the substitution of disposable alkaline batteries for rechargeables. This is good for the occasional user; but these cameras, in spite of their small size, still eat a lot of electrons, especially since they rely heavily on the power-hungry LCD monitor for viewfinding. Keep spares on hand.

   And hey! Don't forget to remove these batteries when you won't be using the camera for a while. Sometimes they leak!

...fits easily in a shirt pocket...

...and runs on disposable batteries

Further Considerations
   I didn't mean this to be an article on film cameras vs. digital cameras. Both perform beautifully, and I use both kinds. But you should be aware of a couple of final things: digital cameras require considerably more understanding of and investment in technology than film cameras–an investment of time and money.
    The idea of being able to save the cost of film processing and printing seems attracive until you compare that with the costs of processing and printing digital pictures at home. Color printer ink and glossy inkjet photo paper is still very expensive. I can't see any savings here yet.
   Using local store and internet downloading schemes, like those offered by Clark Color Labs, Ritz and Wolfe Camera, WalMart, Walgreen's, Target, CVS, and others, may be an ultimate answer; they offer 4x6 glossy color prints for about 16 cents each; but they're not ready yet, in my opinion. They still cost a lot of money and time. Nothing is free; sometimes not even cheap!

My old PC35. Still a favorite!

to be continued

   In the next article I'll do a short introduction to photographic film and how to get the most out of it, and I'll test two online digital print services and report my quality and cost results. I hope you'll be here.

   If you have comments on this subject (or any other) email them to:

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