Getting this right is the one thing you can do right now to improve your film photography.
Part 1 in our Beginners Guide to Film Photography
Photography is all about light, which means understanding how your camera sees light is the most important step in improving your film game. We don’t need to get all technical here to help you get started. The important thing is to grasp a couple of basics and understand what tools are available for you to use.
First, you need to know your way around your camera a bit. Find out if yours has a built-in light meter and if it’s working. Some older camera models might not have a light meter in which case you’ll need to learn how to meter manually with an external light meter or by downloading a free application on your phone like LUX (iOS/Android). If your camera has a built in light meter it’s important to check and see if it’s working properly. Camera batteries in old film cameras die often so make sure you’ve got a new one put in.
Once you’ve got that sorted you need to understand how to use the light meter to help you get perfectly exposed images. In film photography, getting the correct exposure is the number one thing that will help you improve your photos. Exposure is the amount of light which reaches your film. If don’t let enough light in to your camera, you’ll have underexposed images. If you let too much light in, you’ll have overexposed images. Underexposed and overexposed negatives cause all sorts of problems, leading to you having images that are too bright or dark and with strange coloration. Unfortunately, we see this all of the time in the lab. A light meter helps us get correct exposure and helps you get your images looking great.
ISO tells you how sensitive your film is to light
Aperture is a lot like your eyes’ pupils
A cool hipster shirt
Built in light meter
With a light meter you can adjust settings to get a good exposure
LUX Free Light Meter App for your phone
Every camera has three ways of controlling exposure – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – and a light meter tells us exactly which settings we need to get our exposure right. The key is to understand how these three settings relate to each other and to make sure you set your camera settings correctly. You can click on the points above to go in more detail on what ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed are.
The important thing is to know that every film has an ISO. For example, Kodak Color Plus 200 has an ISO of 200. First, make sure your camera or light meter are set to the right ISO. Then, set the aperture on your camera. The light meter will now tell you what shutter speed you need to have for a correct exposure. In this case, 1/60th of a second. Make sure your camera’s shutter speed is set correctly and voilá!
In some cases you might want to adjust the shutter speed first instead of the aperture. This is especially the case in low light situations when too low of a shutter speed can result in shaky out of focus images. The nice thing about a light meter is you can easily adjust your shutter speed first and it will tell you what aperture you need or vis-versa. For example, if I’m shooting inside a restaurant and I know that if my shutter speed is below 1/60th of a second it will come out blurry. So having first set my ISO, I then set my light meter to 1/60th of a second and it tells me that I need an aperture of at least 2.8 in order to have a correctly exposed image. I adjust the settings on my camera and I’ve taken an image that my foodie cousin will be proud of.
But what happens if my camera doesn’t have a 2.8 aperture in this situation? Well then you’re going to have to reduce your shutter speed, hold your breath, and try not to shake too much OR you can use a tripod :D. The important thing to keep in mind is that underexposing images almost never turn out well. Film just doesn’t handle underexposure very well and you’ll probably be disappointed unless you expose your images correctly.
There’s obviously a lot more about light metering that you can learn but this should at least get you started. For more advanced film photographers we recommend you learning more about the Zone System and for those who want to take amazing portraits we’d recommend learning how to meter specifically for portrait photography. We’d also suggest learning more about the different metering modes your camera has as this can really improve your images. But for now, get out there and get creative 🙂
Have some helpful tips for other people on how to meter correctly? Leave them in the comments below.