Beginner’s Guide to Photography

You may be wandering why I am including this guide to (film) photography in a blog about CAD software. To master 3D computer rendering, a firm foundation in photography can be an asset. Whether you are taking digital photographs of the site to use as a background for your computer model, or setting up the rendering options in your rendering software, an understanding of film photography will provide a strong background for correctly configuring all of the different options you may have available. Or you may just want to dig out that old 35MM camera.

The following is from an old text file (1989) that I have on my computer. I am not the original author. I am posting it here for general information only. I have lost track of where it came from. If anyone can identify the author of this, or if you are the author, please let me know so I can give you credit. If the author objects to my posting this, I will gladly remove it.


With print film you create a negative which is projected in an enlarger to create the print, which is actually a “positive.” As you expose the film to light in the camera a chemical reaction causes the film to become darker. The darkest areas in the subject come out as the lightest areas in the negative because that part of the negative is receiving less light.  The brightest or lightest areas in the subject come out as the darkest areas in the negative because that part of the film is receiving more light during exposure. With slide film, also called “reversal film,” you do not make a negative; you make the positive slide directly; the slide film in the camera is developed and mounted for projection. A slide is actually a “film positive,” also called a “transparency.”


When you press the shutter-release button:

  1. The mirror goes up.
  2. The aperture in the lens shuts down, unless it is set forwide open.
  3. The shutter opens, exposing the film to light.
  4. Then the shutter closes, the aperture re-opens and themirror comes back down.


The f-stop is the number representing the setting of the aperture of the lens. You adjust the aperture to control the amount of light passing through the lens. The f-stop settings are marked on the lens and clicks may be felt when stopping-up (opening) or stopping-down (closing) the aperture. F-stops are inscribed as such on most lenses: 1.2, 1.4, 1.8, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32. When you open up the lens aperture one stop, you let in twice as much l ight for exposure, as long as the shutter speed is not changed.

When you close down the lens, each stop you reduce the amount of light by 1/2 — as long as the shutter speed is not changed. Note: the smaller the f-stop number is, the more light will come through the lens. The shutter speed is the setting of what length of time the light passing through the lens will be allowed to expose the film. It is set by a rotating dial on the top of your camera with click stops.

Special Shutter speed settings:

B – The shutter stays open as long as the button remains  depressed.

T – The shutter is locked open after the button is depressed,   until you move the shutter speed dial.

A – Automatic.

Shutter speeds are expressed as and are fractions of a second.

1 = 1 second, 2 = 1/2 second, 4 = 1/4 second, and so on…

Similar to f-stops, each change of exposure either doubles the speed of the exposure or cuts it in half. F-stops deal with the amount of light coming through the lens, while shutter speed deals with the length of time the film is exposed to that light.





–>  f8  Starting Aperture Setting  <–

f11    1/2 THE LIGHT OF f8

f16    1/4 THE LIGHT OF f8

f22    1/8 THE LIGHT OF f8


1/15     EIGHT TIMES MORE TIME THAN 125  ( + 3 stops )

1/30     FOUR TIMES MORE TIME THAN 125   ( + 2 stops )

1/60     TWICE THE TIME OF 125           ( + 1 f-stop )

–>  1/125  Starting Shutter Speed Setting  <–

1/250    1/2 THE TIME OF 125             ( – 1 f-stop )

1/500    1/4 THE TIME OF 125             ( – 2 stops )

1/1000   1/8 THE TIME OF 125             ( – 3 stops )

Remember that a change in shutter speed is also a change in the absolute amount of light.





or, expressed as a ratio — F-STOP : SHUTTER-SPEED

Only the combination (or ratio) of f-stop and shutter speed adjusts or determines the amount of light to be exposed to the film.


All of the following exposures allow the film to be exposed to the exact same amount of light:

1/15 @ f22

1/30 @ f16

1/60 @ f11

1/125 @ f8

1/250 @ f5.6

1/500 @ f4

1/1000 @ f2.8

If you increase exposure time (shutter-speed) and at the same time decrease the lens opening, you do not change the total amount of light reaching the film — the f-stop/shutter speed ratio. So, you can choose whatever combination you want without altering the lightness or darkness of the print, negative or slide.

