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Using a 35mm film camera for the first time. The basics.

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

This blog post is aimed mainly at film photography, but a lot of these points can also be used in digital photography.

Ready to go.

Don't use a camera until you know what you're doing.

Just as you wouldn't drive a car until you had mastered the controls, so you have to be sure of

how the camera functions before 'going on the road' with it.

Cameras usually look more complex than they actually are. Without the 'frills' each camera is just a box which transfers an image onto film or a sensor - all you have to do is to find out how to handle it before you are ready to go out taking pictures,

Instructions Always read the instruction booklet supplied with the camera (if it is new). With the

camera in hand go through each section of the instructions and familiarise yourself with the various working functions.

If you don't understand something the first time around, move on to the next

section and return to that part later.

Add-on accessories Most 35mm SLRs are supported by a range of backup accessories. Find out

what lenses and accessories are available for the camera so you can develop your use of it as you become more familiar.

Check results After shooting and processing a roll of film, always check the results carefully. Analyse not just the quality of processing, but your own

shooting style. Can you do better? Is the lighting right? Can the angles be varied for more interest? These and many factors can combine to improve your photography and reduce the wastage caused by bad shots and save you money in the long run.


There are many courses on photography which will help you understand camera equipment

and how to use it.

Schools and colleges list courses locally and you can find short courses advertised in




Remember that the camera is a precision

tool and should be handled with care. Hold the

camera firmly in both hands, with the right hand

controlling the shutter release button and film wind-

on lever, and the left controls the lens aperture

control and focus.


Most cameras are designed to be held horizontally, for view-shaped pictures. This is

fine for such subjects as landscapes or groups of people, but for portraits, tall buildings and so on, hold the camera vertically to include more of the subject and less of any unnecessary background. If in doubt, try both views and see which works better.

Support When you hold the camera, tuck your elbows into the sides of your body to add extra

support and to avoid camera shake spoiling your pictures. You can also support the camera on a wall or any similar nearby surface.


The best way to achieve shake-free pictures is to mount the camera on a tripod. Various types are available.

Lying down:

If you lie on your stomach, you can support the camera with your elbows resting firmly

on the ground. This forms a sort of human tripod', supporting the camera, but also allowing you a certain amount of movement.

The right film Before shooting:

make sure you have a film in the camera - even the most expert

photographers forget sometimes! Also, check that you

have the right film before putting it in the camera.

Some cameras have a film memo holder on the back -

cut off one end of the film carton and place it in the

holder. This will remind you which type of film is in

the camera.

Camera settings:

Check the camera settings before you start taking photographs.

In particular, make sure the correct ISO film speed has been set.


Using the viewfinder In simpler cameras the picture area is outlined in yellow, so keep the subject within these lines.

With an SLR, compose the picture within the entire area of the viewfinder screen. The

viewfinder in an SLR is also used for focusing.

Heads and feet:

Avoid cutting off people's heads or feet when framing your pictures. This is easily done if

you are shooting with the camera held horizontally, especially if you go too close.

Holding the camera vertically will help solve this problem.


When you are shooting a portrait don't forget the background.

Look at the detail behind the subject before pressing the shutter release.

If there is a tree appearing to 'grow' out of the subject's head,

or any unnecessary clutter in the background, ask the

sitter to move or change your shooting position.

Check the whole viewfinder area, not just the part

occupied by the main subject.


Learning how to compose pictures is one of the most important aspects of photography.

You can learn a great deal by looking at other photographs (in magazines, newspapers, books and so on). Look at the key elements of each picture, how it was put together, and the general framing of the shot.

Quite often, impact relies not on what is in a picture, but on what is left out.

Avoid clutter - a simple approach usually works best.

Changing viewpoint:

Don't stay in the same position when you are taking pictures. Move around

and try different viewpoints. Don't just shoot a portrait head-on: photograph from the side, or from above or below as well.

In a landscape, avoid the obvious view and try shooting from a high vantage

point (like a hill), or walk around until you find a different angle.

Look at the image carefully in the viewfinder and adjust the lens until the image (or its most

important part) is perfectly sharp.

Background focusing:

When photographing someone in front of a view. don't be tempted to focus on the background. Focus on the main subject - the view should be sufficiently sharp in most cases to show detail.

Focus on the distant view if this is the main part of the picture you want to highlight.

Foreground focusing:

If there is some detail in front of the main subject you want to dominate the picture,

focus on this. But remember, the closer the foreground detail, the more out of focus the

background is likely to be.

Focus indicators:

When focusing the lens you can use the focus indicator mark on the side of the lens.

This is matched to the distance scale and depends on

how far away the subject of the photograph is.

You need only use these markings if you can't focus visually through the viewfinder. Some SLR cameras have focus indicators inside the viewfinder, showing which way to turn the focusing control for a sharp picture.

This is particularly useful for photographers

with eyesight problems.

