There are some lenses that seem to always make clear, bright pictures and this camera has one of them. It may be that it has good contrast, I’m not sure, but the pictures taken with this camera have a pleasing level of clarity. I had a Canon Sureshot A1 – the waterproof job – that had the same clarity, but I think that was due to it using the flash for most shots as fill-in.
This model of the Silette was introduced in 1955. In many ways it’s similar to the Zeiss Contessa LKE. The Zeiss gains with a built-in light meter but the Agfa is easier to use, with a focusing tab on the lens. The film rewind is a knob rather than a crank, so it’s slower to use but simpler to make and probably more likely to still be working.
The lens is slightly wide, at 45mm and with a modest f3.5 aperture. But, like I said, it’s good. The between-the-lens shutter is very quiet. This would make an excellent street photography tool. Not that I do that kind of thing, but I’m sure it would. The focus on mine is a little stiff due to the age of the lubricant, but the focussing tab on the lens makes easy work of it. It also means that it doesn’t get knocked off the set distance while I’m carrying it.
I did try converting this camera to shoot IR, using an opaque filter behind the lens. That didn’t work, so I took the filter out again. Besides, I have since converted a digital compact to take infrared, which works much better. I think the idea was good, but I was using extended range film rather than ‘real’ infrared. With a full visual cut-off filter, I think I wasn’t giving the film anywhere near enough exposure.
So what I’m left with is a nice, functional rangefinder camera with a good lens. I’ll take that.
This is the Cosmic Symbol or Smena 8m. Mine was made in 1977, which is when Star Wars was released. So this is the camera that came from a long time ago in a country far, far away.
Mine was also made in the same year that Olympus stopped making the EE-2. What a difference. But what a difference in the markets they were selling into.
I can’t remember how I came by this camera, but it must have been very cheap judging by the rust. I think it was in a job lot that had been stored in someone’s garage.
It is supposed to have a sharp and contrasty 40mm lens. I’ve got to say that my first experience with it was underwhelming. The pictures were low contrast and muddy-looking. It feels a bit like the LC-A in that people rave about the lens, but what they show is the effects of contrasty cross-processed film. I can get the same punchy results with a Konica site foreman’s camera that won’t rust. Anyhoo, what do you get for your money?
You get a basic plastic zone-focus 35mm camera with fully manual controls. Where the Olympus Pen EE-2 had clever automation, the Symbol is purely manual. It’s probably easier and cheaper to provide manual adjustments than to create reliable automation. The shutter speeds are hidden on the bottom side of the lens and you have to turn a ring on the front of the lens to set the aperture. I suppose having manual controls doesn’t mean they also have to be ergonomic. There are cut-out windows on the side of the lens that show a white marker to indicate which combination of speed and aperture are right for the weather. Basically, the camera will do a sunny-16 (or dull 8) estimation for you. No substitute for a meter but better than guessing.
The focussing is by zone, or estimation. There are symbols on the lens for portrait, group and distant view settings.
And that’s it. There are no other features or gadgets. But what it doesn’t have can’t break. There are no batteries included and none needed. The shutter is only cocked by winding on, so there is protection against double exposures. The lens is a modest triplet design, so should be OK if stopped down a bit. Basically it’s a manual point-and-shoot that will work well enough and was produced in huge quantities.
One nice feature is that it has a film speed reminder on the back, although I prefer to use tape as it can’t be knocked to a different setting.
If you find one, it may come with its case. This is an awful affair made of a thick vinyl material with a shiny surface. It looks like patent leather and feels thick and stiff. But it does provide a strap to carry the camera around with.
If you are looking for one on that auction site, try searching for Nomo as well – the case has the Cyrillic script for Lomo stamped on it.
This is one of the iconic cameras, or rather range of cameras. The Spotmatics had through-the-lens light metering and a set of excellent lenses with good coating on the glass. The same basic body went on to gain a K mount for the lenses and became the widely-loved K1000.
