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Saturday, 22 May 2010


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Speaking only of the stick shift-issue, in the Netherlands (where I'm from) and the rest of Europe, manual transmission cars far outsell automatic transmission cars -which are more expensive, by the way-. Here we're allowed to learn how to drive in an automatic transmission cars, but this means you're not allowed to drive the manual kind. As a result, everyone learns in manual transmission cars.

In the UK manual is generally more popular as it's seen as more "manly" and despite the fact that a large percentage of the population sits in traffic for most of their commute, they would still rather grind through gears, for some reason. I learnt on manual but have driven automatics for the last 3 years since moving from the UK to Dubai. I still have nightmares about horrible hill starts back in Scotland whilst I was learning and can't say I miss anything about manual boxes at all. Having said that, if I was driving a hot hatch on some lovely Scottish twisty roads, I know manual would be my weapon of choice.

I'm originally from Australia (but now in Madison). Like in England you need to take your test on a manual to be able to drive a manual (at least it was when I took my test eons ago) . Those of us who drive manuals initially have trouble going to automatics - I often hit the break thinking I'm going for the clutch. This gives a jolt to the passengers, and can be fun when towing a big trailer.
Also, I believe most rental cars in Oz are manual (the ones I have rented were) -this can make it fun for people used to only driving automatics (as well as being on the other side of the road).

If I were writing this article, which I'm not, I would have entitled it, "The three-lens kit." A three-lens kit would give you about 1000% more flexibility than a two-lens kit, which is why Leica sells a tri-elmar, not a bi-elmar. Of course, doing it your way, the post can be 1/3 shorter.

Funny you should come with the car transmission analogy at this point. Have a look at what can happen:


In the world of DSLRs there is a dearth of cheap normals. The one notable example is the (new) Nikon 35/1.8, but Olympus's ZE 25 is pretty slow (indeed, slower than their pro-grade zooms), the Pentaxes which would otherwise be fantastic for novices have plenty of options which are not quite normal and definitely not fast, and Canon has somehow convinced people that a fast-ish 80mm equivalent is a convenient walkaround lens.

Panasonic's 20/1.7 and Samsung's NX 30/2 are notably expensive (and not for SLRs), but I believe a step in the right direction.

I'm a UK driver and usually drive a manual and had the opportunity to see what a recent Mercedes auto was like (C180) - not a patch on a decent manual - soft and lacking in sharp responses, in the same way a decent prime is better than a zoom.

I have the privilege of being able to compare my Canon L zooms (f4 generally) against my 100 f2.8 macro (nice), a 300f2.8 (wow!) and my Leica summicrons (35 f2 asph and 50 f2). The primes all exhibit the same wow factor - a sharpness and contrast that make the images have a degree of punch zooms can't match.

Ok so apart from the 100 macro they're all kinda expensive against the zooms so I wouldn't expect the same wow.

All said, my most successful photo was shot with the 24-105f4L... What you take pictures of is the most important thing.

@Nico Burns
We are on the internet. No knowledge is required to declare something superior.

The reason most cars sold here have automatic transmissions is that it's too difficult to steer and shift while yakking on a cell phone.

I have no idea how driver training is like in Finland---but here in Germany, it is very uncommon to have an automatic-transmission car for your driving lessons. It's possible when you insist but then you're going to get a remark in your driver's license that prohibits driving stick-shift cars. Only few do that.

The first camera that was officially offered with a standard zoom lens as the primary option was the M42 screw-mount SLR camera Fujica AZ-1 with the Fujinon 43-75 mm 1:3.3-4.5 lens in 1978. A Fujinon 55 mm 1:1.8 lens was offered as an alternative. In the late '70s and early '80s, the idea of abandoning the 50 or 55 mm standard prime lens in favour of a standard zoom lens (usually 35-70 mm) became increasingly popular.

With the start of the era of auto-focus SLR cameras in 1985, all of sudden the standard zoom lens was not only a respectable alternative but the norm. From then on, only freaks bought a prime lens along with an AF SLR.

I would love it if more people turned their back on primes. Then perhaps the price of those lovely lovely Pentax manual focussing primes would fall to a more affordable level! Unfortunately Pentax owners seem to have heard about the reputation of these fast lenses. Can you please alert all Pentax owners that Pentax primes are absolute rubbish and that if anyone out there owns a fungus free 50mm or 100mm Pentax macro I will save them the grief of attaching it to their digital SLRs and take it off their hands for a very reasonable (to me) sum!

I'm too young to really know the history, but I suspect that during the film era the cultural shift in the direction of thinking of zooms as default was slowed by the presence of used and hand-me-down cameras. When I started taking photos in the 1990s it was with a hand-me-down manual SLR and a prime lens - both of them older than I was. I seem to remember a lot of my peers being in similar situations. I'm sure this was all incredibly unfashionable by the standards of the new market, but I don't remember noticing at the time.

I think that experience must be much less common today. Since surprisingly good, surprisingly affordable, mind-blowingly tiny automatic zoom-equipped digital cameras are now everywhere, and have a much shorter obsolescence cycle, it's much harder to imagine any significant number of people first getting into photography on decades-old cameras. We may have started down this path in the 1980s, but I would guess that the digital revolution is really what brought us a universal shift to the ‘zoom is default’ way of thinking.

In the late 80s, I think 87, I purchased my sister-in-law a new camera. She did the research and I bought what she wanted. The camera she wanted was a Canon EOS 650. It's standard lens was a 'normal' zoom. Auto everything. Good camera. So good I bought one myself. The only problem was the lens. It sucked. I hated it. Before I could buy a replacement lens the camera was stolen from my house. I didn't see another zoom until I bought my current Nikon D40X with a 18mm-70mm zoom and I was a little concerned about the quality but it seems OK. Can't see any problems even at print sizes to 13"x19".

But I still would like a good, high quality 24mm DX lens. Someday.

