Help a photgraphy n00b use a fully manual film camera.
September 2, 2007 8:49 PM   Subscribe

My grandfather is letting me borrow his old fully manual SLR camera to mess around with. It's a Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic 1000, in OK condition. I've googled around, but I still feel like I don't really know what I'm doing. I want to take the best pictures I can, and I also want to avoid damaging the camera through ignorance. I know very little about photography and especially little about film cameras. Help!

I'm interested in photography and would really like to learn how to take pictures that are at least technically competent. I know virtually nothing about exposures, aperture settings, ISOs, f stops, lenses, uhh... yeah. I know these things exist and have a fuzzy idea about what they do but very little experience with them, having never really taken photos with anything but a point and shoot.

Additionally, I have a more specific question about lenses, just to give you an idea about the depth of my ignorance: the camera has a "Sigma Mini-Wide 1:2.8 f= 28mm" lens attached to it. I have no idea what these numbers mean or whether this lens will let me take just... normal pictures. I have a manual for the lens but it makes very little sense to me.

I actually (just) found a manual for this camera which will help a bunch, but like I said, I have no frame of reference. Please explain film photography to me like I've never seen a camera before and if you have any tips for this specific camera I will be very appreciative.
posted by MadamM to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think you need to go to a library. You'll find lots of books about SLR type cameras and f-stop and all that.

Ways you can "hurt" your camera: don't touch the backing inside the camera where your film goes -- there's a smooth plate there and it guides the film and you don't want to smudge it, move it or scratch it.

Don't try to clean the lenses without a special soft lens-cleaning cloth. Go into a camera store and ask them how to take care of your lenses -- they'll have all the stuff you need and will give you lots of advice. Treat your lens and the interior of your camera as a sacred space and you'll do okay.

But, seriously, head to your local library and browse their shelves -- there are hundreds of books explaining how to get started with photography and you'll be up and running in no time.
posted by amanda at 8:59 PM on September 2, 2007

Wow. Yeah, amanda has it right. There's just too much to cover in this type of forum.

Try some Google searches, but a library would be better. Or a bookstore. You need a how-to guide for 35mm photography. There are some inexpensive ones you could buy and refer to as you learn. Good luck.
posted by The Deej at 9:04 PM on September 2, 2007

Response by poster: Oh dear. I've been looking on wikipedia and so forth; I guess what I want is sort of a basic run through, just enough information to do what I want with what I have but not so much that I get sidetracked and confused. Which I have a feeling is where Wikipedia is going to get me. If this is too large of a task for this forum, any website suggestions that do this well?

I guess I'm just grasping at straws because I feel like I have no frame of reference, no basic understanding of what all these numbers mean, and as a result I'll take a few rolls of film that will look like crap and I'll have no idea why. Or maybe I should just suck it up and find some cheap film (I don't even know what film costs, having never bought it in my life) and waste my time and money.
posted by MadamM at 9:23 PM on September 2, 2007

You will waste your time and film if you just try to figure it out, not knowing what the numbers even mean. Go get some film, and go to a bookstore and get the most basic book you can find. Maybe something like this. Read through the book with the camera in hand. Take some pictures with the book in hand.

I'm not trying to be coy, or withhold information, but there is no way to just give you "the basics" without writing a whole book myself. It's like saying, "Tell me how to work my computer."

Anything I could tell you about the specifics in this type of forum would only serve to confuse you more, trust me.
posted by The Deej at 9:32 PM on September 2, 2007

Good advice on getting a book. I'm a fan of John Hodges' books on 35mm photography. also has lots of free resources for the beginner. I'd start there with Philip's Making Photographs e-text.

Note that your Spotmatic took an unavailable mercury battery so you'll have be careful with replacements.
posted by Mitheral at 9:34 PM on September 2, 2007

See if you can track down the Life Library of Photography series at your local library. It was a ginormous series of books published in the 70s that was chock-full of information for beginners and experienced hobbyists alike. You could probably skim through the whole series if you're so inclined, but I think the book you want is "The Camera." The info in the book is outdated when it comes to current cameras (duh) but should be just perfect for your old-school Pentax.