Mine is a Spotmatic II. It was launched in 1971 and gained a few improvements from the previous model in the film transport, higher sensitivity in the meter and a fixed hot shoe. The meter now works up to 3200 ISO. The lenses were also improved with full multicoating to become the SMC range. Because flashbulbs were still a thing, the flash sync for the hotshoe can be switched between X and FP and the camera also has separate PC sockets for each. A nice feature is that there is a film length reminder (or you could use tape).
The camera itself is pretty standard for features. Perhaps more accurately, the Spotmatics set what would become the standard for a good amateur camera. The shutter has speeds from 1 to 1/1000 plus B. The shutter is a horizontal-run cloth type with X sync at 1/60. The focusing screen has a microprism dot in the middle but no split-image prism. The meter is a stop-down type: you push up a button on the front of the camera, the lens stops down to the taking aperture and the meter switches on. There is a simple needle in the viewfinder with + and – markings. There is no lock for the shutter release, so I guess you either took care or only wound-on when you were about to take the next picture. I’m learning to take care when carrying the camera in a bag.
In use I struggle a bit with focusing darker lenses. I’ve got a 35mm f3.5 lens that makes the focusing screen a bit dark, even in good light. But put a fast 50mm or the lovely Pentax 85mm f1.8 on and it snaps beautifully into focus.
The wind-on lever feels a bit thin, almost sharp, and takes a bit more force than I was expecting. Not that it feels like I’m forcing the camera, more that it feels a touch tighter than I was expecting. This may be just my camera, as my other Pentax cameras are buttery smooth. It still feels more smoothly mechanical than a Praktica.
Of course, the light meter on mine doesn’t work. It’s fine, as I have other unmetered cameras so I’m used to using a separate meter and tweaking the settings on the camera to keep it ready as the light changes.
It’s about as well-packaged as a camera can be, though. Not too big, simple design, all the key parts exactly where you would expect. It’s small and light enough for an easy and discrete carry on a shoulder strap. Indeed, with a 35mm lens on it was small enough to fit inside a spare poo bag (we have a dog) when I was caught out in the rain.
The M42 mount is about as ubiquitous as you can get, with access to a large range of lenses. And of course my screw-mount lenses also fit my more modern Pentax K-mount cameras. So why not use the K-mount cameras and ditch the old M42 camera body? Mostly because of its mechanical simplicity. This camera is probably as simple to fix as they come, so could probably outlast anything with electronics. Indeed, it has already outlasted my Ricoh, which died after only 40 years. I guess that what the Pentax doesn’t have (features etc) can’t break.
I bought the Spotmatic because of the lens it had on it: a Super Takumar 85mm f1.8. It’s a well-regarded lens, but was under-priced. This lens has the special tab that would allow the later Pentax ES to do open-aperture metering. It also has a tiny pin on the base that pops-out slightly when the lens is removed and disables the switch between auto and manual aperture control. An odd feature – I wonder if this was why it was cheap? Perhaps someone took it off the camera and thought the aperture switch was jammed?
So how well does an old meterless camera work? Pretty well, as it happens. The frames are evenly spaced on the film, meaning that the stiffness in the wind-on was not due to mechanical problems. Probably lack of use. The frames are well exposed, so the camera’s settings are accurate. It earns the highest accolade for a camera, in that it just worked. Changing screw-mount lenses is more of a chore than bayonet-fit ones, but that’s it. There’s not much more to say. The experience of using it was all about taking pictures and nothing to do with fighting the camera or searching for a setting. Simples. I can see why they were (and are) popular.
The Pentax SV was launched in 1963 along with a range of Super Takumar lenses. It brought the heady technology of an automatic aperture and a self timer. The automatic aperture is a little metal plate in the throat of the lens mount that pushes a pin on the back of the lens to close the aperture down as the picture was taken. This eliminated having to focus with closed-down aperture, or to remember to use some form of pre-set mechanism. But it had no built-in light meter, and may have been the last model in the range to lack one. Even so, it was used by the Beatles in the Hard Day’s Nightfilm. Now that’s a product endorsement.
There was an update to the camera in 1964 to work with the new Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens, as it protruded back into the mirror box and needed more clearance. The revised camera has an orange R on the rewind knob. My camera lacks this, so is a 1963 model. Speaking of which, the SV had a fold-out winding handle to rewind the film, which was not a common feature at the time. Nor was the single-stroke film wind-on lever, instead of a knob. The Pentax SV introduced what became the default layout for 35mm SLRs.
