Washingtonians are taking up photography in unprecedented numbers. I ought to be glad, but it's really discouraging: People seem to want only the most automatic of cameras, bypassing the relationships of light, shutter speed and lens-diaphragm openings -- all made entirely too easy by today's computer-cameras.

Those who've been experimenting with photography for years -- not to mention the professionals -- seem to be moving back to manual cameras or at least to those that provide an alternative to the automatics that do everything except set off fireworks. These cameras are fine for routine picture- taking, but serious photographers are bound to run into situations where the automatic camera is going to make a mess of things: backlighted subjects, sunsets, the need to shoot faster than 125th of a second. I always try to use at least 1/250th on hand-held exposures -- the pictures are almost always sharper as a result.

Programmed cameras, with both shutter speed and lens opening set automatically, are almost a contradiction in terms when speaking of "creative photography," but the all-automatic feature is creeping into even the "best" equipment. Last year I bought one of those top-line electronic wizards but traded it in when the blinking red lights in the viewfinder kept running up and down the scale out of control. For the same price, I now have two cameras: an automatic with a full range of manual shutter speeds and a completely manual camera, which I recommend to novices.

But few amateurs will buy manual cameras; they prefer the programmable ones. Both are good, and will take good pictures, but the all-automatic cameras assume that most amateur photographers only want to "point and shoot" and are satisfied with mere snapshots.

If you're one of those, there's no need to read on. But photography is such a fascinating form of self-expression and creativity that it's a shame that more camera buyers don't experiment with, say, close-ups or late-afternoon light (the best time to shoot).

The other day I was walking along the C&O Canal near Great Falls when a fellow with a programmed camera came along and watched while I took a few shots of autumn leaves against the water and the bright reflections of the late-afternoon sun. Such a combination of backlighting, shimmering water and bright yellow leaves requires a careful meter reading not of the reflected sunlight but of a not-so-brightly lit area off to the side.

The fellow with the programmed camera, however, pointed it right into the water's reflected light, thinking, no doubt, that the camera's magical computer would take care of the situation. His picture is likely to be grossly underexposed because his meter read the bright, reflected light.

Most such cameras have a built-in "exposure compensation" dial or button, but it really amounts to guesswork. Many also have manual shutter-speed override or at least a provision for using a couple of manual speeds. If I were saddled with a programmable camera, I would turn the automation off, if possible, and use it almost exclusively on manual.

These are admittedly minority views. But the next time you're considering buying one of those irresistible 35 mm cameras that do everything but long division, ask the salesman what camera he uses personally. Chances are it's one that allows him full manual control. That's one reason his photos are better.