As back to basics draws to a close we look at a true sex object of the 1960’s. Capturing everyone from Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy to Mick Jagger and The Beatles. The fully manual SLR.
David Bailey has a lot to do with making the SLR sexy. Before his meteoric raise to fame at Vogue, in the media, everything was Medium. His use of the 35mm SLR gave his images an urgency that overly planned shoots didn’t have, and sat well with the modern youth of the day.
That aside, there is no doubt that there is something purely sexy about the way a heavy, metal, manual SLR sits in the hand properly glinting in the light. No silver coloured plastic in sight.
There are many famous SLRs that people pay a great deal for. There is a huge range of choice in vintage SLRs. Many Canons and Nikons command a high price. Mine is neither of those. Mine came out of East Germany before the wall came down. Mine is a Praktica.
This month’s Back To Basics is a simple guide to the various parts of a vintage, fully manual, SLR. If you have not yet, I recommend reading all the previous parts of this series. There are terms I use below that are explained in them, but not here.
Single Lens Reflex (SLR) describes the pulsing heart of the camera. What makes them so great is the mirror inside the body. This reflects light through a prism, up into the eyepeice. When you press the shutter, the mirror ‘locks up’ the shutter is opened for an amount of time, then closes, and the mirror drops down. This is the reflex.
Most SLRs viewfinders are a bit smaller than the film itself, so you see a little less (worth knowing for composition) but for all intents and purposes, you see what you are going to get.
Some have ‘depth of field preview’. This ‘stops-down’ the lens, showing you your bokeh (if there is any) before you commit the image to film (though if you are in low light, you may see very little at all as everything darkens). My Praktica does this when I press the button that activates the meter.
Most SLRs you’ll come across have some form of light metering. Some will be more advanced with LEDs or lights of some sort. My Praktica has a moving needle in the viewfinder.
Before you start, find the ISO setting on your SLR, mine is nested inside the Shutter Speed Dial.
The needle in the viewfinder moves up and down in reaction to how much light is coming through the lens. When it’s the perfect amount, the needle rests in a little circle. And that’s when I fire the shutter.
Modern SLRs will have some form of ‘program’, normally an auto, then a time value or aperture value. My Praktica is fully manual so you have to choose which to change. As you slow down or speed up the shutter speed (using the appropriate dial), or open and close the aperture (normally done on the lens), the meter needle or LED system or whatever you have, will change until the balance is perfect (remember aperture and depth of field).
You’ll note that most SLRs will have a hot shoe, and each one will ‘synch’ to a certain speed or range of speeds. This simply means if you are going to use flash, to guarantee a good result, you cannot set the speed any higher. See this excellent article for more information.
One of the most compelling reasons to use an SLR are the lenses. The wide barrel of the lens allows more light into the image, this allows for a greater range of f-stop and the ability to shoot in much lower available light. Most SLRs allow you to swap lenses. My Praktica came with three prime lenses. A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal distance, essentially the opposite of zoom.
The stock 50mm lens that came with it is excellent, it’s f1.8 which means wide open, and with 800 or 1600 ISO film I can shoot most indoors images, in daylight, without a flash. 50 or 55mm is about what the eye sees not a lot changes when you look through the lens. The other two lenses were a 35mm, slightly wide, and a 135mm lens, a telephoto (gets in close).
To tell what type of lens you have, look at the front of the barrel, on nearly all lenses you’ll see a marking like this one 1.8/50. This simply tells you it is an f1.8 50mm lens. Another example 2.8/35 tells you it is a 35mm lens with an f-stop of 2.8 when wide open.
Many modern film cameras’ kit lenses do not include this last bit of information, I must admit I don’t use it, but most vintage SLR lenses will have a depth of field gauge on the lens barrel. You can read all about it here and make up your mind on how useful it is.
Next month will be both my first full year as a community member, and is my last Back to Basics article. I’ll be talking about Time Value and Aperture Value settings, how you can use them creatively and how the technique can be applied to plastic cameras. We’ll also be announcing the Back to Basics Rumble and my forthcoming new series.
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).