It also has one rare feature in having a T position amongst the shutter speeds. This opens the shutter on the first press of the shutter and keeps it open until the button is pressed again. It’s useful for long exposures as you don’t need a locking cable release or to sit and hold the cable release down. I admit to only ever using the T setting once, on a different camera, to try some star photography. The feature worked but my pictures were rubbish.
It has one old-fashioned feature in the release catch to open the back. This is a catch on the side of the camera. The Spotmatic, which came later, had the now-standard method of pulling up the rewind crank.
The other thing you’ll notice is the flash hot shoe. Or rather, its absence. The shoe is a separate item that clips onto the viewfinder eyepiece. Since I have far better cameras to use with flash, I leave it off to avoid losing it.
So there you are: good, solid, unpretentious and with a huge range of lenses. Works just like a modern camera, as it set the design for them. It’s up there with the Praktica as a post-apocalyptic snapper that will probably outlive the cockroaches.
How Lomo can you go? I’m afraid I succumbed. Meet Lady Di. She’s a 60’s original, so not even the newer Diana F.
Lady Di (the camera) is made of a small amount of thin plastic and very few moving parts, so it weighs very little. Heft is one of the many things it doesn’t have. Saying that, it has more controls than a Holga, which isn’t saying much. It’s like saying a Citroen Dyane is faster than a 2CV. The Wikipedia entry is not complimentary about the build quality – “It is constructed primarily of low-quality phenolic plastics of the type commonly found in toys imported from Asia during the 1960s.”
The shutter release has a long travel and, with the camera being so light, can probably shake the whole thing as it releases. I have found it works better to pull down on the release with my left forefinger, with my hand under the lens. The squeezing motion shakes the camera less and supports it more.
The shutter speed seems to be pot luck and could be around 1/50 to 1/100. Mine also has a B setting, but there is no cable release so you would need to keep your finger on the shutter lever or build a gadget to do it for you. The lens has three apertures. There is a wide open setting of f11 or two different holes that swing across to provide f13 or f19. Given the variation in the shutter, you may as well ignore the number values and just go by the weather symbols. The main control then becomes the speed of the film you load. Bright day? FP4. Dullish day? HP5.
Unlike the Holga it shoots a smaller frame, 4 by 4 cm, but this means it gets 16 shots on a roll rather than 12. My ex father-in-law’s old Balda camera covers the full 6×4.5 frame, but it has a better lens. The Diana’s wind-on is awful. It’s a noisy ratcheting dial that occasionally locks. Don’t force it, just wiggle it, and it frees and keeps working.
The push-fit lens cap is easily knocked off but you only really need it when the camera is packed in a bag. For walking around you can leave it off. Unlike a rangefinder camera you are not going to burn holes in your shutter curtains.
Because of its age the labels are falling off due to the glue under them drying out. The first was the focusing scale around the lens. This just needed a bit of alignment and a spot of superglue. Then the label on the winding knob departed. Luckily I found it in the bottom of my bag, which saved me using a bit of tape with an arrow drawn on it.
So, all that aside, does it live up to the hype? Is the Diana a better Holga? Why am I bothering when I already have a Golden Hammer?
Well, the first roll through the camera showed that, contrary to folklore, the camera had no light leaks. The roll of film did though – it obviously winds a slack roll so some light got through at the sides. I’ll just be careful in future to unload it in the shade and keep the used film roll covered.
The film could also have done with a bit more exposure. Perhaps the shutter speed is closer to 1/100 than I was expecting? The lesson is though that I can give it a bit more. So this will mean using a faster film or leaning more towards the cloudy aperture setting.
So how did the mythical soft lens turn out? Pretty soft, as it happens, with perhaps a touch of that Lomo vignetting. But does it have that magical quality that these toy cameras are known for? Maybe. Further experiments needed. Oddly, some frames seemed softer on one side than the other, and the soft side changed during the roll of film. There is a plate that holds the film against the gate, but perhaps this is a result of the loose take-up roll? I need to get this thing out again in brighter light, so that I can stop the lens down a bit.