In most European countries engine power and fuel are taxed heavily and as an automatic transmission saps both most drivers are happy to sacrifice it's convenience in order to get the most from their engine and the fuel in their tank. In addition when I was learning to drive people who drove automatics were generally held not to be a "proper" drivers something few young men would admit to.
I still drive what we in the UK refer to as a manual. Unfortunately using a prime lens has yet to turn me into a "proper" photographer ;-) Gavin

It is a hardship to wait

By chance, the next thing I looked at on the web after this article was DPReview's announcement of the Voigtländer APO-Lanthar 90mm, which led me to the Voigtländer site, which led me to this tidbit:
"1960 - The VOIGTLÄNDER ZOOMAR, the first universal lens in the world with changeable focal distance for 35-mm compact cameras caused a world-wide sensation"

*The lenticular equivalent...

Oxford Dictionary of American English:

lenticular |lɛnˈtɪkjələr|
1 shaped like a lentil, esp. by being biconvex : lenticular lenses.
2 of or relating to the lens of the eye.

Perhaps those focusing screens is the reason a lot of us old guys, I'm 61, didn't take auto focus kindly. And now digital SLR's are even worse. I bought an adapter for my E-410 to use my old lenses on it but the screen is useless and you can't find an aftermarket plain matte screen with grid lines, my favorite type. Even if that screen were available I have some doubts as to the accuracy of the screen position or mirror position so that you could trust manual focus to produce the best resolution on the subject focused on. Especially using legacy lenses wide open to get limited DOF.

Zooms are convenient. But they are inevitably big, heavy and/or slow compared to primes. Some modern zooms are optically as good or almost as good as primes. But they often force you to use a shutter speed that is slower than you'd like, and image quality can suffer. And they may introduce distortions, flare issues and such that a prime doesn't.

I grew up in the era when a fast prime was always optically better than a slow zoom, and a fast prime is still my go-to lens whenever possible. On the whole, I just take better pictures with primes.

A zoom lets you instantly change focal length, but there's a price. Having to change lenses also makes you pay a price. The question is, which price do you want to pay? Which set of limitations better matches your style of photography, the kinds of pictures you like to take and take best?

It all boils down to choices. Camera companies' marketing people try to sell us on the idea that we can have it all. But we can't, at least not all at the same time. And the bulk of marketing is directed at snapshooters, not necessarily at serious photographers.

We're also encouraged to buy a new camera often, and that often means we have to relearn all the moves. Anong with that "must have" new feature, buttons move, menus change. This is counterproductive. How many piano virtuosos would there be if the keyboard were redesigned by every manufacturer every few months?

One of the banes of modern cameras is that they are designed to help you take usable pictures even if you know nothing about photography. But they introduce so many variables that sometimes you'd be better off just knowing the basics.

With a modern camera, you are essentialy programming a computer to (you hope) make the same decisions you would make if you knew how light works, and had time to adjust focus, shutter and aperture accordingly. Sometimes the machine is better and faster than you are. But often, it's easier and quicker to open up a lens' aperture ring stop and a half on the fly than it is to reset your metering mode and scene mode via a bunch of menus.

The car analogy is apt. For typical city driving, the automatic transmission makes life much easier. But for mountain driving on a twisty road, give me a manual gearbox any day--provided the driver knows how to use it well.

i still remember my first drive in an car with automatic transmission in alaska more than a year after i got my driving license. i hadnt even seen one to that point, being raised in central europe. i knew they existed, but people say that about fairies, too. *g*
well, after the first FULL-HARD-BREAK of hitting the "clutch" (left-most pedal) i sat on my left foot like you are told not to do as a kid just to avoid that itch to shift gears.
might i mention that i still shoot mostly fixed focal lenses and manual mode although i love the help of autofocus? (smile)

Au contraire! I suspect most photographs taken today are shot with a prime lens. After all, a prime lens (usually 28mm equivalent) is what comes mounted on a cellphone.

What's strange is that that 28mm serves most people just fine, with no complaints, but when they get around to buying a "real" camera, they think they can't possibly manage without a zoom. I've always suspected that most people (photographers included) take their best, most spontaneous, most creative shots with a cellphone.

Thank you Mike, this is just the sort of digressing post that makes me love T.O.P.
Jumping between prime lenses, embroidered straps (I remember those) and manual gear cars is just perfect !

I must be evolving backwards, as after the zoom era, I just stick to the three basic "slow" primes (f/1.8 or f/2)... And I'm quite happy with manual transmission on cars though as I usually ride a motorbike, it's more a foot gear change thing!

Ok Mike, I do think I know where you're going with this, but I'm curious as to what your two lenses are. I'm getting ready to take my portfolio to Review Santa Fe, and all of what I'm bringing was made on 4 x 5 film with either a 150 or a 110. I do have two other lenses, an 80 and a 210, and I use them both in my commercial work, but no personal-work picture I've ever made with either of them has made it into the portfolio. They just don't suit the vision I'm working on.

I think the biggest problem for people who think they need a zillion different focal lengths is that they don't understand perspective; they need to understand that the only way to change the perspective in a picture is to move the camera, focal length only changes magnification. Hence the expression "zoom with your feet."

All of Alec Soth's "Sleeping by the Mississippi" was shot on 8 x 10 with a 300 (the same field of view as my 150, but you knew that), and all of Simon Norfolk's "We English" was done on 4 x 5 with a 150. Norfolk had a van with a platform on top (as Ansel Adams had on his car), so he could get the camera high enough, and I keep a folding step ladder permanently in the trunk of my car, but I just couldn't do it with only the 150. I might be able to do what I'm trying to do with only a 135, but no 135 I've found has a large enough image circle.

My SAAB is coming up on 200K and I'm just recently into my 3rd set of brakes. Still on the original clutch. I wish I was so good with tires, but give me a twisty road and I'm a maniac.

All over Western Europe, the majority of cars is still sold with manual transmission. This might be slowly changing, and I'd doubt Nico's 99%, but still the "standard" car doesn't have automatic transmission. One reason might be that in most countries over here the driving test requires manual (unless you want a pared-down license). Another reason is that manual transmissions are still considered to be technically superior (less fuel consumption, better acceleration) and more "sportsmanlike" although this isn't really true anymore for modern automatic transmissions. (See for example the dual clutch transmissions introduced by Porsche and now used by other manufacturers as well.)

A consequence of all this, though, is that in Europe a car with automatic transmission is usually significantly more expensive. Is that the same in the US or Japan?

