Photography tips help student newbie

Photography Basics - Start Here!

By Mike Medlock and Howard Parker.

Call us daft, but we reckon that you probably haven't stumbled across this article by chance - you're probably here because you're thinking of getting into photography and are looking to buy your first proper camera.

Perhaps you already have a digital camera and want to try something else a little more old-school? Perhaps you want to flick through your very own shoe box full of photos? Or perhaps you just think a film camera would look super cool next to your latte in a coffee shop (Was that a dig at me? - Howard)

Whatever your reason for taking up photography, we'll try our best to guide you along with choosing your first camera. 

In this article we'll consider:

  • Exposure Basics
  • Exposure Modes
  • Types of Camera
  • Film Formats
  • Lenses

 As a specialist analogue camera shop, naturally we are approaching this article and the subject of photography with a film camera in mind, but a lot of the principles apply to digital too.

It's also important to note that we're not total snobs - we don't consider film photography the be-all and end-all. Plenty of my own personal favourite images were taken on an iPhone. If you like a photo, the format doesn't matter, and the best camera is the one that's with you. 

Okay, let's go!

First thoughts

When looking to get into photography with a "proper" film camera, plenty of people who have been into the hobby for a while will recommend a completely manual camera (I.e. - a camera which requires you to set the shutter speed and aperture manually for every shot, and has no automatic option). In theory this will force you to learn the basics more quickly, and force you to pay more attention to what you are doing. This can be the case, but if you just want to start taking photos and are not familiar with the principles of photography first, jumping in at the deep end with a fully manual could lead to disappointing results - and that's just not fun!

We recommend something that's automatic or semi-automatic at first, maybe with manual options for when you get used to shooting a little more. This will help you to produce photos you're proud of much more quickly, and let you get more familiar with the camera before taking more control over how you want the images to look. 

What do we mean, by automatic or semi-automatic? Well, first we need to know about exposure

Exposure Basics

To get the most out of photography, you'll need to know the basics of exposure. This comprises of three parts. The "exposure triangle". This comprises of ISO, shutter speed and aperture. 

  • ISO - Also known as ASA on some older cameras. The ISO rating of a film defines how sensitive the film is to light. In turn it determines how much light the film needs to be exposed to, to achieve correct exposure of a scene. A high ISO - such as 3200 - requires much less light than a low ISO film - such as 100 - to achieve the same exposure meaning you can take photos in darker situations. A 100 speed film needs five times as much light to achieve the same exposure.

    So, why not just use high ISO film all the time? Well, the sensitivity of the film also plays a part in how much detail it can capture. For instance a high ISO film will produce lots of grain in your image, leading to a more moody, gritty look. A low ISO film will result in a photo with a far less grain. For general photography, an ISO between 100 and 400 is considered 'normal' and will give you the best versatility for the majority of circumstances. (ISO is also exactly the same in digital photography, and although it works in a different way, an ISO of 400 on film, will be the same sensitivity on digital.)
  • Shutter speed - This is the duration of time that the film - or sensor - is exposed to light. It's expressed in a fraction of a second, so 1/60th is one sixtieth of a second. The higher the shutter speed, the less light falls on the film. Of course, this is fairly self explanatory - less light = a lower total exposure.

    The shutter speed can also be used creatively to change images. For instance, most film cameras have a highest speed of 1/1000th of a second. This is really useful for freezing action. Alternatively, you could take the same photo at a slower speed like 1/15th of a second, which will help to capture motion in your image, for example water from a fountain would appear to be static droplets at 1/1000th, whilst it would appear to flow smoothly together at 1/15th. It's worth noting that using shutter speeds under approximately 1/30th hand-held can produce a little blur from natural camera shake holding the camera, especially if you've had a few too many lattes. Try and stick to 1/30th or faster without a tripod.
  • Aperture - Aperture is just a fancy word for 'hole'. It is the iris inside your lens which creates a hole which opens and closes to allow more or less light to enter the camera. It is a way to control the total amount of exposure in conjunction with the shutter speed. It also affects another aspect of the image, called "depth of field". Very simply, this can be described as how much of your photo is in focus. Using a large aperture such as f/2 will give you a very thin depth of field - for example if you want your subject to be in sharp focus, but the background blurry in a portrait. Using a small aperture such as f/22 will increase the depth of field, making the background also appear in focus. 