Ways a noob can break their camera: touching any of the glass on the lens will smudge those babies up real quick. For the first little while at least, you may want to treat your camera not as an SLR with interchangeable lenses, but as a self-contained unit. In other words, no touching anything inside the camera except for loading film (and presumably you know how to do that much). Even in the film compartment, you'll want to try not to touch the metal/fabric plate in the middle of the camera; that's the shutter, and you generally don't want to screw that up in any way.

Otherwise, treat it as well as you would your point-and-shoot. Don't leave it in the rain, don't toss it in your backpack or purse willy-nilly, don't use it as a giant flyswatter, etc. Once you understand how all the basic components work, you'll find that a lot of the older manual SLRs actually hold up pretty well—talk to anyone with a Nikon FM/FM2 camera, for example, and they'll tell you it's built like a tank.
posted by chrominance at 9:55 PM on September 2, 2007

Get a book.

In my personal experience, the best beginners' film-photography book is "The Craft of Photography" by David Vestal (probably one of a very few books that I can remember the author's name off the top of my head, even though it's been years since I read it). It's out of print but you can get a used copy easily enough. It's geared towards building you up from the basics, which is black-and-white photography, although you can skip right to color (and ignore all the stuff about doing your own developing) if you want.

If you can't find a battery that will make that camera's internal light meter work right, I wouldn't try to use it; film cameras a dirt cheap these days, just go and get a new one until you have the basics figured out. It's hard to find Hg batteries anymore -- nobody manufactures them -- and the replacements for them (silver-oxide, usually) don't always work perfectly, because they produce a slightly different voltage...sometimes they can cause the camera to over/under expose, since it wasn't designed for them, and there are only voltage converters for some battery designs. (I have a great old rangefinder that's basically unusable for this reason.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:17 PM on September 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice; by the way, I hope I didn't come across as too snippy before. I'm sure you guys feel like I do when my mom wants me to help her learn how to use a computer; I had to explain the concepts of files and folders to her, which is second nature to me. Any help you can give me is greatly appreciated.

BTW, just to explain (excuse) my ignorance: I'm 17 and I really have never used a film camera, unless you count disposables. I don't actually know how to load a camera with film. I'm really at sea here, hence my slight desperation.
posted by MadamM at 10:17 PM on September 2, 2007

Great website suggestion earlier.

As you get more experienced, Ken Rockwell's site has tons of good stuff. For now, this will be handy once you learn the basics.
posted by The Deej at 10:19 PM on September 2, 2007

nthing the advice to get a book, but a few tips

The 28mm means that that lens is a classic wideangle. Typically, you'd use it for landscapes or any othertime you want to get a wide field of view. However, the perspective it gives will be exagerated compared to what you see with your bare eyes which will probably distort facial features if you take a portrait with it. A 50mm lens is the classic focal length on a 35mm camera and called a normal lens because it delivers perspective similar to the human eye.

The f2.8 indicates how much light it can let in at max aperture. Wide open, you can probably shoot indoors with 400asa if it is reasonably well lit.
posted by Good Brain at 10:29 PM on September 2, 2007

Buy your film at a camera store, take your camera with you, and have them show you how to load it. It's really tough to tell in text. Also, it should be in the manual.

No, you didn't sound snippy, just impatient. I'm sure you are super-bright and can learn things really quickly, so it's natural to think "just tell me what the controls do and I'll give it a shot." It's just not that easy to do in this way.

I have taught countless people how to use their cameras. You will get the basics pretty quickly, but then you will quickly realize that you are only scratching the surface. You will take some great photos, then wonder why so many of them didn't come out the way you saw them in your head. Don't rush yourself. Learn the basics, and build on that.

Read the web links, read the manual, get a book of your choice, and a bunch of film, and go for it.