Oddly my impressions of focus screens is much different than yours. My Nikon 8008 and D700 are not only much brighter than my FE but MUCH easier to focus. In field use my Nikkor 20mm f4 is a scale focus lens on the early cameras but can be reliably screen focussed on the 8008 and D700.
And when I was a news photographer in the 1970s it seemed to me the standard kit was two bodies, a wide (20-24) a 35mm f2, an 85-90 f1.8 or f2, and a 180 f2.8. Often one Nikon body and one M-Leica.

I think the issue here is not whether automation is good or bad - it's a case of being used to what you know and grew up with. Baby boomers and GenX-ers are familiar with learning photography with their manual film SLRs and 50mm lenses and may perhaps sneer at the automatic digital cameras of the current age. However, I'm sure the photographers at the turn of the 20th century were sneering at this completely non-serious toy camera using leftover motion picture film called the Leica.

I'm sure that in 20-30 years time the current Generation Y will be going all emotional over their old fashioned Canon DSLRs and moaning about the state of photography whilst their children run about snapping art images with their 100 megapixel camera phones.

And since you brought up the automotive analogy - not many people complain about the lack of kickstarters on modern motorcycles, manual ignition retard/advance, front engine hand cranks or squeezing the oil pump in total loss engine lubrication... although I'm sure there is some vintage vehicle nut out there who will claim that mastering all these levers and contraptions will make you a more complete and satisfied driver.

"in Europe a car with automatic transmission is usually significantly more expensive. Is that the same in the US or Japan?"

Generally it's true in the U.S., although you can't always tell because many cars are not offered with the option of a manual transmission.

The current best-selling mid-sized sedan is the Ford Fusion, which has a manual transmission only in the two lower-level models--in both cases only with a 4-cylinder engine; you can't get the 6-cylinder engine with a manual. In both cases the identical automatic-equipped car costs $875 more.


To add to Nico Burns...

Where I'm living, Belgium, it seems to me that automatic cars, by the time our fathers learned to drive (I'm 30 yo), were often regarded as less reliable mechanics... Well, not to hurt American finests, it probably was about european or japanese automatic cars and at least for my father and his entourage. I sort of grew with the same idea, probably irrelevant nowadays.

That and legal restrictions similar to the UK.


Perhaps because I'd come to it from a little Kodak Instamatic 126, I never felt the absence of a zoom lens when using my father's terrific little OM-10 with a Zuiko 50mm—the only lens we had. The thing I liked about the SLR back then was that, unlike the Kodak, it let you see when the lens was covered by your fingers or the camera case. (My hit rate shot up.)

I get the feeling that you haven't completely warmed to the Merc's automatic transmission.

"the issue here is not whether automation is good or bad - it's a case of being used to what you know and grew up with"

Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. I'm saying people here drive automatics not because they are necessarily better--although some will think they are--but simply because most people aren't familiar with manuals. It seems to be the opposite in Europe and elsewhere, from what we're hearing. It's the same way with cameras--if everybody started out with primes, a lot of people would still prefer zooms, and would switch over. But a fair number wouldn't, as well. If everybody had equal familiarity with every option, then we would see what the real preferences are. But we don't, we see preferences on the one hand and what people are used to on the other hand, sort of overlaid one on top of the other.


The general direction of this meandering seems to me to boil down to the stereotypical enthusiast cry that what used to make their hobby (driving, photography) technically interesting has been "dumbed down" for the ignorant masses.

I say hooey. Complaints like this, IMHO, mirror the complaints of the computing enthusiasts who decry systems like the Mac, or iPhone because they make turnkey what used to be complicated. Typical complaints will be along the lines that such machines are too simplified, not flexible enough or lacking in power along some dimension that only a few really care about.

The situation automatic systems in cameras (and cars) is similar, but interestingly reversed. I claim that automatic systems are a boon for the non-enthusiast who ultimately does not want to bother to control all of the various technical variables that go into making a photograph. But, these same systems make the life of the enthusiast *more* complicated because now you have created automatic systems that the photographer must learn to control... and anyone who has tried to control a modern autofocus system can attest to how hard that is when compared to the relatively direct control of the all manual system.

Still, given the choice I'd still rather be using a more automatic, less direct controls of the modern camera if for no other reason than it can actually hold optimal focus on something with a 50/1.4 lens and really I can't do that by hand. Are the cameras really harder to use? Yes. But the difficulty is worth it, to me.

(Digression: In the late 80s or early 90s Galen Rowell once wrote a very insightful column about the nature of "manual" and "automatic" cameras. It compared using automatic cameras to flying on instruments. I think this comparison is more apt now than he could have imagined when he wrote it.)

(Digression 2: I bet this evolution started with cameras like the Canon Rebel)

(Digression 3: I never drove stick. I never plan to on purpose either.)

Two edits that I missed: I meant to say that autofocus does better with a *wide open* 50/1.4 than I tend to do by hand.

And also, while I never drive stick, I do use prime lenses. I like them, but I don't see this as any great virtue on my part. The modern kit lens is probably a better solution to most people's problems.

Manual transmission sales in the US, cars and light trucks combined, is about 8% of the total.

I, for one, would be happy to never own an automatic for the rest of my life. I am hoping, possibly in vain, that dual-clutch paddle shifters become more and more common. I believe that the upcoming emissions regulations will force driveline efficiencies, and getting rid of the torque converter is a logical move in the quest for more milage.

Back to topic...

For about a year I carried only a 50 f1.4 and a 200 f2.8. (An odd combination if there ever was one.) I think that is about the height of my photographic happiness. If there was a 4/3s lens somewhere in the 17-20mm focal length and no slower than f1.8, I would be a seriously happy clam. The 25mm PanaLeica is close, but my many years of just a 35mm on an M6, I know I want just a bit wider than 'normal'.

Still, I would like to let the universe know that the manufactures need to make FAST normal and wide primes. Hopefully somebody is listening.

As an old fart that grew up in a farming area I learned to drive a 2 ton ton hay truck with a split differential, loaded to rate or more before I was allowed to legally drive a car on the road.

Now I find myself leaning towards automatic trannys. The most enjoyable being the Ford F250 with their new transmission. When coming off a grade while pulling the camp trailer it does as well or better than I could have done with manual. It goes slower than I would have done, but probably safer.

