How to Take Retro Photographs (Film Camera Basics for Beginners)

Updated on September 27, 2019
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Lela is a photographer, occasional designer and enthusiastic writer.

Learn film photography in this beginner's guide.
Learn film photography in this beginner's guide. | Source

Analog or Film Photography for Beginners

Photography is a craft like any other, but it is also a form of art and a way of visual communication. The term “retro photography” is something new. It marks the age of analog or film photography, which ended about 20 years ago.

Analog photographers had to take a photo and then develop the negative in a darkroom. Their version of Photoshop was the darkroom enlarger. Unlike digital photography, which is more relaxed, analog photography had no room for errors. Photographers were masters of their tools, because what you see is what you get.

How Do I Learn Photography?

Photography by itself is not hard to learn, but it is not easy either. Like any other skill, it needs practice. You do not become photographer overnight; it is something that happens over time. Professional photographers have millions of photographs behind them. Some are instant successes, some are lucky shots, and some are complete disasters.

To take a photograph is not just to aim and shoot. Analog photography is about moments of reflection. A photo can reflect a photographer’s observations or the moments or objects that fascinated him.

Elements of a Photograph

In general, photography is a study of light, shadow, and time:

  • Light – This can mean sunlight, a light bulb or studio lighting: the moment a ray of light touches the surface and unites with the shadow. Light gives the viewer a detailed look at the texture or material of an object. In portraits, the angle of light can either soften the face or make it appear harsher.
  • Shadow – A dark part of the photographed object. Without the dark, there would be no light. In black and white photography, the collisions of light and dark have a special essence. To depict a moment without color is to focus primarily on contrasts: the dark, the medium grays and the light.
  • Time – An artist paints a painting by observing an object, and he might finish his work within a week or two weeks. But the photographer has to capture the exact moment at the exact second it happens: a moment which might never repeat itself again.

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An example of black and white film photography.An example of black and white film photography.
An example of black and white film photography.
An example of black and white film photography. | Source
An example of black and white film photography.
An example of black and white film photography. | Source

Practice With Life Photography

One of my personal favorite genres of black and white photography is life photography. It is what the name says: a reflection of everyday life. This might include images of people on the streets, just walking by. If you remember the Harvey Keitel movie “Smoke” from 1995, it has a good example of what life photography is. In the movie, Harvey Keitel’s character goes out in front of his tobacco shop on the corner every day and takes one photo of the corner. Over time, you can see that exact point on Earth changing.

How to Take Practice Shots (Step-by-Step Instructions)

Here's a similar experiment you can try for photography practice:

  1. March in to the store and buy a roll of film—for example, 100 ISO.
  2. Put the film in the back of the camera.
  3. Set the stop where ISO is marked on 100.
  4. Roll one or two shots to be sure you don’t shoot overexposed film.
  5. Go out on the street on sunny day—make sure there's lots of sunshine. Put the camera strap around your neck.
  6. Number one rule: Never drop the camera. Hold the lens at the bottom with your left hand, and hold the right side of the body of the camera with your right hand.
  7. Point your camera toward the top of the building across the way. When you look through the viewfinder, you should see the last floor windows and the sky.
  8. Press the shutter button halfway. Inside, the light meter shows numbers—for example, 1000 and 4. The 1000 is actually exposure (the 1000th split of a second), and 4 is the f-stop or aperture setting.
  9. Look at your camera. Where it says T, for exposure, set it to 1000. Then look at the lens, at the very connection of the body of the camera and lens. There is a ring with numbers. Set that ring to 4.
  10. At this point, look through the viewfinder and roll the front ring of the lens to focus the image. Take the shot; press the shutter button all the way.

Note that all this depends on your level of knowledge. More advanced photographers might not choose these settings.

Holding the camera the right way
Holding the camera the right way | Source

Analog Photography Basic Equipment

Regardless of the camera model, it is the photographer that matters most—the most important piece of equipment is the person standing behind the camera, looking through the lens. The person has to have a clear vision and idea about why he or she is taking that shot.

Small Format (35 mm) Cameras

Another basic tool for photography is the camera itself. To simplify this article, I will discuss only examples of the photo cameras most commonly in use today. These are small format cameras—"small format" refers to the type of film they use, which is a 35 mm film.