No-fuss focusing:

Choose an autofocus camera if you find manual focusing a nuisance. This automatically

measures the subject distance and sets the lens for a sharp picture.

Make sure the subject is near the centre of the viewfinder since this is the area used for

autofocus measurement.


What is exposure?:

Exposure is the control of light reaching the film for a correct result. Every film has its

own ISO speed rating and, consequently, a particular exposure requirement. Once the ISO speed of the film has been set on the camera, the camera metering system can help you work out how much light is needed for accurate exposure, by using the shutter

speed and lens aperture. This can be done manually or automatically, depending on the type of camera.

Using a TTL meter:

(through the lens) metering system. First, find out how the meter is switched on.

This might be via a small switch on top of the camera or, more likely, by flicking out the film

wind-on lever slightly from the camera body.

Some meters operate by gentle pressure on the shutter release button - don't press too hard otherwise the camera will fire.

Watch for indications in the viewfinder that the meter is operating.

Match needle Exposure information is often given in the camera's viewfinder. Some cameras feature a small swinging needle which moves between a'+ sign (indicating over-exposure) and a'-' sign (under-exposure). Centre the needle for a correct exposure by moving the shutter speed or lens aperture control.

LED indicators Modern SLRs have small LED (light emitting diode) indicators to signal exposure. A red light usually means over- or under-exposure, with green signalling a correct exposure.

Manual or automatic?:

Choose a camera with manual metering if you want to experiment with shutter speed and lens aperture controls. A manual camera can often be more flexible than an automatic camera, which will select the correct settings for exposure.

An automatic camera is the best choice if you want a simpler camera which is easy to use.

Meter readings:

The TTL metering in most SLRs measures a general section of the viewing area. These so-called centre-weighted metering measures mainly the middle area of the subject, so bear this in mind

when taking readings.

For more precise readings, some cameras offer a spot-metering facility, which

allows the photographer to take a reading from a small section of the subject.

Manual settings:

On a manual camera transfer the information given by the camera meter to the camera

controls manually. If the meter indicates an over-exposure, either select a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture (that is, a higher f/number).

This will reduce the light reaching the film.

Watch for a correct exposure indication in the viewfinder. An under

exposure reading calls for a slower shutter speed or

a wider aperture.

Shutter priority:

If you want manual control of the shutter speed on the camera and prefer to allow the

camera to select the aperture automatically for correct exposure (as when shooting sport or action, for instance, and you need to be sure of freezing' high-speed motion), choose a camera that offers shutter priority.

Select the required shutter speed (say 1/250 second) and set the lens aperture to 'A' (for

automatic). When you take the shot the camera will automatically select the correct aperture (say, f/8). which will be indicated in the display area in the viewfinder for your information.

Aperture priority:

On an aperture-priority camera, you set the lens aperture manually, but the camera

automatically selects the correct shutter speed. Set the required aperture (say, f/8) and set the shutter speed dial to 'A' (for automatic). When you shoot, the camera will automatically select the shutter speed needed for correct exposure (say, 1/250 second).

Program setting:

If you choose an SLR with a program setting, you won't need to adjust either the

lens aperture or shutter speed. The camera will automatically select both for the correct exposure. This type of camera is very quick and easy to operate and will provide accurate results in most situations. The selected aperture and shutter speed will be indicated

in the viewfinder.

Manual override:

If you want the convenience of an automatic camera, but the possibility of setting the

camera yourself, buy a camera with manual override. This is possible on most aperture-priority cameras, which have a full range of apertures for manual settings.

Shutter-priority cameras should have a full-range shutter speed dial for overriding the auto


An auto-only camera like the Olympus OMI0 has a separate shutter speed control which can be

added as an accessory for manual settings.


When photographing someone with the camera facing the sun, the camera meter is likely

to expose the bright background rather than the subject's face, which is in shadow. You can increase the exposure manually by using a wider aperture to compensate (say, from f/8 to f/5.6). Some cameras, however, have exposure compensation, or backlight control (with a range of about +2/stops) for dealing with this kind of difficult light.

Special metering problems;

While most camera meters are accurate, they should not always be trusted, Test the metering in various lighting conditions to see how it functions. Run a roll of colour slide film through the camera and check the results for accurate exposure.

Pictures that are too light or too dark may indicate problems with the metering.

Inaccurate readings from the meter can also be caused by a low battery, so check this first. Don't hesitate to return with the results and the camera to your dealer if you are unhappy.


Setting aperture:

The lens aperture (together with shutter speed) controls the light reaching the film or

the exposure. On some automatic cameras, you don't have to set the aperture control manually. On most 35 mm SLR standard lenses, the lens aperture ranges from about f/16 (smallest) to f/2.8 (widest). Use a small aperture for very bright weather, and a wide aperture for dull days. If in doubt, use an aperture in the middle of the range - say. F/8- and match the

correct shutter speed advised by the camera's metering system for accurate exposure.