As with zooms and AF it probably depends on how you want to spend your time or work with.

In my long experience, I have found that if you drive a stick shift long enough, it becomes automatic. And if you shoot a manual focus camera long enough, it becomes auto-focus. Nuff said.

@Lenses: Same here (ex-colony) about the need to learn manual shift car to avoid the pitfall of only be able to drive automatic. According to the Toyota maintenance guy, my last manual shift Toyota private car is one of the few (the only one?) they maintained. Hence, learn manual but drive auto here. I wonder that is true everywhere. I did remember a movie Richard Gere with the Lotus ... may not it is ok to drive a manual even if you have not learnt how to drive it in US.

For AF, I was repeatedly told that this is this feature that kill Nikon ... It is not Nikon who help this but Canon EOS (built-in motor) lens. Not sure.

BTW, is this the first time you take a 3 web pages to tell us loyal follower that this is actually only a lead-in for the real topic? :-)) Good read still.

I remember buying my first AF SLR in 1989 and it was being sold as either body only or with a particularly nasty 35-70 zoom. I wanted to buy it with a 50mm prime but the price penalty for doing so made me buy the kit as they were practically giving the zoom away (and with good reason). I only kept it a few months then sold it and didn't return to AF until I bought a 300d which also came with a particularly horrid kit lens. It seems that nothing had changed in the intervening years.

Random House has the first definition "of or pertaining to a lens"; American Heritage English Dictionary (my reference) has "Of or relating to a lens" as definition 2.


It's going to be a 24mm and 85mm. Do I get a prize?

I suspect the reason most cars sold in the US are automatic is because the manufacturers and dealers make more money, and they know they can sock it to the consumer.

Since there are no discernible steps, a zoom lens on an SLR would be more analogous to a CVT (continuously variable transmission) than to an automatic transmission. If you use one prime lens without changing lenses, does that mean you're stuck in one gear? :)

Here are my boomer generation points of view:

Cars -- I've burned out enough clutches (two) to conclude that automatic transmissions know how to change gears better than I do, or at least know to not drive around with the clutch slightly depressed.

Cameras -- my aging eyes don't set focus as well or as quickly as built-in autofocus, especially without optical aids such as split-image prisms or microprism circles.

My favorite pre-digital focusing screen -- Nikon type P.

Lenses -- My favorite focal lengths are 35mm and 85mm.

I gave up photography for some years, after they stopped selling Kodachrome here in New Zealand some time in the '80s. I took it up again a few years ago by buying a second-hand Kodak DCS 14n and despite the numerous well-known short-comings of that camera I was delighted to find the tonality, gradation and bokeh of my old prime lenses are preserved well enough to make me less sad about the demise of K25 and K64. I expect I'll buy a D700 or similar in the next year or two.

The AFS Nikkor 24-85 doesn't quite do it for me, though, even though I've seen it described as quite a good lens.

If you look around on the internet for reliable comparisons (here's one: http://www.secondchancegarage.com/public/199.cfm), you will find that automatic transmissions give faster acceleration than sticks except under certain conditions that will quickly ruin your standard transmission; that gas mileage is almost alway better with an automatic, because getting better mileage out of a stick involves weird driving behavior that nobody does in the real world (always using the minimum revs without lugging...either higher or lower and you're burning extra gas); and that automatics and sticks are equally controllable in bad driving conditions, where understanding the physics is the key, not the transmission type. According to the guys at Second Chance, sticks are favored on a racetrack because they allow you to keep engine revs in a certain narrow band that allows you to best use the torque provided by the engine...but then, those transmissions are rebuilt every 500 miles or so, and "riding the clutch" is not generally considered the thing to do. I do agree with somebody above who said that if you drive one long enough, it becomes automatic...but I'm not sure that's would really be true in an impending-crash situation, where you've got one more thing to think about as you start trying to avoid the hit...I've had three sticks in the last thirty years, but my late wife would drive nothing else...she liked the thrill of downshifting and then blowing the doors off, say, a Taurus, on the freeway...Small sport, I say.


'I would love it if more people turned their back on primes. Then perhaps the price of those lovely lovely Pentax manual focussing primes would fall to a more affordable level!'

I'm still patting myself on the back after snapping up an 'as new' Pentax A 28mm F2 for £150 (c. $220). Perfect (reduced format) standard lens, and F2's quite fast enough, thank you. It's a bugger to use while shifting gear, mind.

I drove manual for fun, but I'm glad to be done with that. Mainly because I'm a safer driver if I'm not spending time thinking about optimal shifting.

And prime lenses? I don't own a Pentax precisely because they don't have any affordable (=cheap) autofocus primes. I have one particular, ongoing project that requires taking handheld pictures of fast moving critters in EV3 to EV6. So, zooms? Not so convenient.

"I get the feeling that you haven't completely warmed to the Merc's automatic transmission."

Each time I see a reference to Merc on this site, I think it's Mercury and have to pinch myself to come to reality.

You can probably guess my preferences in camera and car.


When I use my zooms I tend to favor each end of the range with very little in between. This is especially true with my 24-105. I think I tend to think in "wide" vs. "compressed" more than anything else.

This makes me believe that I would probably be just as happy with two fast primes.

I learned how to shift a manual after buying a ' 76 Merkur Capri II V6 5 Speed in Anchorage on a February night. In a blizzard. The snow and ice made dumping the clutch easier as the wheels just spun rather than killing the engine. Later that week I bought a new Olympus OM-1. I remember the salesman trying hard to get me to fork over some serious cash to get the faster version of the 50mm. He really got bent out of shape when I wanted the zoom lens. I still have the camera and lenses.

As an automotive professional (bloody car salesman)I can say that in North America it's a good thing that most cars have automatic tranny's, radar controlled speed control, lane assist control, with 10 air bags because most people can't be bothered to actually look out the window and see where they are going, much less "drive."

There is a direct correlation between experiencing something at a manual level and at an automatic level. Today I sold a car to a scientist who does high speed gene based drug development. We talked about how we used to do gel based gene separation that took many hours. Today it's done in and hour and displayed on a screen. That image mimics the gel based system. Manual vs automatic (robotic in this example)

I think is the essence of this conversation is a longing for a sense of the control and a visceral experience in life. Yes autofocus, auto gene splicers and CVT transmissions make things easier but... so what. What's life without dumping the clutch. Or watching the black lines move across the gel and a gene sequence emerge. Or really learning what aperture means.