1.   To avoid blurry pictures when hand-holding the camera, never use a shutter speed longer than the focal length  of the lens. For example: with a 50mm lens do not use a shutter speed of 1/15. A shutter speed of 1/60, however, would be sufficient.

2.   1/125 of a second is generally the slowest speed that will freeze motion.

3.   If you want to use a particular f-stop setting then you can only use one shutter speed setting, unless you go to a different ISO (speed) film.



The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the film is to light. Double the ISO, double the sensitivity; half the ISO, half the sensitivity. Each doubling or 1/2 reduction of the ISO represents a difference of one f-stop, or, a change of one shutter speed. ISO 400 film is four times faster than ISO 100 film, a difference of two f-stops. ISO 200 film is half as fast as ISO 400 film, a difference of one f-stop. Use ISO to help you decide which film is right for the type of pictures you are taking and your lighting conditions, and to serve as a setting for your light meter.

Five things to consider when choosing ISO:

  1. How large will I be making the prints? The faster the film (the  higher the ISO), the more grain and less sharpness.
  2. Your lighting conditions. Bright outdoor light?  Heavy  Overcast?  Indoors?  Using an electronic flash?
  3. Hand held or tripod mounted operation?
  4. Am I photographing a moving subject? If yes, how fast?
  5. Do I need a lot of “Depth of Field.” (more about this later)

Notes on Color Films: Most color films are “balanced” for exposure under daylight (outdoor) conditions. Some color films are designed for different types of light:

Tungsten Film — for use indoors under warm light bulbs.

Daylight film can be used under warm indoor room light by using a blue filter over the lens. Using Tungsten film indoors with a flash, or in daylight will produce an orange cast in the picture. Using daylight film with warm light bulbs will produce an orange cast. To use daylight film with fluorescent lighting, use a magenta  filter, usually marked “FL.”


I.   Small Format: 35mm camera’s. The normal lens is 50mm.

A.   SLR – Single Lens Reflex. You view and meter through the lens by way of a mirror/viewfinder system. The shutter is in the camera body.

B.   Rangefinder 35mm Camera. You do not look through the lens at all, but through a hole in the camera (placed on the upper left or middle) which is aligned with the lens.   There is no mirror. The shutter is in the lens. An internal rotating prism mechanism which superimposes two images together in a square box in the viewfinder is the focusing method. As you turn the focusing ring on the lens, the two images in the box align when the picture is focused to maximum sharpness.

II.  Medium Format: Negative sizes 6×4.5cm, 6x6cm, 6x7cm

A.   6×4.5 cm — SLR’s only. Examples are Mamiya 645, Pentax 645. The normal lens is 80mm.

B.   6×6 cm — SLR’s: Hasselblad, Rollei SL series, Bronica  6×6 TLR’s: Mamiya C330 and C220, Yashica A TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) has two lenses aligned together. Viewing and composing is done though top lens but the picture is taken by the bottom lens where the shutter is. The mirror does not move up and down. The normal lens is 80mm. The          Mamiya C330 is the only TLR with interchangeable lenses, viewfinders and focusing screens.

Note: There are only two types of shutters, focal-plane  and leaf shutter. A focal plane shutter is inside the camera body. It moves vertically or horizontally,   depending on the camera. A leaf shutter is always in the lens and opens and closes just like the aperture in a human eye. Leaf Shutters are always mechanical.

C.   6×7 cm — SLR: Pentax 6×7, Mamiya RB67, Mamiya RZ67           RANGEFINDER:  Rapid Omega Series, Linhof, Makina. The  normal lens is 105mm.

III. Large Format: 4×5, 5×7, 8×10 inch negatives. Calumet, Sinar, Linhof, Cambo, and many more. The camera must always be mounted on a tripod. Ordinarily, one sheet of film at a time is used, but roll film adapters are available. The shutter is in the lens. Darkness is needed to compose and focus, usually  provided by a dark cloth over the photographer’s head and the camera back. The image is upside-down and inverted. Focusing is accomplished by adjusting the actual distance between the lens and the film. The principle advantage is that the angle  and height of the lens and film in relation to each other may be adjusted to make optical corrections, often mandatory for      professional architectural photography or special effects. The large sheet of film provides maximum detail.