One suggestion: don't get prints made. If you are a Costco member, use them, otherwise just about any photo place will develop your film and put the images on a CD. View your images on the CD, then only get the keepers printed. It's cheaper that way. Costco charges just $5 for developing a CD with 5 megapixel images.
posted by The Deej at 10:31 PM on September 2, 2007

Oh, why not have your grandfather teach you about it, assuming he knows.
posted by Good Brain at 10:31 PM on September 2, 2007

I'm feeling wistful for the time I got my first manual 35mm.

All the above advice, plus this: It's a precision machine. Lots of mechanical components. Don't force anything.
posted by sourwookie at 10:32 PM on September 2, 2007

I inherited my Grandmother's darkroom (she did close-up botanicals for Nat-Geo professionally and dilapidated Ozarks architecture as a hobby).

I learned really quickly that is made much more sense to let the local pro-shop do my negatives, so I could dick around with prints at my leisure with no pressure in my home darkroom.

Kodak 400? Ah, such memories...
posted by sourwookie at 10:38 PM on September 2, 2007

There's nothing like the feel of an old 35mm camera, sourwookie. FYI- I still shoot mostly film (self-links: here and here).

I still use my Canon AE-1, and even a 1972 Yashica Electro35. My main camera is an Olympus IS-1 film camera. So, don't think you need the latest and greatest camera to do good work. In fact, I think learning with the K1000 will give you the best possible foundation to be a good photographer, not just take pictures. It's too easy to put a modern camera in auto mode, and NEVER learn about photography.
posted by The Deej at 10:40 PM on September 2, 2007

The spotmatic was a great little cameras in its day.
posted by hortense at 10:44 PM on September 2, 2007

All the advice above is good, and books are a must, but here's a quick and extremely dirty introduction to exposure and its consequences. Remember that these rules are not hard and fast; photography is an art, based on science.

Exposure on all cameras, film or digital, is determined by four things:

1 The sensitivity of the medium (the ISO rating, used to be called ASA; lower numbers, such as 64 or 80, indicate a "slow" film, generally showing finer grain and need brighter light; higher numbers work better in dimmer light but show more grain, or "noise" in the digital world).

2 The "speed" and aperture of the lens. Mechanically, the aperture is an iris inside the lens that you can open and close. A fast lens will let more light in when the aperture is wide open than a slow lens will. A lens with an aperture of F2.8 or lower (take the numbers on faith) is considered "fast," and is typically found in "normal" or "wide angle" lenses.

3 The shutter speed...simply put, the amount of time, measured in fractions of a second, the shutter is open to allow light to strike the film or the CCD of a digital camera.

4 The amount of light available.

The amount of light available is usually measured with a light meter, but you can make estimates. For example, there is a rule of thumb that says in sunlight or bright cloudy conditions, the proper exposure is to set the lens' iris at f/16 and the shutter speed as close as possible to the film speed. So, using 200 speed print film you would set the camera to f/16 at 1/250th of a second and get good exposures. (Check your camera's light meter, if it has one, to prove this).

But there's an interesting relationship between shutter speed and aperture you need to be awayre of. For instance, you rarely want to hand-hold a camera below a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, because there's a good chance the camera will shake or your subject will move, either of which can ruin the picture. If you get ahold of some 64-speed Kodachrome slide film, the above rule won't work well for shooting pictures of your friends playing at the beach.

So, to retain the proper exposure, increase your shutter speeds and open up your aperture. There's no trick to it... for each click of the shutter speed dial, there's a related click of the aperture dial, in the opposite direction. For our 64-speed example above, here are the alternatives:
f/11, 1/125th
f/8, 1/250th
f/5.6, 1/500th, etc.

Even if your camera has a meter, understanding this relationship is extremely important in taking control of your camera, and will translate well to digital SLR cameras or sophisticated all-in-one cameras.

Besides the strictly mechanical aspects of proper exposure, there are important aesthetic consequences to your exposure choices. Like the numbers in a lens name, you'll have to take this on faith until you learn more, but understand that with wider apertures, a narrower range of what you see will be in focus. This is called "depth of field," and it can make a real difference in how the final picture looks.