Yes, in Finland you are required to know how to drive a stick in order to get a driver's license. You actually can get a driver's license here with driving an automatic transmission but then your license will be limited and you are allowed to only drive an automatic. I don't know anybody who has that kind of license. Automatic cars are very rare here mainly because they are a lot more expensive and most people have never even driven one so they don't know what they are missing. I myself now have and automatic and will never buy a manual again.

I had exclusively manual transmission cars for my first 20 years of driving. Manuals were great when I was still thrilled about the process of driving. Now driving's a way to get somewhere and the process is more chore than thrill. Automatics make driving less of a chore.

I think the same can be true in photography. Sometimes the journey's as much fun as the destination, in which case please let me control everything. Sometimes I need all the automation to get the shot.

Anyway, I like zooms for giving me independent choice of perspective and framing. Sure, I've got lots of pixels and could crop, but I learned shooting 35mm slides and hate wasting space in the frame.

I like driving a manual, but the clutch would only last about two weeks in the stop and go traffic I often find myself in.

Well, here in Finland it is very rare to have a car with automatic transmission, with the exception of taxis which often have it. Personally, I have never tried automatic, or had the need to.

There are claims that manual transmission offers much better handling in snowy conditions, but I don't know whether this is or has been true.

On the other hand, there have been studies done here in Finland showing benefits of automatic transmission for the elderly people - better attention in traffic - but I wouldn't think this is a good selling point.

"There are claims that manual transmission offers much better handling in snowy conditions, but I don't know whether this is or has been true."

I think that's just because older automatics didn't "know" you wanted to stay in first gear, and would upshift if the wheels were spinning in the snow and ice. Most automatics have a provision now for deliberately putting the car in a low gear exclusively, for snow, ice, mud, sand, and so forth.


To me it's not a question of one being better than the other, it's just what I like best. With a manual I know what the engine is doing and where I am in the powerband. Most people drive well below the powerband and that is how automatics are set up. One thing I discovered when I got the automatic is that in many cases with the old car I would regulate my speed by choosing a gear. I didn't realize I'd been doing that. For instance, on some of the 25 MPH thoroughfares (we have those in my town--the speed limits seem like they were all set in about 1940 and never touched again) I would just shift to third, because 35 MPH is about the right speed for those roads and 35 was a comfortable cruising speed in third gear in my old car. I find myself driving the new car a bit too fast sometimes.

Another funny thing about this is that I honestly can't remember when I learned to drive a stick shift. My family never had them when I was growing up. I must have learned at some point but I just don't remember. It's possible I just got into a car with a manual transmission and just started driving it. I can't recall the first manual car I drove, or why I bought a manual when I bought my first car. Hmm. I remember every camera and every lens I ever had and why I bought them. Shows you where my priorities are.


Auto Tidbits
When automatic transmissions were introduced in the US, it was promoted as a way women in high heels could drive more easily. But during that same era, doctors were endorsing cigarette brands in ads.
Some of these comments remind me of the discussions I heard many times during the 15+ years I raced vintage sports cars which can be summed up as "they don't make them like they used to." To that I said (and still say) "thank goodness!
From a friend who used to investigate accidents at Porsche: half of all the Porsches that are totaled are wrecked in the first month of ownership.

And Photography:
I recently acquired the Nikon 35/1.8 for My D300 and have rediscovered how nice a fast prime can be, esp. for available light work. Just wish it were wider and faster - I still miss my Summilux 35.

Haha, Mike, you do now how to make your point slowly ;) I'm just gonna say that wherever this is going, I already agree.

Recently I was involved in the count for the general election we had in the UK. There was a lot of talk about the length of time everything took as we were up all night and half the morning in a freezing marquee where boxes and boxes of ballot papers were counted out by hand by an army of counters. At various points discussion turned to the possibility of digitising the whole process - had computers been involved we'd probably all have been at home in bed by midnight instead of pulling an all-nighter - but most people were against this. The main reason for objecting was the idea that fewer people would be able to tell if the process was fraudulent (i.e. this would have been left to geeks) and the essentially democratic nature of a basically mechanical process would have been lost. I think there is something similar at work in this discussion, both in relation to driving and to making pictures: that is, as humans, and especially as men (any stats on the gender balance of your readership Mike?), we like to master a process and make it ours through control and understanding. Surrendering too much control (auto-everything, be it transmissions or picture modes) is unpopular amongst enthusiasts because we like to be engaged in the process of creation and we like to understand that process so that something of ourselves is contained within it, something of the human.
Of course, what you grew up with is significant and for some an automatic gearbox / programme mode are fine, but there is a cut-off point (albeit one that changes with the generations), a point that separates the creative and involving from the uninteresting and automated. Which is why unfiltered CCTV footage can never be Art whilst any picture taken with creativity in mind can. And which is why it was considered important to political involvement that the process of counting votes should be explicable to the layperson.

I only have one camera now, and one little prime lens. I have to admit, that beyond any image quality or speed issues, it is the size of the lens that makes primes attractive to me. I just much prefer a small camera. So my little Panasonic is perfect for me.

I also like the simplicity of a prime. One lens, one focal length, just breathe and take a photo.

Lets not forget that auto-focus on lenses if mainly for the manufacturers benefit since it's much cheaper to male an electronic module than to engineer a helical focussing mount that has good quality and feel.

Similarly with autotransmission, I suspect it's easier to make an auto change than a decent manual gear lever change.

Incidentally, while there are much less autochanger cars here in the UK, it's also sadly true that every year brings the crop of incidents where people are killed by their own automatic cars. A near neighbour of mine recently died of shock while pinned under her auto 4x4.....

I bought my first camera in 1995 or 96, a Canon EOS something-or-other with a kit zoom. I didn't own that camera long and don't remember whether 50mm kits were being offered.

