Fig 1

Fig 2

Fig 3









To help you get the most out of your new hobby, I have put together the following notes about the basic principles of photography. I have tried to avoid the use of too much jargon and where I have I have explained what it means. The principles apply to all cameras, though they vary in the way they deal with them.

It's all Greek to me!

Many people are put off photography because it all sounds so complicated. It needn't be! I am convinced that most of the jargon was created to make other people think that photography is some sort of black art rather than what it really is: capturing a lump of reflected light on some material that can record the detail of that light (the film). Much of the technical language used is in fact Greek. No really, it is Greek!

The Camera

Assuming that you are interested in learning something about the principles of photography, you will need a camera which doesn't attempt to do everything for you. Of course most modern cameras do this some with more success than others. What they do is to automate all the (quite simple) processes involved in taking a picture. Ironically, it is this very automation which causes the worst errors both in focussing and exposure: it is much easier to take a completely out of focus and badly exposed picture with an automatic camera than it is with a manual one! That's quite a statement, but true provided you have mastered a few basic principles.

I would recommend purchasing a second-hand camera with manual controls for shutter speed, aperture and focussing, and a built in exposure meter. They are available as compacts or single lens reflex (SLR) models and are often surprisingly cheap.

The Film

Films are available in all sorts of sizes and types. The most popular is colour negative film and I will stick to explaining this for the time being. The "lump of light" is captured on the film's surface coating - the emulsion - which is photo-sensitive (photo is the Greek word for light).

Films are available in different "speed ratings". This term is confusing because what it really means is how sensitive to light they are. A fast film is very sensitive and needs less light to produce a picture than a slow film.

For most purposes you will probably choose from the following speeds of film:

ISO 100 Medium speed film for use in bright light for general photography
ISO 200 Semi-fast film for use in dull conditions
ISO 400 Fast film for use in dull conditions or for action photography

Modern ISO 200 films are so good that they can be used in place of ISO 100 for most purposes. I will explain more about this later.

ISO stands for International Standards Organisation. You may also hear it referred to as ASA, which is the American Standards Authority.

When you load a film into your camera the first thing to check is that the film speed dial on the camera is set to the correct position for the film being used.


Loading the film

This can be a bit of a fiddly process and is where the worst mistake in all photography is made - people do it all the time. The film does not catch on the sprocket properly, the film stays inside the cassette while the pictures are being taken and all those valuable lumps of light are lost forever rather than captured for ever!

Let's go through the correct way of loading a film:

I would suggest always having the camera strap around your neck whenever you are handling the camera as it is easy to drop it particularly when you are loading or unloading films.

Make sure the camera does not have a film in it. You can do this by turning the film rewind lever in the direction of the arrow (clockwise). It should turn freely. If it goes tight the camera is already loaded with a film. The frame counter indicator will tell you how many pictures have been taken.

If the camera is empty, release the camera back, Open it as far as it will go and drop the film into position with the protruding black tube to the bottom and the film to the right.

Push the rewind knob back down, turning slightly if necessary.
Pull out the end of the film and attach it to the spool on the right hand side of the camera. (Fig 1)

Wind the film advance lever slowly to take up the slack in the film, making sure that the sprockets are engaged in the top and bottom rows of holes in the film. (Fig 2)

Gently turn the rewind handle in the clockwise direction to confirm that the film is correctly located on the sprockets. (Fig 3)

Close the camera back.
Wind on the film and press the shutter release as necessary until the indicator shows 1. As you wind on the film check that the rewind knob turns. This indicates that the film is being fed from the cassette correctly.

You're now ready to take pictures - at last!


As I mentioned earlier, the film captures a lump of light to create a negative which is used to make a print. In order for this print to look like the original subject you photographed, the right amount of light has to reach the film. Too much light will cause the picture to be too light (under-exposed) and not enough will cause it to be too dark (over-exposed).

There are two ways to adjust the amount of light reaching the film when the picture is taken:

alter the time that the shutter is open - shutter speed
alter the size of the hole that the light comes through - aperture

These instructions assume that your camera has a built-in light meter that is viewed through the viewfinder.

Some have LED lights or illuminated numbers in place of the needle, but the principle is the same.

The light meter measures the amount of light coming into the camera and tells you when the exposure is correct. If you look through the viewfinder you will see a pointer on the right hand side with a + sign above it and a - sign below. To try it, set the shutter speed to 250 (1/250 second) by turning the knob on the right hand side of the top plate and the aperture to f8. Now alter the aperture to f11 and notice that the needle will stop at a lower position. Try changing the shutter speed to 125 and the needle will move up again. Adjust the aperture until the needle is in the middle and you are ready to take the photograph.

The aperture settings are known as f-stops. Each reduction in aperture setting (eg f8 to f11) reduces the light entering the camera by half; the same as increasing the shutter speed from 1/125 to 1/250 second.

For general photography in bright light with the standard lens and ISO100 or 200 film, a shutter speed of 1/125 second will be OK. Leave the camera on this setting and change the aperture as necessary to get the needle in the middle.

If you are using a telephoto lens, try to use a faster shutter speed (1/250 or higher) to reduce the possibility of camera shake - the longer the lens the more difficult it is to keep the camera still. If the light is low it may not be possible to use these speeds as the aperture will not open wide enough to let in enough light. The only way to correct this is to lower the shutter speed.


When using the flash on an SLR camera, make sure the shutter speed is at the correct setting, ususlly 1/60 or 1/125. If you use a faster speed part of the picture will be black. This is because the shutter will not be open long enough and will be closing before the flash has fired. This is another common mistake and one that even professionals make.


Depth of Field

This is the range of distance which is in sharp focus in front and behind the point you focus on. The smaller the aperture the greater the depth of field. Therefore if the lens is set at f4 it will have less depth of field than if it is set at f16.

The longer the lens, the smaller the depth of field. When using a 200mm telephoto lens the depth of field will be very small even with the lens stopped down to the smallest aperture (f16). At f2.8 it will be just a few inches making focusing accuracy critical.

Most lenses have markings similar to those on the aperture ring on either side of the focusing mark. These show you the depth of field for each lens aperture.

The depth of field limitation can cause difficulties in some situations and can be useful in others. If you want to focus quickly to take an action shot with a telephoto lens you can lose the shot while trying to focus. Also, you are likely to want to use a fast shutter speed to stop the subject's movement and to prevent the picture being blurred because of camera shake. This will force you to have to open the aperture to f2.8 which will reduce the depth of field. This is the reason that fast films are used with telephoto lenses for action shots. An ISO400 film will allow you either to double your shutter speed or stop down your lens by one stop (eg f2.8 to f4) to increase the depth of field. Unless you want to have large prints made from your negatives, you will not notice much difference between a 400 film and a 200, except that the colours may not be quite as bright. If you have large prints made, however, you will notice that the picture is more grainy with the 400 film.

The depth of field phenomenon can also be useful as it allows you to control the way the picture looks: you can choose between having all the picture in focus or just the subject.

Of course there are many books and magazines available to help you develop your skills and I would recommend that you invest in at least one of the photographer's handbook type. However, there's no substitute for practice, so off you go!  


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