Full-Tilt Manual: Going Analog with your Digital Camera


One of the reasons people have been rediscovering, or in some cases, first discovering the art and craft of film photography has to do with the analog experience that goes hand-in-hand with it. Few people will dispute the imaging abilities of modern digital cameras, nor can one poo-poo the imaging abilities of the latest smartphones. What is missing for many photography enthusiasts is the hands-on analog experience that is inherent to film cameras. Setting one’s camera to auto-everything might be the quick and easy way to capture technically perfect photographs, but there’s something quite satisfying about grabbing the wheel and driving the bus all by one’s self.

If you identify with the above paragraph but would rather not have to buy a film camera and/or deal with film processing, scanning, or enlarging prints in order to experience going analog, you do have an option: use your digital camera.

With few exceptions, most DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and even advanced point-and-shoot cameras offer the option of replicating the analog experience without having to shoot a single roll of film. You start by turning off your camera’s auto exposure (AE) and autofocus (AF) systems. Depending on your camera, you can turn off your camera’s AE and AF functions in the camera menus or by switching them to manual using a switch or button located on the camera body. (If you’re not sure where these switches, buttons, or menus are, consult your camera’s user manual for the specifics.)

To Chimp or Not to Chimp: That’s the Next Question

Chimping, i.e., eyeballing your camera’s LCD every time you press the shutter, is something some photographers do ad nauseam. Without wading into the reasons why one should or shouldn’t chimp, in keeping with the spirit of this article I strongly advise against eyeballing your camera’s LCD on the fly, because in the analog world, chimping simply isn’t an option. Besides, not knowing what you captured (or didn’t capture) is one of the key attractions of analog/film photography.

So, if your camera’s rear LCD can be turned off or reversed to an out-of-viewing position, do so. If your camera has a fixed LCD or an LCD that cannot be turned off, fashion a screen blocker out of black paper or matt board and tape it in place for this exercise. If losing the ability to peek at your photos on-the-fly gets you antsy… good, that’s part of the exercise, and yes, you will survive.

Turn your camera’s LCD off (or reverse it) to prevent chimping. Learn to trust your instincts.

Remember, photographers did without sneak-peeking for well over a century before digital cameras with LCDs came of age, and if photographers back in the day had to wait hours, days, or weeks before they saw the results of their efforts, you can certainly wait until you get home and upload the files to your computer.

Turn Off Your Autofocus

Switching to manual focus (MF), which shouldn’t prove to be traumatizing, adds to the hands-on analog imaging experience. Depending on the circumstances, I often switch to MF, most notably when shooting macro or when selectively focusing on subjects situated between busy foregrounds and/or backgrounds. In addition to having total control over knowing exactly where your focus point lies, when you switch to MF you eliminate shutter delay issues caused by focus searching, resulting in quicker shutter response times.

By setting all of your camera’s automatic modes to Manual, you can replicate the workings of an analog film camera without having to shoot film.

With a bit of practice, you can quickly become adept at nailing sharp focus manually, even when working in a low-light environment.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a complete Luddite when it comes to accurate manual focusing because many cameras have a focus confirmation feature located in the viewfinder that indicates when you’re on the mark. This isn’t anything new; film cameras from Nikon, Pentax, and Minolta have featured focus confirmation systems since the 1980s.

Turn Off Your Auto Exposure

Auto exposure should also be avoided if you truly want to go analog. Your camera’s metering system is equally accurate regardless of whether you’re shooting in auto or manual mode.

Camera Meter or Handheld Light Meter?

You have two choices for taking light readings: you can use the meter in your camera or a handheld meter. The advantage of using your camera meter is that the meter is taking reflected readings through the lens, which if you understand how to compensate for over or underexposure due to excessively bright or dark subjects, is extremely accurate.

Unlike your camera’s built-in light meter, which only reads reflected light, most handheld light meters, including many inexpensive models, enable you to take incident, as well as reflected light readings.

The advantage of a handheld light meter is that most offer a choice between reflected light readings and incident light readings. The advantage of incident light readings, which analyze the light falling onto your subject rather than reflecting off  your subject, is that incident light readings, which are based on 18% reflectance (medium gray), are not influenced by how much light is bouncing (or not bouncing) off your subject.

Another advantage of handheld light meters is that most of them can also take flash readings, should you choose to add on- or off-camera flash to your workflow. If you’d like to learn more you can read about light meters and what they can do along with a really informative tutorial video by photographer David Flores on the B&H Explora website.

Regardless of your preferences, either choice is fine. Choose whichever light reading method with which you’re most comfortable.