But how do these three principles relate? They're all measured relative to each other in what can be referred to as stops. A 'stop' is a doubling or halving of total exposure. 

  • ISO stops double as the sensitivity of the film gets higher e.g. 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200.
  • Shutter speed stops also double in fractions of a second e.g. 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000.
  • Aperture (also known as f-stop) is a little less intuitive but is measured as a ratio: f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16 etc - the larger the number, the less light travels through the lens and is falling on the film.

Shutter speed, aperture and ISO are always linked to the total exposure. The same exposure can be made by different combinations of these values. For example:

  • ISO 400 at f/4 and 1/60th
  • ISO 400 at f/2.8 and 1/125th
  • ISO 800 at f/5.6 and 1/60th

Would all be identical amounts of total exposure.

As ISO is fixed once you've loaded a film, the easiest way to figure out what settings to dial into the camera is to choose to shoot at a predetermined aperture, and adjust the shutter speed to suit the correct exposure - or vice versa of course.  

Uh, what?

It's a lot to take in! Let's put this into practice. Suppose we have an ISO 400 film loaded and we want to take the portrait of a particularly beautiful cat, and we want a blurry background. So how do we do that?

Firstly, we would want to choose an aperture that will give us the thin depth of field needed to throw the background out of focus relative to the cat. An aperture around f/2 would be ideal for this. 

For the film to receive the correct amount of light, we need to choose an appropriate shutter speed. In a situation with plenty of light (the cat is basking outdoors in the sun?) this would need to be a relatively high shutter speed for our chosen f/2 aperture. Perhaps 1/1000th would be the correct choice here. If we were taking the same photo with the same f/2 aperture in a darker situation (the cat is trying to escape from you, indoors?) we would need to allow the film more time to gather the same amount of light coming through the lens by taking a longer exposure. Perhaps 1/30th would be more suitable here. 

Now on the other hand, if we wanted much more of the scene to be in focus we would start by using a smaller aperture - such as f/11 - and we'd need to compensate for the loss of light travelling through the lens by giving the film more exposure to light - by increasing the duration the shutter is open. 

 Personally, when I view a scene, I like to consider how much I want in focus first, which means I tend to favour choosing my aperture first and then setting the shutter speed. This can be called Aperture Priority. Other photographers may prefer to consider the shutter speed first and would change the aperture value to suit the exposure. This can be called Shutter Priority. There is no wrong way to work and it all comes down to personal preference, and the task at hand.

Exposure Modes

Exposure modes in cameras work in many different ways, but essentially we can break the various options down into four categories. We have provided some examples of each type, but of course there are far more!

  • Manual (M): You set all exposure settings yourself. Some models have a built in light meter to guide you, some do not. - e.g. Pentax Spotmatic, Nikon FM, Olympus OM-1.
  • Aperture Priority (Av): You choose the aperture then the camera works out the shutter speed for you. e.g. Pentax ME Super, Olympus OM-10, Nikon FE, Yashica FX-D
  • Shutter Priority (Tv): You choose the shutter speed and the camera works out the aperture for you. e.g. Canon AE-1, Pentax P30, 
  • Fully automatic (Program): The camera is chooses both shutter speed and aperture for you. e.g. Canon A-1, Nikon FA, Minolta X700.

Some cameras have both automatic and manual modes, whereas other models only have fully automatic or fully manual functionality.

For a first camera we'd recommend something that has at least one option of automatic exposure, but it is not essential. 

Any one of the cameras mentioned above would be a great camera to start your journey into photography, but are also very competent cameras that you should not find the need to upgrade from particularly quickly. However, the beauty of analogue photography is that there is so much to choose from if you want to try something different.

This brings us nicely onto our next subject...