I have used several small format, analog cameras from different companies: Zenith, Praktica, Yashica, Olympus, Minolta, Pentax, Leica, Nikon, Canon, Smena 8, and Revueflex. You probably never heard of some of them. My point is: Any film camera you can find is going to be fine to use as you're beginning. I started with a Smena 8 and then moved on through the list above. Today, I have my dream camera, which is a Canon A1 35mm focal-plane shutter SLR.

Source

How Does a Film Camera Work?

The film camera is a complex mechanism. The inside of the camera has an entire machinery, and before the image reaches the negative, there is a whole set of movement. For this article, I will simplify the way a camera captures an image.

The three main parts of the camera are:

  • Lens – This is the front of the camera. The lens is the optical system, with a diaphragm and shutter.
  • Body – This is the middle part of the camera.
  • Film – The back of the body of the camera contains matte glass and a film cartridge.

Mirror and Prism System (SLRs)

The majority of commonly used cameras are single-lens reflex cameras (SLR). This type of camera uses a mirror and prism system—hence the name “reflex,” because it uses a mirror's reflection. The mirror and prism permit the photographer to view through the lens. The image reflects and photographer can see the composition he is going to capture.

The image falls onto matte glass. Once the photographer presses the button to capture the image, the shutter with a diaphragm closes to release the light onto the mirror. The mirror reflects the image onto the matte glass. In the end, the matte glass moves and lets the light onto the film.

Shutter Speed (Exposure Time)

The length of time the film is exposed to light is called the shutter speed or exposure time. The gamut of exposure times define the speed with which the shutter will open and close. Exposure is the intensity of light multiplied by time. The most common marks for this are T and B. The T stands for “time”. The B mark comes from the word “ball”—it marks longer exposures, between 6 seconds and 20 seconds. Some cameras have M, X, and V marks. M and X are for synchronizing with the flash. V mark activates the self-timer.

The usual numbers standing beside T are 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, and 1000. These mean parts of a second—1/1000 split of second for 1000, for example. This is the shortest amount of time the light will enter. This is usually used for a sunny day outside, when there is more than enough light. Depending on the light on the object you are photographing, you will want to use the exposure accordingly.

Viewfinder

The viewfinder is the beginning of creation; it's where your image begins. It is found at the rear part of the camera body. Whatever you see through the viewfinder comes through the lens of the camera. It is a window into the world, a frame in which your photograph will fit. The general rule is to leave a little “meat”, or let the composition breathe a little on the sides.

Light Meter

To determine the intensity of light, we use a light meter. The majority of cameras have one: it is the numbers shown at the bottom, or the arrow on the side, seen when looking through the viewfinder. It generates the numbers according to the composition you are aiming at. This is the suggested setting.

Film Speed (ISO)

ISO system is a mark for film speed. It is the measure of a photographic film's sensitivity to light. A common one is ISO 100. Depending on which film you have, you set the film speed. Film companies usually write the ISO on the box of film.

Lens, Aperture, and Focal Length

The lens, or the frontal part of the camera, determines the quantity of light which enters onto the film. This quantity is determined by aperture. Aperture is a complex system inside the lens, measured with focal length.

Focal length is the distance from the focus to the optical center. This is marked on the lens with f, which stands for f-stop. Simply put, the aperture is an opening in the lens. When you press the shutter button to take a photograph, the leaves inside the lens close. The aperture f-stops you set will impact the size of that hole. The larger the whole (smaller number of f-stops), the more light comes through the lens.

Additional Shooting Equipment

Let's take a deeper look behind the scenes of a photograph: There are additional pieces of equipment other than the camera. These are not necessary, but they can make a better photo, depending on what you are after.

Lenses

The body of the camera usually comes with a 50 mm lens. This means you can take photographs of something about 1 or 2 meters away. When it comes to taking photos of an entire building or at a greater distance, you will need additional lenses.

Common types of lenses include:

  • Fisheye lens – This is extremely wide-angle lens. It’s used for panoramic and spherical photos. Its range goes from 12 mm to 18 mm.
  • Wide angle lens – This lens is mostly for photographing architecture. The focal length range goes from 18–35 mm.
  • Normal lens – This has around a 50 mm range and is used for nearby objects.
  • Zoom lens – This is used for zooming in on specific objects. It's usually used in portraits. The focal length range goes from 70–150 mm.
  • Telephoto lens – This is a type of long focus lens. It’s what photographers use for tennis matches: It brings the object closer to the viewer. The focal length range goes from 150–800 mm and beyond.