Definition of a properly exposed negative, print, or slide:  a negative, print, or slide which has been exposed to the MINIMUM amount of light to achieve MAXIMUM DETAIL in the full range of tones, from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. Too much or too little light results in a loss of detail.

Distinction between slide film and print film: with print film your first objective is to achieve a properly exposed NEGATIVE; with slide film your “only” objective is to achieve a properly exposed film POSITIVE. Slides are the actual film that passes through the camera — developed, cut and mounted to be projected. Remember that with negative/print film when you open up the lens, or decrease the shutter speed or both at once, you make the NEGATIVE denser. If you close down the lens, or increase shutter speed or both at once — the negative will be thinner.

Conversely, with slide film you are making a film positive. Exposing slide film, when you close down the lens, or make the shutter speed shorter or both at once, you make the slide denser. The LESS light you give a slide the darker it will be; the more light you give a slide film the lighter it will be. Print film is the opposite. Remember that a slide film is not a negative! A negative film is blank until light is exposed to it but a slide film starts out black and becomes lighter as more light is exposed to it. This is why slide film is called “reversal film.”

With negative films, the print can only be as good as the negative. With slide film you think about the positive on film. Slides are the same as prints in that if you decrease exposure “the picture” will be darker; with negatives if you decrease exposure THE RESULTING PRINT will be darker. The opposite is also true if you increase exposure; slides will be lighter, with prints the resultig print will be lighter.


An automatic in-camera light meter, no matter how well programmed cannot think for itself and make intelligent decisions. The amount of knowledge required to produce satisfactory exposures using an automatic exposure meter approaches the knowledge needed when not using one at all. Automatic meters are poor judges of exposure on backlit subjects. The meter will expose for the sky, leaving the face black. On partially cloudy days they get very perplexed. Only on a consistently overcast day or photographing a low contrast subject are they partially reliable. Automatic meters look for the “average” exposure, disregarding the main subject matter. APERTURE PRIORITY meters adjust the shutter speed in response to the preset lens aperture. SHUTTER PRIORITY meters adjust the lens aperture for the shutter speed you have pre-selected. PROGRAMMABLE METERS are in theory supposed to produce adequate exposures using a combination of aperture and shutter priority.


35mm camera’s are not being manufactured these days without some form of automatic metering. If you disable the automatic feature you have a manual metering system; you get a light reading and the aperture and shutter speed settings are up to you. An option is to purchase a hand-held meter. These are the most accurate, and the most expensive. SPOT METERS usually measure only one degree of light reaching the subject, thus, from approximately twenty feet away from a person’s face one may accurately measure the difference in reflected light from the darkest to the lightest areas.


Depth of field (DOF) is the area between the nearest and the farthest points from the camera that are acceptably sharp. The more that is in focus, the more DOF you have. Depth of field is one of your most important creative controls. By manipulating DOF you have the ability to adjust what portions of the picture are in focus and what are not. Three things affect your DOF, and may be adjusted to give different results:

  1. Aperture setting.
  2. Choice of lens.
  3. The distance from the camera to the subject focused upon.


Adjusting your aperture setting is the only way to change the DOF without changing the composition of the picture. The wider open the lens is (the smaller the number), the less DOF you will have; the smaller the opening (the larger the number) the more DOF you will have. For example: If you want a person’s face to be sharp but the trash cans twenty feet behind him to be blurred out – focus on his face and set an f-stop of, generally, f4 or f5.6. If you want the trash cans sharp too, use an f-stop of f16 or f22.


Choice of lens affects DOF. The longer the focal length of the lens, the less DOF that lens will produce at any given f-stop, relative to a shorter lens.