For example, say you want to take a portrait of your grandfather. He's sitting on a chair in the yard, and behind him are trees, a fence, a flowerbed, other grandkids. You set up your camera and, since it's a nice day, you follow the exposure rule discussed above. It's likely that not only will your grandfather be in focus, but so will all the distracting background detail. Open the aperture up a little, say to f/8 or f/5.6 (and make the necessary shutter adjustments); if you focus properly, your grandfather will be in focus, but the background will be fuzzy, an effect people tend to find very pleasing. These are things to keep in mind when you use automatic cameras that have aperture and shutter-priority settings; if you want a certain aperture because of its effect in the picture you're taking, set it and the camera will worry about the proper shutter speed.

Likewise, your choice of lens has aesthetic consequences. A wide-angle lense has a wider depth of field at a given aperture than does a telephoto, and straight lines tend not to be as straight. A long lens, on the other hand, tends to compress distance. Both effects can be quite dramatic. (For that portrait of your grandfather, by the way, a lens with a focal length of between 85 and 105mm, or a zoom lens set somewhere in that range, gives the most pleasing effect).

Lenses tend to be "faster" at shorter focal lengths, simply because light has a shorter distance and fewer pieces of glass to travel through before hitting the film. Specially formulated glass and coatings make "fast" long and zoom lenses possible, but at considerable cost. Zoom lenses tend to be slower and less sharp than do "prime" lenses (those with a single fixed focal length), but the convenience and savings in weight and space can make up for what little is lost.

To truly learn photography, as opposed to merely taking pictures, understanding these principles and many more are important, and they can only be learned when you have control over the camera. I learned photography in the 1970s with an Olympus OM-1, and years of using a light meter that told me nothing more than whether my exposure was "correct" and adjusting my own shutter speed and aperture have made it a lot more fun to use an automatic camera; I can predict what the camera will do in a given lighting situation, and make the adjustments necessary if I want to override the probable automatic settings. Yet when I'm in a situation where speed is necessary, the camera can make the proper exposure decisions most of the time.

Everything you learn with your grandfather's camera will be useful when you move on to a digital SLR system, or even a higher-end all-in-one camera that allows you a lot of control over exposure. Good luck; photography is a fun and rewarding hobby, and can be the basis for a good career as well.
posted by lhauser at 11:48 PM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

The best way to learn to use your camera will be to have someone who knows what they're doing show you the basics. Where to find such a person? A photography store is a good bet. An older relative who used to use your grandfather's camera or one like it would be perfect. A high school art teacher or photo club advisor would also be likely to be able to help you out.

Basically, there are two kinds of things you'll need to learn:
  1. the physical "how to use" information about your specific camera (film handling, light metering, focusing); for this you really need the hands-on lesson that none of us can give you through the computer; and
  2. the more abstract, general principles of photography (f-stops / aperture, exposure times, film speeds, focal lengths, depth of field); for this, check out photography books (although a good teacher can explain the concepts to you, too).
Here are a few tips, NOT a comprehensive guide nor a substitute for having someone show you the ropes--just a few thoughts that may be helpful as you work on figuring the camera out:

I know the photography jargon sounds intimidating, but most of it boils down to the concept that you are aiming to get X amount of light in through the camera lens and onto the film; you can use different combinations of shutter speed (how long the hole that the light comes in stays open) and aperture (how wide it opens) to get that X amount, but the different combinations (big opening and short time versus little opening and long time) have different effects on the way the picture comes out.

The indented text on this page gives a fairly clear description of how to use your camera's internal light meter to choose your aperture and shutter speed. Basically, you choose an aperture OR shutter speed, activate the light meter, and then adjust the other factor (i.e. leave the aperture alone and fiddle with the shutter speed, or vice versa) until the two needles more-or-less line up.