The EVF Advantage

When shooting in Manual mode, mirrorless cameras have a distinct advantage over DSLRs because, unlike optical viewfinders, electronic viewfinders (EVFs) are WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get. If you’re underexposing the picture, the image in the finder will be too dark. If you’re overexposing the finder will be too bright. When shooting with a DSLR you do not get real-time visual feedback. This isn’t the end of the world. Film cameras predate EVFs.

Set Your ISO

Before you start diddling with shutter speeds and lens apertures, you should set your ISO sensitivity. As with film, the lower the ISO, the better the image quality. With few exceptions, the imaging sensors in most digital cameras have a native ISO of 100, which is sufficient for outdoor photography on bright, sunny days. If it’s overcast or you’re shooting indoors or during the evening hours, bump the ISO to 400, 800, or depending on the imaging characteristics of your camera sensor, a stop or two higher.

Set your ISO sensitivity to your camera’s optimal ISO rating (typically 100) for best results. When shooting in low light, you can increase the sensitivity levels by several stops as needed. The newer the camera, the higher you can push the ISO ratings without negatively affecting image quality.

Shutter Speeds and Apertures

Unlike Program, Aperture-priority, and Shutter-priority modes, which enable you to concentrate on taking pictures as opposed to taking light readings, when you set your camera’s exposure system to Manual you’re pretty much on your own. Using the visual display in your camera’s viewfinder as a guide, you establish the correct exposure by adjusting the shutter speeds and apertures until the blinking lights, sliding hash marks and/or arrows (depending on your camera) indicate you’ve arrived at the correct exposure.

If you’re shooting in bright light or photographing fast-moving subjects, you might want to start with faster shutter speeds. Conversely, when shooting in low light, consider starting with wider lens apertures. From there, it’s simply a matter of adjusting your f-stops until your camera indicates a correct setting visual display in your camera’s viewfinder.

Tip: To ensure sharper photographs, avoid handholding your camera at shutter speeds slower than the focal length of the lens you’re using. As an example, a 50mm lens shouldn’t be hand held below 1/50-second. If your camera has an image-stabilization system with a 3x stabilization value, technically you should be able to handhold the camera down to about 1/6-second (about three stops slower than 1/50-second). When in doubt, go for the faster speed if only to freeze action and keep your images sharp.

Depending on your camera, you can adjust your apertures and shutter speeds manually using your camera’s mechanical, analog-style rings and dials or by adjusting whatever electronic/digital alternatives are designed into your camera.

No Meter? No Problem: The Sunny 16 Rule

If you really want to go analog, do away with your meter altogether and set your exposures using the Sunny 16 Rule. If you’re not familiar with meter-less metering, here’s how it works.

First, set your lens to f/16. If it’s a bright, sunny day, choose a shutter speed comparable to your ISO. If you’re shooting at ISO 100, set your shutter speed to 1/100 (or as close as you can). If you’re shooting at ISO 1000, set your camera to 1/1000, and so on.

If it’s partly cloudy, open the lens a stop to f/11 (or slow the shutter down by 1 stop, to 1/50th). If it’s overcast or raining, open an additional 1-2 stops (f/5.6 – f/8), or slow the shutter speeds by an additional shutter speed or two.

Conversely, if you are shooting in the snow or along the shore where there’s an abundance of reflected light, stop down an extra stop or increase your shutter speed by 1 stop to compensate for the amplified light. By following this formula, you can easily place your exposure within a half-stop of “perfect,” which is well within reason, especially if you’re shooting RAW.

White Balance

Just as you have to choose a film to match the lighting conditions (and sometimes your subject matter), so too should you choose a White Balance. In the days of film, your choices for color films were limited to Daylight (5600K) or Tungsten (3200K). From there you’d have to add filtration to color-balance for overcast daylight, fluorescent lighting, and any mixed lighting you might encounter. Just as you can’t set your film to Auto WB, we’re going to apply the same rules apply here. Go to your camera’s WB menu and choose from Sunny, Cloudy, Open Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, or if you prefer, the Kelvin-equivalents of these lighting scenarios.

Tip: Always make sure you change your WB settings when going from one lighting/WB situation to another. Back in “the day,” one had to change filters and/or film stock. These days all you have to do is reset the WB to match the new lighting conditions and you’re good to go.

For the sake of good karma, avoid Auto and select the appropriate WB setting.

Image Stabilization

Sure, why not? If your camera or lens is image-stabilized, go for it. At the very least your pictures will be sharp. If you follow the above recommendations, you can easily replicate the hands-on experience of analog photography. At the very least, this exercise will give you a better appreciation of the technologies that are built into your camera. A box of donuts says you will also come away with a better appreciation of what previous generations of photographers had to go through to capture sharp, well-exposed photographs.

Are you a film shooter? If so, what are your thoughts about the ideas described in this post? We’d be curious to hear your take on the subject in the Comments field, below.

To read about more great classic cameras, click here.