Depth-of-field scale:

You can check the area of sharpness at a particular aperture by looking at the

depth-of-field scale marked on the lens, near the aperture control. Two aperture scales (minimum to maximum) meet at a middle mark. Focus the camera lens on the subject and you will see the distance opposite this mark. If you have set the camera to, say, F/16, read off the distances opposite the two f/16 marks to find out the depth of field range.

Depth-of-field preview:

You don't have to guess how much of the picture area will appear sharp if your camera has a depth-of-field preview button. First. compose and focus the shot then, while pressing in the DOF preview button on your camera, select different apertures and watch how the background

detail becomes more or less sharp at each aperture. Once you are happy with a particular aperture, release the DOF preview control and take the shot.


Setting shutter speed:

The speed at which the camera shutter opens and closes controls the light

reaching the film for correct exposure. Just as important, the shutter speed is used to 'freeze

motion. The shutter speed range on most 35 mm SLR cameras is between 1 second and 1/1000 second. The speed is set on a small dial on the top of the camera. or by pressing a button and reading the speed on a small LCD (liquid crystal display) on the camera, or inside the viewfinder. A speed of 1/60 or 1/125 second is safe for most shots, but use a faster speed (1/500 or 1/1000

second) for fast action. Slower speeds may be needed for low light conditions, but beware of camera shake.

Auto shutter speed:

Some cameras don't have a shutter speed dial. If you can't be bothered with

manual shutter speed settings, choose a camera with an 'auto' setting only. Once you set the lens aperture the camera will automatically select a shutter speed for correct exposure. Cameras with a program setting, select aperture and shutter speed


Speed effects:

The shutter speed you select will affect the final result, so take care to choose the right

one for the subject. While 1/125 second is about right for most subjects, shooting fast action or movement at that speed could leave you with a blurred picture, because it isn't fast enough to 'freeze' the action. In some cases, however, a small amount of blur can give the impression of movement. Experiment with different speeds and see what effects you like.

In the case of a moving subject, these suggested speeds should be enough to 'freeze' the action. For subjects moving towards the camera (rather than across the camera) you may be able to go down by one speed (say, from 1/125 second to 1/60 second). Résults can vary depending on the focal length of the lens being used. Generally, the longer the lens, the faster

the speed should be to reduce the risk of blur.

Camera shake:

Most amateur pictures are spoilt by camera shake, i.e., when the photographer shakes the

camera slightly at the moment of exposure, causing a blurred result. It is easy to avoid. First, use a sensible shutter speed if hand-holding the camera (no slower than 1/60 second). Second, hold the camera firmly until after the shot has been taken. Third, press the shutter release button gently - jabbing at it will shake the camera. Ideally, for completely shake-free exposures, place the camera on a firm support (like a tripod) and use a cable release, attached to the shutter

release button, to fire the camera.

Freezing action;

You can see from the shutter speed table that, the faster the movement of the subject, the

quicker the shutter speed should be to 'freeze the action. The speed you choose is often dictated by the amount of light available and it isn't always possible to select the fast speed you want. In low light, use the widest aperture you can (say, f/2.8) and the fastest shutter speed compatible for a correct result.


Standard view:

The standard lens on your camera is designed to cover most situations. You can use a

standard lens (usually 50mm on a 35 mm camera) for portraits, landscapes, groups, and so on. Become familiar with using the standard lens and find out how you can get the best pictures with it before considering adding any other type of lens (like a wide angle or telephoto) to your equipment.

Wide angles:

You may well encounter situations which call for a wider lens. For interiors, where space limits your ability to move back, a wide-angle lens will give you a wider perspective. A wide angle will also help you to take in more land detail in a view shot. Don't over-use a wide angle: too many wide shots in your portfolio of pictures can become tedious.


If you want to capture close-up detail of a faraway subject, use a telephoto lens. On a 35mm camera, a telephoto lens of around 150mm is a convenient length for most shots, although you will need a longer lens of 200mm upwards for very distant subjects. In a portrait, you can often get much better facial detail and, in a landscape, foreground and

background can appear compressed, creating, as in many paintings, a far more dramatic effect.


The zoom lens is the most flexible lens you can buy. Within a zoom range of, say 70-210mm,

most subjects you are likely to photograph are within your grasp. Zoom is most useful in sports and action photography, where the subject's distance from the camera is always changing. For photographing people you can alter the subject from head and shoulders to a full length shot by simply zooming out.

Mirror lenses:

If you don't want to carry around a long telephoto lens because of its bulk, a mirror lens is a

compact alternative. Even a 1000mm mirror lens is no bigger than a short telephoto in length yet you can photograph the most distant subjects. Use a mirror lens for covering sports like cricket, where the action is just beyond the range of most telephotos of usable

size, and also for wildlife photography.


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