While you're shooting your first few rolls of film, you should look for opportunities to do the following: find a fairly static scene (such as a public sculpture, with no rapid changes of the lighting conditions--go out on a dry but overcast day, for example, so the sun isn't going in and out of cloud cover) and shoot it from the same vantage point five times, changing the aperture and shutter speed combination each time. Start with a large aperture (low f-stop number), use the light meter to match the shutter speed to it, take picture number 1; then "stop down" the aperture (change it to a higher f-stop number--whoever shows you the basics of using your camera will show you how to select the aperture), match the shutter speed using the light meter again, and take picture number 2; and so forth until you've taken five pictures, each with different settings. Then look carefully at the prints of the pictures and ask yourself what different effects you can see along the range of aperture and shutter speed combinations.

"Sigma Mini-Wide 1:2.8 f= 28mm" lens . . . I have no idea what these numbers mean or whether this lens will let me take just... normal pictures.

Somebody else correct me if I'm wrong, because it's been a while since I messed around with 35mm photography, but I think what you have there is sort of a mildly wide-angle lens. Not panoramic, but a little bit on the wide side of what you might think of as "normal." It will probably be best for taking landscape pictures, pictures of buildings and other large-ish things that you can stand a good distance back from. If you try to use it for taking portraits of people standing within, say, 3-5 feet of you, I think you will find that the wide angle makes their faces look . . . not so good. Sort of exaggeratedly bulbous. Not a funhouse mirror effect, but a hair more "dimensional" than is really flattering. This is not to say that you shouldn't take any portraits--in fact you should, so that you can find out whether you think I'm right or not. Just treat your first few rolls of film as experimental material.

I don't even know what film costs, having never bought it in my life

Last time I was buying film I think it was on the order of $6 to $8 for a roll of black and white (Tri-X Pan, which I'm not sure is made any more, or T-Max), 24 exposures, but like I say, it's been a while. Black and white is best to start with for learning photography, but it's not generally available in places like drug stores or "big box" retailers; hit the yellow pages and look for a photography store. If you end up buying color film at a drug store or the like, just make sure you get "35mm" film, not "Advantix," which is a different format that will not load in your camera.

My final piece of advice is: there's a learning curve to get over, and then you can have lots of fun with an SLR and a bunch of black and white film. The learning curve is a little steep but not terribly long. At some point, before too long, all the mumbo-jumbo about f-stops and shutter speeds will go "click" in your brain and things will be much easier from there out. Please don't get discouraged if your first roll of photos doesn't come out looking like the work of Ansel Adams or Irving Penn; you'll get better with every roll you shoot. The reward for toughing out the learning curve is that you then get to prowl around your city or town looking for pictures. Also, you get to play with a really cool old piece of equipment, and you'll get a profoundly different understanding of light.
posted by Orinda at 12:03 AM on September 3, 2007

Look in your manual to see what kind of battery it took and if it does take the PX400 follow Mitheral's link and get a replacement. Btw, you can use this camera without a battery you just wont have access to the light meter and you definitely will want it when you start out.

Read the manual, fiddle with the camera, fire off the shutter, use the advance lever ... play with it. These cameras were work horses that can stand up to a lot of beating. As an added bonus even though you don't have a battery or film you'll get a feel for the camera in your hands and, you'll be working the shutter which is a good idea. When you store the camera fire the shutter but don't cock the advance lever ... over time the mechanism can stretch which isn't good. Don't touch the mirror inside (behind the lens) or blow air in that area.

Focal Press wrote a book called, The Asahi Pentax Way which covers all the photography basics with your camera in mind. The Amateur Photographer's Handbook by Aaron Sussman is another well rounded book but a tad more technical. If you have a local used book store I'd check there first to see if they have copies available. Both are really common and should be quite cheap. For some online information check out Roger and Frances.

Most of all, take it easy and have some fun with it.
posted by squeak at 1:38 AM on September 3, 2007

over time the mechanism can stretch which isn't good.

I'm sooo glad I don't write technical manuals for a living

Let's try that again, there are moving parts inside and cocking the advance lever puts undue pressure on some of the innards leading to the possibility that some of the bits get stretched. By firing the shutter and not advancing the lever you put the camera in a "resting state" ... it increases the life of the camera.
posted by squeak at 1:55 AM on September 3, 2007

Wow, some great, great advice here.