FOCAL LENGTH OF LENSES (35mm camera’s)

Less than 35-50mm Wide angle lens
Less than 35mm Very wide angle
55-70mm Short telephoto
Greater than 70mm Telephoto

A so-called “normal” lens approaches the way the human eye see’s a subject in terms of perspective.  A 200mm telephoto lens set at f11 will not produce as much DOF as a 50mm lens set at f11. If you want to use a smaller lens opening and want to reduce your DOF, use a longer lens. If you want to use a larger lens opening, f4 or f 5.6, and want to increase your DOF (have more in focus), use a wider-angle lens (a shorter focal length). Example: You have ISO 125 film in the camera, a 50mm normal lens, it is getting dark, and you do not have a tripod. You want to photograph a tree 25 feet away and you determine exposure to be 1/60 @ f2.8. The problem is that you want more DOF, more in sharp focus throughout the picture between the foreground and the background. By simply putting a wider angle 35mm or 28mm lens on the camera, the DOF will be considerably increased.


1.   Depress the depth of field preview button or lever on the camera body or lens, if your system has this feature. This      will close down the lens aperture. If you turn the aperture      ring with the DOF preview button depressed you will see your DOF increase — more of the picture from foreground to background will become sharper. A problem with this method is that at f11 the image in the viewfinder may be so dark as to be difficult to see. When you release the DOF preview button or lever the aperture will open fully again. With the lens wide open at f1.8, if you focus on a person five feet away, the background twenty feet away will be out of focus, even with a wide angle lens. If he were standing against a wall the aperture setting would be irrelevant. The point is that one may judge DOF visually through the viewfinder for creative purposes.

2.   There are usually color codings on your lens, vertical lines that line up with the distance scale on you focusing ring to determine DOF. These tell you what your DOF or “field of focus” is. Refer to your owner’s manual for more specific information regarding your particular camera.

Example: I am taking a picture of a person focused 10 feet away with a 50mm lens. Exposure is 1/125 @ f8. On the Nikon lens, the color of the f8 markings are red. The red line on the barrel of the lens to the right of center lines up with  the 8 foot mark on the focusing ring. The red line to the left of center lines up with 15 foot mark. This tells me that at f8 with this lens, focused at ten feet, everything between 8-  15 feet from the camera will be in sharp focus.


In sports photography, it is often difficult to follow the action and keep the subject in focus. Instead, focus on point of the track or playing field and choose an aperture that will give you a deep field of sharp focus (f11-f22). Any time the action is in that sharp DOF zone, focusing is unnecessary. Simply release the shutter without worrying.

Suppose you are taking electronic flash pictures in a very dark room. Your exposure is 1/60 @ f8 with a 50mm lens. It is too dark to focus precisely but you know that your subject is about 12 feet away. You can see by your DOF indicating lines on the lens that if you focus the lens at 10 feet, everything from 8-15 feet will be sharp at the f8 setting you are using.


Perspective is the apparent size and placement of objects in relation to each other within an image. Perspective changes (varies) depending on the focal length of the lens and the distance from the subject. With a “normal” lens (50mm on a 35mm camera) the perspective is the same as the way the human eye would view a scene. The angle of view is about 50 degrees. With a telephoto lens (75mm or longer on a 35mm camera), the longer the lens, the more space is “compressed.” This is called a flattening effect. Distant objects appear to be closer to each other when compared to a normal lens; objects appear closer together than reality. Using a wide angle lens (focal lengths of 35mm or shorter on a 35mm camera) objects close to the lens appear distorted or enlarged. A 50mm lens has no magnification, thus it is 1X (one power). A 25mm lens is .5X, half the magnification of the human eye. A 100 mm lens is 2X. A 1000mm lens is 20X.


Contrast is the difference in brightness between light and dark areas within the negative, print, or slide. Contrast refers to the brightness of the picture overall and the number of middle tones or “middle values” in the negative, print, or slide. Middle values are the areas of the picture in the middle of the spectrum of light between maximum black or the very darkest tones/colors and maximum white or the very lightest tones/colors.

A NORMAL CONTRAST photograph has a wide range of tones or values: Low values — the darkest areas…blacks, dark shades or shadows. Middle values — the intermediate areas/tones. High values — Bright areas or tones nearing and including the white end of the spectrum. Highlights. Bright-light colors.