Did I enjoy using it? Yes, as it happens. I’ve moaned before about carrying heavy cameras about but this one is featherweight. Set the aperture for the conditions, tweak the lens to the zone you will be shooting in and just go for it. This may be the perfect post-apocalyptic camera.
A chunky monkey from the mid-60s, but quite well-featured.
This variant of the Contessa line was made from 1963 to 1965. From various clues I think mine was late in the series, so let’s say 1965. What you get is a substantial-feeling fixed lens rangefinder. It’s quite deep in the body and weighs-in at 630g. Ideally you would find one with a case, as the body has no strap lugs of its own. What it does have is a sharp Tessar lens, a decent range of shutter speeds, a rangefinder and a lightmeter. The lightmeter is a treat – there is a display on the top plate so that you can set the camera up while it’s still hanging on a strap. When you raise the camera to your eye, there is another meter needle in the viewfinder.
The rangefinder patch on this one is a bit faint, but helped by a spot of marker pen in the middle of the viewfinder window.
The shutter runs from 1/500 down to 1/15 and B, while the meter goes from 10 to 800 ISO. Not bad for ’65.
The rangefinder needed calibrating when I first got the camera, but it’s not hard. The top plate comes off with two screws (but not completely – there is a wire that runs to the flash PC socket but it has some slack in it). The adjustment screws are on the sloping rear wall of the viewfinder block. The bottom screw is obscured by the winding lever, which needs a third hand or a bit of tape to hold it back. Luckily it’s the top screw that adjusts the sideways movement of the split image. So a few minutes with a small screwdriver and a distant view through the window got everything lined-up again.
In use it’s easier than most cameras of this type. The aperture control ring has tabs to make it easy to locate and turn. The shutter ring has a decent bit of tooth to it, so it too is easy to find and set. You just have to remember to feel past it to get the the narrower lens.
The film rewind is a Zeiss quirk. It’s on the bottom of the camera. When you press the film release button the rewind arm pops-out far enough to get hold of it and fold it open to its operating position. Putting it on the bottom leaves space under the top plate of the camera for the light meter, so it’s a clever design.
In use it’s a good lens in a usable package. You could load a film, take this out and use it with results and handling as good as any more modern film camera. Nowhere near as small as an Olympus XA, but still practical.
If I thought the Horizon was a weird wide-angle camera, then this is taking it all too far. Where the Horizon rotates the lens to scan the image across a curved film plane, the Spinner rotates the whole camera while pulling the film past a slot behind the lens. It’s the same basic idea: scan the image across the film through a narrow slot. But where the Horizon shoots a 120 degree field of view, the Spinner can do 360 (and often a bit more). There is no standing behind this camera – you are usually in shot.
The camera is driven by a spring motor in the handle. You pull out a length of string to wind the motor and when you let go, the whole camera spins around on the handle. Your two composition choices are how level you want the camera to be, and where the rotation starts. Where the Horizon holds the film around a curve to match the rotation of its lens, the Spinner pulls the film past a slot as the camera rotates. This means it also exposes the sprockets.
The shutter speed is between 1/125 and 1/250 and there are two apertures available at f8 and f16. So you will also need to use the film sensitivity as one of the controls. Sunny days will use 100 ISO and darker days 400. It’s probably best to use colour negative film and go for over rather than underexpose and use the film’s latitude to cope.
Like the Horizon, the lens gets the extreme angle of view by rotating rather than being inherently very wide. But while the Horizon has a 28mm lens, the Spinner seems to be 25mm. Probably just as well, as the photographer usually in ends up in the shot and is pretty close to the camera, so that extra bit of wide-angle keeps the shooter in focus.
Shooting it is an experience – you hold the ‘stick’ at the bottom of the camera, try to get it level, then pull and release a string. Pulling out the full length of the string gets you a shot of a bit more than a full rotation. You can also pull out less string and get a smaller scan. This may be the only way to stay out of your own picture, other than holding the Spinner up over your head. This is why it really needs the bubble level on the bottom of the camera – so that you can hold it up and get it level and not be in your own shot. On the other hand it’s great for group shots, as the photographer is usually always missing. There is a tripod socket on the bottom of the handle, so it is also possible to set it up on a tripod, duck down and get a 360 panorama in one shot.