Here's another basic, very easy to read article on exposure, and one on shutter speed.

Also, try messing around on Flickr and looking at the exif information. That'll tell you what settings were used to achieve each image.

Mostly though: just have fun with it. Practise and practise and take pictures of anything that interests you. You'll get better over time. It's not all about technical perfection, not by a long way.

Have a look at some photo blogs:

Check out some photo competition winners:
International Photography Awards (some of these are outstanding. And check out all the different categories.)
World Press Photo Awards

Good luck, and have lots of fun!
posted by Magnakai at 6:19 AM on September 3, 2007

It seems like a lot if info, but once you get a hang of the basics (lower the f-stop the shallower the depth of field, appropriate film speeds, etc.) it's pretty fun to mess around with an old SLR.

The gold standard is "Photography" by Barbara London and John Upton. Since every beginner photo class has to use it, it's fairly easy to find at your local Half-Price or other used book store
posted by doppleradar at 7:13 AM on September 3, 2007

I too have a spotmatic with no battery. Two things I have found useful when using it is to remember the Sunny16 rule for daytime shots outside. Also, since there are no batteries you can also get interesting long exposures of star trails and such by keeping the shutter open minutes at a time at night. Good luck!
posted by chocolate_butch at 8:28 AM on September 3, 2007

There's also a nice introductory photography book that Pentax put out in the 70s, "The Asahi Pentax way : the Asahi Pentax photographer's companion" It's a good way to learn the basics of photography as well as your camera (which was introduced around '74).

M42 (that's the screw-in lens mount used by this camera) lenses are still widely available in camera stores and on eBay. Pentax's old Takumar line of lenses is considered one of the all-time greats. Learn how to inspect a vintage lens, and you can pick up some amazing finds for next to nothing.

Film is cheap, but lab processing will cost you. Shop around, or (better) see if your local community college has a class in black and white developing. DIY is inexpensive, and will give you a much better sense of how to control exposure (both in camera and in darkroom) to achieve exactly what you want.

The battery issue isn't a big deal. I skipped it, not bothering to use my Spotmatic's meter. With a little experimentation, you can get pretty comfortable eyeballing light to set your exposure by EV table. There's a learning curve to be sure, but boy is it a great way to grok the relationship between time value, ISO, and aperture. You'll be a better photographer for it.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:06 PM on September 3, 2007

Great advice - as for finding books, nth looking in a library - specifically, I'd look for books published in the 70's. In addition to seeing pictures of people with truly heinous clothing and hairstyles, this was really the golden era of hobby SLR photography. Fortunately, little public libraries are often way behind on technology related books and as film photography and full manual cameras have been made thoroughly obsolete, these libraries often have a fair number of books about them, alongside the books on programming your new 32K PET computer.

When I taught a unit on pinhole photography to 9th graders, I used such books as my reference materials to make sure I had the Sunny 16 rule, f-stops, AA numbers, depth of field and all those other goodies solid in my head.
posted by plinth at 8:14 AM on September 4, 2007

The great thing about the Spotmatic (I use one almost exclusively) is the built-in light meter. You really don't need to worry too much about the technical aspects of f-stops and shutter speeds when you've got one of those.

You should still learn about the real technical stuff, but you don't really need to.

Point your camera at something middle-grey (green grass or old, dry asphalt works great, but make sure they're in the same light as your subject), push your meter button (it's the up-arrow thingy beside the lens -- push it up), and then twiddle your aperture (on the lens) and shutter speed (top right) until the needle is centered. If nothing happens, or the needle seems slow, try a new battery.

A slow shutter speed (on your camera, anything lower than "60") can be nasty if your hands shake. With a 28mm lens you shouldn't have to worry too much about depth-of-field (how much is in focus), but keep in mind that the lower the number, the less is in focus.

And, yes, get yourself a book. There are TONS of basic photo guides out there. Go to a used bookstore.
posted by Reggie Digest at 8:34 AM on September 4, 2007

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