A LOW CONTRAST photograph has no real pure whites or light-bright colors or tones. An extremely low contrast photograph is referred to as “flat.” It has no sparkle. As you decrease the amount of light reaching the film, the result is a lower contrast photograph. It may be judged “underexposed.” The negative will be thinner; the print or slide will be consequently darker. Low contrast lighting is sometimes called “diffuse light.” This refers to generally overcast cloudy days with little or no distinct shadows, no bright sky, and will produce a photograph of less contrast.

A HIGH CONTRAST photograph has little in the middle values, just very dark and very light areas. If there are no middle tones the photograph may be viewed as too having too much contrast. As you increase the exposure, the amount of light to hit the film, the result is a higher contrast photograph. It may be considered “overexposed.” The negative will be thicker (denser) resulting in a lighter print. The same is true for slides. High contrast lighting is the effect of bright sunshine with distinct shadows, or, for example, a snowy scene with very dark buildings. If there are many distinct shadows on a portrait subject’s face because he is standing in open sunlight, the contrast is high.

Making a proper exposure involves controlling contrast. Any change in the shutter speed/f-stop ratio changes the contrast. Contrast is a subjective matter, open to personal interpretation. Just because a photograph is extremely high or extremely low contrast is not a sole determinant of whether or not the photograph is properly exposed.


In implementing the theory above, whether using a hand-held meter or an in-camera meter, the practice is the same. In order to determine exposure manually for a properly exposed negative or transparency it is essential to know how to perform the following


  1. Know where to point the meter in taking a reading.
  2. Centering the meter and plus or minus adjustment if  necessary.


Centering the meter is different procedurally with different cameras. With a “needle” type meter you set the aperture/shutter speed so that the needle is in the center. Refer to your camera and owner’s manual. Whenever the meter is centered, the photographer is placing the value of the subject as a MIDDLE GREY, whether in B&W or color. If you point the meter at a black horse, center the meter and take the picture, you will have placed the black horse at middle grey, so the horse should come out grey instead of black in the print. The same holds true for a white horse. The white horse will also come out grey instead of white. This demonstrates the need for plus or minus adjustment (correction) after centering.


1.   If you can, isolate the main subject in the viewfinder. In the case of a portrait this is mandatory. Move right up to the person’s face, take a reading centering the meter, then make any correction.

2.   Photographing a contrasty subject, take a centered reading of the brightest area in the frame, then the darkest. An exposure alf-way between the two readings is a good starting point. This is called the “averaging technique.”

3.   Exposing for the shadows (with B&W film) will produce a negative of sufficient density to make a good print. Point the camera at some shady area, with no bright area in the viewfinder. Center the meter, raise the camera, compose and shoot. It is imperative to pre-visualize the final photograph before exposure. Always expose for the main subject and let the other values fall where they may.

4.   Take your reflected light reading from a grey card of 18% standard reflectance. This will always give you an average reading. These cards are available at any photo shop.


Center the meter and take a picture. Then increase exposure in 1/2 or 1 stop  increments for 2-3 stops in each direction from center. This uses a lot of film but assures that you will have plenty to choose from, and with a contrasty subject such as a sunset, you will get the balance between the sky and the shadows that you desire.


Even when shooting color, this author pre-visualizes in B&W. If the main subject looks like it will reproduce as middle grey no correction is necessary. If you have centered on a person’s face lit by bright sunlight — open up one stop so that the face will be exposed for one stop lighter than middle grey.

Correction Result
———- —————————-
-4 maximum black
-3 slightly lighter. No detail.
-2 Lowest shadows with detail.
-1 Slightly darker than middle grey. Dark skin.
— 0 — MIDDLE GREY (CENTER)   Skin on overcast day.
+1 Highlights of skin on a sunny day
+2 Highlights. Dark Blue sky.
+3 Almost white. Hazy white sky.
+4 White.

Photographing is a combination of knowing where to point the meter and correcting the centered setting if necessary to place the subject in its proper value for the attainment of a maximally exposed negative or transparency. This takes practice. The benefit is creative control not possible with automatic systems that place everything  automatically” at middle grey.

END NOTE: The discussion on exposure determination is by no means comprehensive. Advanced exposure determination techniques such as THE ZONE SYSTEM have not been addressed.


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