I wonder whether the manual focus SLR will ever come back. I think Cosina makes a manual 35mm body. Does anyone else? I would love a compact full frame body with a Nikon D700 sensor and interchangeable screens, and I expect a lot of people would. But it may never happen. Once manufacturers stop making manual focus lenses, there doesn't seem to be much reason to offer such a camera.

"Shows you where my priorities are."

I'll say. I remember every time I've ever driven a stick (all 4 of them). It's fun, but I don't see any other benefit to the driving experience. (Of course, cost and mileage may be less immediate or more important benefits.)

Of course, I also have never used a prime lens other than a fixed lens disposable camera.

Cars, again.

Modern automatics really do work better in every way than manuals, and are used in the most extreme race cars by the most highly skilled drivers. The integration of electronic throttle control and transmission control made this possible. These "modern" automatics are still rare and expensive, but getting cheaper and better all the time.

I gave up manual focus when I found a camera that gave me a much higher percentage of in-focus shots of race cars flying past. I enjoy shifting, but a modern automatic would give me a much higher percentage of perfectly executed (and far quicker) shifts.


It's the opposite problem actually, one standard trick in snow/ice is to start in second gear rather than first to reduce wheelspin by reducing torque at the wheel.

Automatics have had shift-up limiters for decades (usually you get 1, 2 and D for the max gear) but it wasn't until traction control showed up in the early '90's that the Automatics became a really good option for winter driving.

Regarding Finnish drivers: Top Gear sent James May to Finland to find out why that country has produced so many world champion drivers:


Stephen wrote:
When I use my zooms I tend to favor each end of the range with very little in between. This is especially true with my 24-105. I think I tend to think in "wide" vs. "compressed" more than anything else.
This has been my experience as well. I particularly favor "wide" because that's where the speed is on the cheap zooms I have used.

Is there any design advantage to making a dual-position zoom? One that clicks between, say 28mm and 40mm, giving decent speed and good quality at those two positions, with the tradeoff that they aren't usable at intermediate positions?


There are a lot of advantages of primes: smaller, faster, cheaper... If cropping in camera is important then variable focal length is very handy. If I "zoom with my feet" I am also changing perspective. I like to keep magnification and perspective separate controls. I compose and adjust perspective by choosing the location of the camera. I crop in-camera by adjusting focal length.

It's popular to say that zooms make photographers lazy. Give me a break. Some folks walk up and shoot where they happen to stand. Others do more visual exploration. These differences are in the mind of the camera operator not the camera.

This thread is turning into a mini-discussion on life in general with cars and cameras as metaphors.

I grew up in Southern California and like most kids then had my learner's permit at 15 1/2 and took my driver's test on my 16th birthday in a a 1957 Karmann Ghia which had a VW Bug chassis and transmission -- four speed and no sych in first going down. After I got married, I moved overseas and never owned a car with an automatic transmission until I was back in the US got a 2000 Impala.

Now, I work in an office and someone had to move a client's car a few weeks ago. It was a manual transmission. The young man (mid-twenties) who is usually given this task had never driven a manual. The keys were passed around the office and finally wound up in my office (suffice it to say I've got my Medicare card) and I moved the car. Out of twenty-three people, including some very car-conscious, macho males, this Little Old Lady was the only one who knew how to drive a manual transmission.

Going back to cameras, my first "serious" camera was a Pentax H3v which I got around 1966. No metering system, no automatic focus, and a f/1.8 Super Takumar lens. I was a graduate student in Mexico when I got the H3v, and I shot hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures and slides with it. (I also wound a lot of film sitting on the floor of my closet.)

My original H3v is long gone, but I found another at a garage sale last year and brought it home for old time's sake. It does take great pictures, but I find myself wondering how I ever did it. And manually advancing the film -- how retro can you get?? It's really made me appreciate my Canon 7D.

Incidentally, I find the H3v to be surprisingly limited in my shutter speed/f-stop options these days. Then I remembered that back in the 1960's, most film had a lot lower ASA (remember that). I usually shot Kodak Plus-X at ASA 100, and as I recall Kodachrome was ASA 25 and Ektachrome ASA 64. Today, I have to hunt for ISO 200 color print film. Almost everything over the counter seems to be ISO 400 which translates to shooting f/16 at 1/500, or even ISO 800. Since the H3v's highest shutter speed is 1/1000 (seemed like a miracle in its day), on a sunny day, I can only go down to f/11 with ISO 400. I suppose I could run around with a pocketful of neutral density filters, but I don't want to!

My first experience with a zoom lens was the 43 to 86mm Nikkor. That pretty much killed my enthusiasm for zoom lenses until I finally bought into digital in 2005 and picked up the much better 18 to 70 that came with my D70.
If my house was on fire and I could only save one camera it would be an ancient Rollei 2.8f.
So much for kit lenses (mutars don't count). It does have an excellent 80mm Planar which relies on the Florsheim variable subject size system which is a nice alternative to fiddling with a zoom.

Two digressions in one post? I believe Strunk & White would say that borders on regression.

As is so often the case, you are spot on, Mike. I agree, simpler is often better. I didn't really get into the photography game until after auto-focus was very established, so I can't say I'm a manual focus guy. I am, however, a steadfast prime user. Up until Friday evening, I had only 3 relatively fast but cheap primes: the Canon 24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8 and 100mm f/2.8 Macro lenses. It is a relatively cheap and light combination of fairly high quality glass. I changed things a little by purchasing a not so light and cheap 300mm f/4L IS lens on Friday, but it's still a prime, and for a 300mm lens it is light, so the basic philosophy has not changed.

I have to say, when I bough the very cheap 50mm, it changed my photographic life. I decided very quickly to adopt primes because they represent greater value for me. My original 3 lenses cost me less than a 24-105mm f/4L lens, and the slowest component was an f/2.8! That's value, for me. I can't really see myself buying a zoom in the future. Primes fill my needs very nicely.

As for cars, I wish more of my cars had been standards. Trying to find a manual transmission used car in western Canada can be somewhat difficult. It looks like my next car may have to be an automatic, but I won't like it!

I prefer a prime because I think/compose the picture mentally while I wander about. I visualize the frame of a scene, walk over and push the button.

