Good negatives make good prints. Bad negatives make prints that are too dark or are all blown out. This tipster is all about getting the balance right.
There are three things that have to happen to capture a photograph, any photograph be it film or (dun dun dahhhhh…) digital. You must provide a hole for light to get onto a light sensitive medium. This is aperture. You must have a medium for the light to change. This is film. You must expose said medium to the light for a given amount of time. This is exposure time.
Anyway, the art of creating a good negative requires the judgement of the photographer and a knowledge of the science behind photography and film.
Even the most basic camera allows you to alter one of these things. Take a Diana F+ in pinhole mode. You can’t control the aperture, but you can choose your film and you can change the amount of time the film is exposed to the light.
All film is like a bucket or a pail. It has a perfect capacity. Too much water and it overflows, too little water and it isn’t full enough.
When its not filled enough, you get underexposed negatives, everything looks dark and you have no detail in shadows. When it is overfilled you get large overexposed areas, too bright with no detail in the brightest areas.
When these negatives are printed, you get dissapointing prints.
Your aim as a photographer is to fill it just right.
In a nutshell, film speed describes how long it takes for film to ‘fill up just right’. Film speed is usually measured for you in ISO or ASA, they are essentially identical. A film with a 50 ISO needs longer to fill than a film with an ISO of 1600. This is why ISO 50 or 100 are generally known as slow films, and ISO 400, 800 and 1600 are known as fast films. You can throw that jargon around and other photographers will understand (go to your nearest store and say, “I want the fastest film you have” and see what they offer you — bet it’s Fuji 1600 or Ilford Delta 3200!).
It is generally regarded that a super sunny, cloudless day is perfect for ISO 100, you can choose a nice medium aperture and a quick time on your camera and get great shots. On cameras with less control, something like La Sardina or Holga, it’s a necessity to choose ISO 100 for a super sunny day, or an ISO 1600 for night as the time and aperture (on La Sardina at least) is fixed.
The fabulous LC-A has a light meter that works it out for you. It chooses your aperture, and then it leaves the shutter open for as long as your chosen film needs in order to fill up. Great, unless you are shooting 100 ISO film at night—it could leave the shutter open for a minute or more and record you walking, your hands shaking etc. Unless you want a streaky, freaky image, you’ll be disappointed. Should’ve gone for 1600 ISO.
A Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera, like my old Praktica, or a Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) like my Lubitel 2 give you absolute control. You can choose your film, your ISO (maybe — not on the Lubitel) your aperture and your shutter speed. The meter inside your SLR when you set these lets you know if you’ve got it right.
I recommend my older article for more information about film speeds and their recommended use.
This may seem like a very basic tipster, and to many of you it will be of little interest, but to those of you moving to film from snapshot digital it’s an eye opener. Once you understand and exercise this knowledge you are tooled up for the rest of this series of tipsters, and you can start to break the rules to make more interesting pictures.
For example, now you know you need a slow film for shooting at night, but if you go out and try to get cool headlight streaks with a 1600 film you may not, you might get little dribbles. So break the rules. Go out with a 100, shoot it for ages (as your light meter suggests) and you’ll get great long mutlicoloured streaks.
One last tip: if you are going to try slow films when a fast would be better, minimize the shake with a tripod.
Next month, I’ll be expanding your knowlege of photography with an explanation of the ubiquitous stop, once that’s over we’re going to rocket into actually having some fun with your cameras and lenses.
Back to Basics is a monthly Tipster series by Adam Griffiths where he seeks to impart a little more technical film photography knowledge. For each installment, he chooses a fundamental subject and explains it quickly and in simple terms (with examples where possible).