Types of Camera

Big, small, simple, complicated. There are myriad weird and wonderful cameras out there, as well as different film formats. Where to start? Well, for a beginner we'd recommend an 35mm SLR. It's the typical camera one thinks of when considering a proper camera. But what is an SLR, I hear you ask? There are exceptions, but broadly speaking, cameras fall into the following categories:

  • SLR (Single Lens Reflex) - The image you see through the finder is precisely the image that will be captured. Usually interchangeable lens. The most popular style and generally easy to use. All the models mentioned in the above section are 35mm SLR cameras.
  • Rangefinder -  The user does not see through the lens directly. Focusing is achieved through a double image system in the viewfinder. Usually more compact than SLR cameras, interchangeable lenses on better models. Can be very pleasant to use once you have got the hang of it. e.g. Leica M3, Olympus 35SP, Voigtlander Bessa R, Nikon SP
  • TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) - The user views an (almost) identical image to what will be captured through a separate lens above the taking lens. Almost always 120 film and fully manual. Popular around the 1960's. e.g. Rolleiflex Automat, Mamiya C330, Yashica-Mat
  • Viewfinder/Point and Shoot -  Usually 35mm, although simple box brownie cameras tend to be medium format. The user has no direct method of focusing - either autofocus, guesstimate or simply fixed focus. Very simple, usually 35mm and very compact. e.g. Olympus Trip 35, Rollei 35, Voigtlander Vito, Contax T2.

  • Folding / Bellows camera - Usually medium format, these tend to be the cheapest way into shooting a format larger than 35mm film. Although simple, the better models are equipped with a rangefinder. Mostly 1950's or earlier. Be prepared to pay a premium for the modern high end versions such as the Fuji GF670. e.g. Voigtlander Bessa, Zeiss Ikonta, Agfa Isolette

  • View/Field/Press camera - Generally large or medium format, these are much larger and more complex to use. A tripod is required. The user can view an inverted image through the ground glass at the back of the camera, perhaps under a cloth hood. Maximum creative possibilities and image quality. e.g. Graflex Speed Graphic, Toyo View, Alpa 12

Film Formats

There are many dozens of formats which have existed over the years, but the most popular surviving few are:

  • 35mm: By far the most common format. Up to 36 shots on a roll in a canister, relatively cheap and easily available, even on the high street.
  • 120 (Medium Format): Larger rolls of film with paper backing, producing higher quality images. Different cameras use different aspect ratios, such as 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7 etc. Shot count depends on the camera, between 16 and 8. Generally easy to get hold of, any reasonable camera store should stock it. Not called "120mm"!
  • 4x5 and up (Large Format): Sheets of 4x5" film, loaded individually, in the dark, in holders. Extremely high quality, but more expensive and cumbersome. Still in production from most manufacturers, but you may have to order it online. 
  • Instant: Still clinging on, despite some discontinuations. Polaroid 600, SX70 and Fuji Instax are the remaining types still in production. Quality is generally poor but acceptable for small images. 


Unless you want to just leave it on a shelf and stare wistfully at your new purchase - you're going to need a lens to put on that camera. There are many "focal lengths" to choose from. This is - broadly speaking - an expression in millimetres, of what view you can expect from the lens. 

Back in the day, most cameras came with a 50mm lens as standard. This focal length is still a great option for all round photography as it is very similar to how we see the world. Not zoomed in and not zoomed out, making them intuitive and versatile. 50mm lenses also tend to have low aperture values such as f/2 or f/1.8. We'd recommend purchasing a camera with one of these to get you started. 

For reference, the standard smartphone camera is around 28mm equivalent.

  • <35mm: "Wide angle" - Landscape, fitting it all in.
  • 40 to 60mm: "Normal" - General photography, good for most things. 
  • >75mm: "Telephoto" - Portraiture, wildlife. 

The big secret

There's a lot of choice out there. Don't stress too much about what the internet tells you is good or bad, the reality is that 99% of film cameras and lenses will produce images of great quality, as long as you use them properly!

For your first film camera, you can't go wrong with any decent 35mm SLR. After that, try some new lenses, try a different format, a different film, a different style of camera... just keep experimenting and having fun! 

It's more about you than the equipment. 

We hope this helps! 

If you're still looking for some advice or film-centric information to indulge in, we recommend Ted Forbes' YouTube channel

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