I've always been attracted to primes, and on my film cameras, they're what I use, but with digital there are 2 big problems for me:
1) The primes that exist are mostly holdovers from the film era. That means, Pentax excepted, the WA options are nonexistent, or severely compromised in terms of performance, especially on non-FF cameras.
2) Dust is a much bigger problem with digital, hence changing lenses frequently which is something I do when using primes, is a much less attractive proposition.

Perhaps mirrorless cameras may revive interest in primes (makes the whole thing pocketable), but so far only the Panasonic 20/1.7 delivers on the promise of primes (small, fast, sharp, good DoF control) albeit a stop too slow.

I must be in the minority because in 1992 when I got my first auto focus SLR (a Canon 10s), I bought it with an EF 50mm, f1.8 lens instead of a zoom lens. Of course, several years later, I bought a 35-70 zoom lens but I still prefer the 50mm lens.

Thanks JC for some clarity about auto transmissions. Street racers routinely alter auto trans for speed and snap; I think there are many legal racers running auto trans now, though not a field I follow. My wife's Vdub has a "sport" setting; far more aggressive, and you can shift yourself if you're a "tach techie".

I await your 2 lens kit with bated breath.

I remember buying a Canon Elan film SLR (which was the intermediate model at the time, roughly comparable in marketing terms to a Canon 50D today, I think) in the early 1990s. It came with a 28-80 f/3.5-5.6 lens that is currently resting in the back of a drawer because it's a terrible lens. So at least for the non-pro Canon cameras, cheap zooms had become the standard "kit" lens by 1993 or so.

My own progress with lenses has been from cheap AF zooms (originally on film SLRs) to expensive (Canon L) AF zooms to AF primes... and finally to manual focus primes. I've been shooting my Canon 5D Mark II with vintage Nikkor AI and AI-S primes (with mount adapters that allow the camera's focus confirmation to work) for several months now and I love it. Yesterday I took another step backwards in time by buying a Nikon FE, which will allow me to shoot film with the same lenses without an adapter. The split-prism screen makes focusing much easier than waiting for the focus indicators in a DSLR to light up, at least, with a reasonably fast lens. My slowest Nikkor is the 300mm f/4.5 AI-S, which is usable on the FE but just barely so due to half the split-prism blacking out. The 200mm f/4 is a bit better, and my other Nikkors are f/2.8 or faster, which makes the split-prism very happy.

As Markus commented earlier, here in Finland you can get a driver's license that is limited to automatic transmissions. The limited license can later be upgraded by taking the test again with a manual transmission. I also haven't heard of anyone doing so, at least not without some kind of health related reason.

In 2007 the ratio between manual and automatic transmissions here was 82% / 18%. A quick search didn't yield any newer numbers. http://www.hs.fi/autot/artikkeli/Automaattien%2Bsuosio%2Bnousussa/1135232439530&prev=_t&rurl=translate.google.com&twu=1&usg=ALkJrhh8THQjzoWQn82nA9_7wLzDZKgoqA" target="_blank">(link to the horribly translated source here.)

Here's a link to a video of one young Finn trying to learn how to drive with a manual gearbox.

My first SLR was a Canon EOS Elan in 1992, it came with a kit zoom lens. The lens was awful. What really perturbed me was after I bought it, one of the photo magazines did a review of my camera and complimented it on having such a fine lens. From then on I knew not to trust the photo magazines.

I later upgraded to a better zoom, and bought for myself a 50mm standard lens. Oh how I loved it, it was bright, and produced so much better images than even my best zoom, all for only $65. Funny thing is now that I use a digital body the single focal length lenses don't have the obvious advantages they used to with film. I'm still fond of them for their speed, and other qualities.

Autofocus was pretty much established when I started taking pictures in 1991, but people I knew who were into photography in the 80's all shot manual. Mostly Pentax, Olympus or Nikon.

for those of you that are kenrockwell fans:
personally, my pentax smc 50mm f/2 is the sharpest lens i have used, and has taken the best pictures i have taken.


Other important factors in the ascendancy of zoom lenses as standard kit were: computer-aided lens design and manufacture, and advances in plastics and composite materials. These advances made possible optically adequate zoom lenses that were also reasonably compact, light and cheap (as well as high-end zooms suitable for pro work, which in turn helped make those cheaper zooms more marketable.)

On the user end, no one seems to have brought this up, but (as attested to in multiple TOP discussions) it is not uncommon for a dedicated photographer to get to know a prime lens intimately well--how its characteristics change at different focus distances and apertures, what the "sweet spots" are for sharpness, bokeh, flare resistance, etc.

Zooms are another story. They have all the common quirks of primes, but multiplied over a range of focal lengths; thus, they have much more complicated personalities and are more difficult to get to know well. And there is less incentive to do so, because, for various reasons, they are more disposable.

I think I know where you might be headed with this. I am recalling a fascinating discussion here about how most zoom users use two focal lengths for most of their shooting. But whichever way this ends up going, the preemptive defensiveness in some of the comments is amusing, as is the fact that a preamble to a post is generating so much response.

robert e

"I wonder whether the manual focus SLR will ever come back. I think Cosina makes a manual 35mm body. Does anyone else?"

Sure: Leica. (And the Zeiss Ikon and ZM lens equivalent, and the Cosina rangefinders and their lenses.)


"(I also wound a lot of film sitting on the floor of my closet.)"

Solidarity, sister! I've wound a whole lot of film sitting on the floors of closets with a towel blocking the light from under the door.

In fact, you're NOT A REAL PHOTOGRAPHER unless you have!

Oh, okay, just kidding.


I really liked Mercedes Benz cars, my family started buying them when you had to buy them in the back of the Studebaker store, but when they stopped selling then with standard transmissions in the US I stopped driving them.

Our youngest boy suffered an epiphesis fracture in his teens necessitating a pin in his hip meaning he can't fully articulate his leg and consequently can't use a clutch, The Toyota Yaris we bought him when he was going to university had a semi automatic gearbox. It had a gear lever but no clutch. To change gear one just eased off the accelerator and moved the gear lever. It was the simplest system imaginable and with no torque converter suffered no power loss. The big bonus for him was that on passing his test in it he got a full license and not just one for an automatic gearbox.
Someone commented on the performance of the MB auto has not being as good as a clutch and gearbox. This boy just got himself an auto Porsche Boxter and I can tell you it beats any clutch gearbox combo hands down.

