Photo Project: Going Retro With Your Camera

A while ago, I wrote about how to retrograde your DSLR. A guide to temporarily hide all the digital/smart features that your digital camera has, and turn it into something a bit more dated. Yes, it is a strange thing to do… But you know how people go back to writing with pen and paper to really connect to their thoughts? This may help you to do the same with your photography and compositions.

Now, let’s look at how you can use that retro DSLR to gain a deeper understanding of photography and to change the way you think with a camera in your hand. Let’s get started!

Turn your digital camera analogue for a day. Learn about light

Your DSLR or mirrorless camera has quite a few features that help you get your image ‘just right’. Features like auto exposure, light metering, live view, and even horizon level right in the viewfinder! It can all sometimes be too distracting from the actual task … of learning the basic skills of photography.

Take the modern gadgets away, and you’re back with the fundamentals of photography, and that’s not going to change. Even in the distant future.

Why should you ‘dumb down’ your camera?

Here are my reasons for disabling all the helper and smart tools that are built into your camera, and for pushing your camera back to the “old days” of completely manual photography.

I think it will…

  1. Make you understand the mechanics of taking a photograph – understand how shutter speed, ISO and aperture relate to the light and the changing situation around you.
  2. Improve your awareness of the composition of your photograph as you look through … right in your frame.
  3. Help you to visualise in your mind what you want to capture – even before that scene becomes a reality.
  4. Show you the difference between your visualisation and the actual capture. (practice will make you better at reducing this gap).
  5. Enable you to make the most out of your camera when it is back in ‘regular dSLR’ mode.
  6. Confuse the hell out of you for a while. (For sure, if you’ve never shot in full-manual mode before.)

Guidelines for how you should proceed with this project:

Some simple guidelines for the project.

  1. Retrograde your camera as described earlier… or use an old Film SLR.
  2. Try not to use any automatic modes, and do not look at the LCD display for anything.
  3. Learn the Sunny 16 ruleBrian Auer’s Sunny 16 guide is brilliant.
  4. Take only 36 photographs in a session. Do not cheat by deleting pix.
  5. Do not. I repeat “DO NOT” look at the photographs until you download them on your computer.
  6. Only use simple retouching techniques at first… Basic “Levels” or “Curves” Photoshop adjustments.

Step-by-step Project Walkthrough:

Step 1: Use the Sunny 16 Rule to Guide Your Exposure

You’re in the dark when it comes to correct exposure (unless you have prior experience). This is because our eyes are so good at adapting to the light that is available to them. A well-lit room could look easily look as bright as daylight in summer even though it is not.

Use the Sunny 16 Rule to guide you, and take photographs in sunlit places. Unless you want to live dangerously.

Step 2: Think about each frame before pressing the shutter

Consider every single exposure. Really look at the composition, study the light that’s falling on the object, calculate exposure based on the sunny 16 rule, note the background, take a breath, and gently depress the shutter release.

Remember that you’re only taking 36 photographs for this project. If you take a picture, don’t delete it.

Restricting yourself to a low number of photographs makes you think about the subject:

  1. Is the subject worth photographing? Ditch it if you think you’ll get better subjects.
  2. Have I got the best angle? Try different angles till one looks great.
  3. Is the light right? Come back when you think it’ll be right.
  4. Have I set the right Focal Length, Aperture and Shutter speed? Only time will tell 😀

Step 3: Don’t Chimp – NO review

Try really, really hard not to look at the photographs before you download them to your computer. This is the hardest part for many of us. If you’re on a Film SLR, you’ve got to wait anyway, so skip this step.

Step 4: Analyse what went wrong, and what worked out

Download your photographs, or get them printed at the photo-store. Analyse the pictures, and re-live the moment in which it was snapped. If you were to take that photograph again, what would you do differently? Log these notes in your memory for future use.

If you do retouch these photographs, try to keep the retouching light in an effort to maintain the original feel.

Step 5: Pick your winners and share them with everyone

Pick a photograph, either because it came out exactly how you envisioned, or because it failed miserably. Tag it “BP-retro” and share it in our Beyond Phototips Flickr Group, or you could write a blog post about it. Alternatively, you could simply post in the comments, right here… But do explain what you were trying to do and whether you succeeded or failed.

Onward … to New Dreams

Once you’ve experienced the initial helplessness, and the subsequent revelation of how to take photographs with just the basic tools of the trade, you’ll probably realise that you have learnt a lot more about light and cameras than you would have expected to, from this unconventional experiment.

I’ll be really happy to hear from you if you go though with this. Do come back and leave a comment.

Note: This sort of limited-frame shooting is best tested when on a photo walk. In that case, limit yourself to about 72 frames. The equivalent of two rolls of film.

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Published: November 25, 2009 | Last Updated: July 20, 2021

5 thoughts on “Photo Project: Going Retro With Your Camera”

  1. Good couple of posts. I shoot manual / sunny16 only, simply because I don’t own a modern camera.

    I tried a dSLR for about 6 months, but I hated seeing the pictures instantly because it’s distracting and it spoils the fun too. I wouldn’t use a Polaroid either.

    A few people I know started using their dSLR in manual mode and eventually turned to classic cameras.

  2. Susheel,
    I’m just finding and reading this post now (12/15), so curious how this project turned out…I’ll have to go look at the Flickr page. This is interesting to me, as someone who’s been shooting for a long time and has been on both sides of the “digital fence.” Personally I have to say that I think the LCD screen on modern digital cameras has done more to reduce the ‘learning curve’ for young photographers than any other technological development. I have a post on my photo blog called ‘Chimping Your Way to Better Photography’ that explores this.
    Andrew
    TheDiscerningPhotographerTheDiscerningPhotographer

  3. I’d like to see the results as well.
    Overall good points, Susheel, and things I’d definitely give a try.
    But the thing about shooting only those really important things (punctum, according to Roland Barthes) is perhaps not relevant these days? Especially on the street – waiting for the moment is anachronism. Because different, many and interesting moments/frames/subjects are always there. I just need to put a frame around it. In that sense, therefore, my only role/thought process as a photographer, is to compose well.

  4. Ravages:

    Not a very good turnout to this project, possibly because of the point you raise…

    However, I beg to differ, given this context.

    With all these moments passing you by, and often (as with the photowalks) many photographers making different compositions of the same incidents, where do you find the 1, 2, or even 5 images that stand out? Which are the moments that stand out from all the others? “Lost in the crowd”…

    If you’re so busy taking photographs, do you miss the ‘real’ moment that you wanted to capture?

    I think that as you become adept with your equipment, you will be more ‘in the moment’ even behind your camera, and it is this skill that I’m trying to build here.

    I do not say this to restrict your regular photo-taking, I would be a hypocrite to ask that of you. Rather, I ask this so that good compositions, assessment of light and the camera’s exposure become second nature to you.

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