Lenses can be changed quickly. There are two types of lens mountings: breech-lock and bayonet mounts. With a breech-lock, the lens is attached to the camera by the means of a rotating ring. Bayonet mounts consists of a cylindrical male side with one or more radial pins, along with another side that is a female receptor with a matching L-shaped slot and spring. This keeps the two parts locked together. Depending on the focal length, there are several different lenses. The focal length depends on the manufacturer as well.

Tripod

A tripod's purpose is to hold the camera steady, and it's sometimes an essential piece of equipment while taking specific photographs. For example, when you take night shots, the exposure can be rather long, so the tripod is a very important piece of equipment in these instances.

Cable Release

A cable release, like a tripod, is often necessary. The same night photo, for example, could use a steady hand. Think about the time of the daguerreotype, in which a photographer had to have steady hand and keep their subject still for minute.

Photo Filters

The old school photographers did not have Photoshop. The only way to create effects was photo filters. There are several different types, depending on the effect you are trying to achieve:

  • Ultraviolet filter – This filter absorbs ultraviolet rays, and it does not have any color itself. In a panoramic photo with this filter, distant objects, like mountains, won't be visible.
  • Light yellow filter –Similar to UV, only with light yellow color. If you take photograph of the sky with this filter, the clouds will be quite visible against the blue sky.
  • Green filter – Gives texture to objects like trees.
  • Orange filter – Gives drama to the landscape and points out the reliefs. In a portrait taken with an orange filter, the person will be much more prominent than the background.
  • Red filter – Adds shadows to the photo. This filter is often used in night photography.
  • Polarizing filter – Adds color to the scenery. In photographs of nature, for example, a naturally light blue sky will have deeper blue color.

Analog Photography Tips and Tricks

The trick with analog photography is experimenting; through trial and error, you can learn a lot. Photography itself is an experiment: It was born from an experiment with silver chloride, silver iodide, and silver-nitrite salts. These created a photo emulsion sensitive to light. Here are some experiments of your own that you can try:

  • Always take your camera with you.
  • Hold your camera still until you hear the shutter.
  • Night shots are only possible with film that's more sensitive to light (400 ISO, for example). However, with this type of film, you'll have to place your camera on a tripod or solid surface. If you take a shot by hand, the photo will be blurry and you won't find out until the negative is developed.
  • Try using longer exposures during daylight hours. This can give you a study of motion.
  • Use the light meter wisely; it is essential for a good photograph.
  • Do not get too close to the object you are photographing unless you have macro lens. The safe distance is half a meter or 20 inches.
  • Don’t set your focal length in numbers less than 4 or 2.8. This can add additional depth to the photo.
  • Take photos of architecture on a sunny day to reveal reliefs and textures.
  • While shooting inside, you need three types of lights: one for the background, one for the object, and one that is diffuse.
  • Focus on your objects by depth of field. For example, the entire depth of the object has three thirds. Focus the object on two thirds. Experiment with others.
  • Taking a photograph on a bridge with busy traffic can make your photos blurry no matter the tripod. However, this applies only if you are using long exposures.
  • If you don’t have filters, you can use gauze or nylons to cover the lens. Cover the lens with only one layer; the gauze will give a vintage, diffused feel to the photo. The nylons add their color to the image.
  • Do not shoot portraits against the daylight, unless you want to have a silhouette in some cases, or if you have additional front light directed at the person you are photographing.
  • Too much sun can hit your lens straight on, and there will be no photo. If you don’t have a lens hood, you make one out of paper—just be careful of the size.
  • Take the photos in the early morning and at dusk for a dramatic look.
  • If you don’t have a wide angle lens and want to take panoramic photo, be patient. Move your camera from one side to another. Take single shots: You can merge photos together. Always make sure you have some mark to continue (for example, a tree). Keep your camera parallel to the ground at all times.
  • If you are taking your negatives somewhere to be developed, tell them not to correct them—let them give you the raw material. Alternately, you can always develop the negatives yourself.

Many small things can change a photograph, and I'm sure I did not remember all of them. Some additional tricks are reserved for the darkroom, but I will not mention those in this article.

What About "Spray and Pray"?

There is a term called “spray and pray”: This means taking as many shots as possible and praying you get one right. I really don’t like this idea unless you are working for a newspaper and you have no choice but to capture a photo of something that's only going on for a few seconds. Otherwise, these kinds of photos never turn out right. Personally, I would recommend that you take your time, observe, and think of your eyes as if they were the camera itself.

Have you ever taken a photo with black and white film?

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