Back to photography. I always thought good zoom lenses really only became available and popular with the advent of the computer which could do calculations in hours rather than months.

Mike. Driving in snow or ice it is generally preferable to get into a high gear where the torque is lower at low revs. Makes it easier to get away from rest. With a manual gear box this would mean starting off in second or even third gear. Most current auto gear boxes will also allow this via manual selection

Also Mike, the European versions drive way better than their US cousins, they're far livelier!

Look to the engine sizes of the US badged versions, HUGE by comparison -- this so Washington can stand up and say, "look we've even lowered emissions below that of Europe" -- what a joke. I've said it before, just bring the US standards ACROSS THE BOARD inline with those of Europe, get all the old crap off the roads and stop hammering the TDi's with those choking emissions standards. Maybe then we'll see a marked improvement in BOTH economy AND emissions!

When it comes to emissions versus fuel economy versus purchase price the Europeans have this stuff down pat -- but we in the US appear happy paying $30k for that debacle with the bi-polar braking system :-))

"I think Cosina makes a manual 35mm body. Does anyone else? "

To add to Mike's list, as recently as a few years ago, the Chinese producer and inheritor of Minolta's last consumer X bodies was still at it. I believe they were sold under the "Phoenix" brand, among others.

The venerable Nikon FM10 is still available from B&H, but it is a Cosina product, and I suspect remaining new old stock.

As this is the internet, I wish to state the following facts with need for supporting evidence.

1. U.S. auto manufacturers (that long disparaged lot) perfected reliable and smooth automatic transmissions by the late 1950s or early 1960s. "Torque-flite" (!) which was Chrysler's version was named perfectly.

2. European and Japanese manufacturers, by comparison, had inferior offerings in the automatic transmissions department, for a long time. It is not surprising that these drivers in these markets had (and continue to have) a poor appreciation of the joys of automatic transmission.

3. Automatic transmissions may be considered more 'sissy' by Europeans and the British, but try driving one in heavy city traffic and comparing it to driving a stick shift. The automatic causes way less driver fatigue and contributes to more alert driving.

4. Full disclosure-I learned driving on a stick shift (my first two cars) and longed for an automatic all the way through. Poor torque curve? Why do you think U.S. cars had those enormously overpowered V8s anyway?

Mike, I remember precisely when my time came to switch from a fast prime lens to a "kit zoom"--actually for me it as a pair of zooms. That as in 1986 when I left my Canon A-1 behind and purchased a couple of Minolta Maxxum 9000s.

I returned to fast primes when I bought a 40mm/1.4 with my Cosina Voigtlander Bessa five years ago. Now my Sony Alpha kit (which superceded the Minoltas includes a Sony 50/1.4, a Minolta 50/2.8 macro, and a nice compact Minolta 28/2.8, which is fast becoming my primary prime!

Judging from a recent episode of Top Gear, the Finnish driving test is to power-slide your way round a forest circuit in the middle of a howling blizzard. :-)

I'm driving the first automatic transmission I ever owned (bought last year; been driving since 1977), and it's definitely the right choice for me. Much happier in stop-and-go traffic, which I unfortunately deal with pretty much daily. Same mileage rating as the 6-speed manual (the alternative available for this car, a 2010 Camry).

It can down-shift far faster than I ever could.

I, too, have read that F1 cars and the like are all running auto gearboxes with paddle shifters these days. Not that this proves much of anything, either direction, about what's suitable for driving on the public roads anyway.

My first SLR I bought with a 50/1.4, which was nice enough. The next lens I got was a Soligor 200/3.5 (a "fast" 200mm at the time, though not super-fast). Then a 28mm, which I really didn't get on with. Then I swapped that system for a Pentax system with a bunch of lenses from 28-400mm, and bought a Leica M3 with 50mm (collapsible) Summicron, to which I added 90/2 and 35/2 in the next couple of years.

I think my first zoom was in 1975; a Tamron Adaptall 85-210, I think f/4.5. I had it until just a couple of years ago, having used it on Pentax, Nikon, and I think Olympus mounts over time.

These days, the two primes I make any significant use of are the Nikkor 85/1.8 AF and the Pelang 8mm fisheye. I do still have the 24/2, 35/2, and 50/1.8 manual focus lenses I got in 1980-1982, but they're rarely used today.

Americans can not drive a manual shift car; left hand is for the cell phone, right hand is for the coffee cup and/or food, knees are for steering. How are they ever going to shift?

When photographing sports or car racing, I love zooms. There's no time to change lenses or space to move in. Out in the mountains, on a hike, primes rule. The light weight of the Pany GF1 and a couple or three primes makes the bag unnoticeable on my shoulder or waist.

I drive a BMW (E46 3-Series 330i) with a manual transmission. Besides being incredibly fun to drive, the manual was the only sensible choice as the BMW automatic transmission is a delicate one that will last to 100k miles if one is lucky.

And BMW is not the only culprit by far. Honda automatics behind one of Honda's excellent V6 engines barely seem to make it through the manufacturer's warranty period.

And I also enjoy my Nikon 50mm f1.8 and 35mm f1.8 AF primes. They blow any of my zooms away.

In Poland an exam is taken in cars with manual transmission.
Only handicapped are allowed here to take the exam in their own car accommodated to their handicap - probably only them can have a driving license using automatic transmission.
Manual cars are more desired than automatic, so is the result on road.
Probably an automatic is a good idea for a traffic jam, but I prefer a motorbike with manual transmission.

I originally (like most other Danes) learned stick (at the ripe age of 23), but never felt really comfortable with driving. When I was in the US for 5 years, I drove auto, and that gave me the chance to learn the other parts of driving with the stick to confuse me. When I got back, I very quickly got used to manual again. I'm pretty sure that any decent automatic can drive better than I can with manual, but I think most people consider themselves better-than-average drivers and would feel insulted at the suggestion that a machine can drive better than they can.

As for "zoom with your feet", I want my perspective the way I want it. Using a zoom (or multiple primes) is an alternative to cropping, not to moving, unless you shoot fairly flat things.

I like the idea of an ultra-wide and a long tele for landscape work, though I'd probably put a medium-long macro in there, too.

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