The Spinner gets around eight shots on a 36 exposure roll, depending on whether you do full or partial spins. Scanning them can be a problem – I scan each frame in sections and combine them. The frame size can be up to 23cm – that’s 230mm, so six times wider than a normal 35mm frame. If you send the film away to be processed remember to ask for it not to be cut.
So it’s a rather specialised little beast, but good at what it does.
Whatever possessed me to buy a camera where you can accidentally get your knuckles into shot? Or I thought I could, even though I haven’t done it yet. The temptation was the 120 degree field of view and the distortions you can get because the lens swings in an arc. I’m a sucker for odd.
So the basics are that it swings the lens in an arc and projects the image through a moving slot onto a curved film plane. In action it scans a narrow strip of light across the film. There are two swing speeds for the lens and a set of different slot widths for the scan. Together these give you a range of shutter speeds. Not a full set, as the two ranges don’t quite meet.
Because the lens effectively turns its head, straight lines across the frame appear to recede at the sides. Keep the camera level and the horizon will divide the frame across the centre. Tilt the camera and it bends from bowl to hill. There is a bubble level in the viewfinder and on the top of the camera to help.
The basic specs are that this camera uses a 28mm lens set at a fixed focus distance. This is fine, as the depth of field covers just about everything. For those of us shooting mono or infrared the lens can take clip on filters which can be fitted part-way through winding the camera, when the lens is midway through swinging back to its starting position. The camera comes with three filters, stored in the clip-on handle. These are a yellow, a UV and a neutral density one. The ND filter is handy because you have a limited range of shutter speeds. I took the plain UV one apart on mine and replaced it with a visually-opaque IR filter. Because the lens swings across a curved film plane it doesn’t vignette at the sides like a fixed wide-angle lens might.
The frame size is the normal 35mm film height (24mm) but as wide as a medium format negative at 58mm giving you a 2•5:1 panoramic format. The 58mm width means it can be scanned or printed from anything that can handle a 6×6 film frame. To be able to scan the film on 35mm kit I scan each frame in two pieces, then combine them. You will get around 22 shots on a 36 exposure film.
The camera looks like a fragile plastic fantastic, but I believe it’s actually a cosmetic plastic shell over a metal chassis. I’d still avoid dropping it though.
The camera can be awkward to load – the film has to follow a curved path so it needs more than the usual guidance. The advice is to put the film behind everything: it goes behind every roller and guide you can see.
What got me thinking though, and the reason I bought it in the first place, is the potential of that swinging lens. It swings left to right, so a fast-moving subject also moving left to right ought to be stretched. Moving right to left it ought to be compressed. If I stand on a bend and photograph the traffic it should also do odd things with the shape of the corner. And I wonder what would happen if I panned the camera to follow a passing subject? There is also the potential to photograph a group of people arranged in an arc in front of the camera. The picture should look as though they stood in a straight line, but all facing the camera.
In use the camera is awkward to hold. The shutter release is set back, so your trigger finger is not in the usual position. It also takes a firm press to fire the shutter. The clip-on handgrip is very useful for keeping your fingers out of the frame, for aligning the camera and for allowing your right hand to take a loose grip in order to reach the shutter release. I’ve used it plenty of times without the grip though, as it makes the camera easier to carry.
You will spend a bit of time trying to get the bubble level in the viewfinder centered. The viewfinder shows the field of view of the lens pretty well but not the distortions it produces. When you do press the shutter you get an extended mechanical whoosh as the lens drum spins. It’s unusual and distinctive.
It’s a good idea to keep this camera in its case or well protected when you are not using it. If a bit of grit gets into the swing mechanism you will get vertical bright lines appearing in the frame where the lens slows-down briefly. If you are buying one second-hand, see if you can get a recent picture taken with it. Streaks mean grit.
But, for all its awkward handling, this camera produces unique results. There are very few swing-lens cameras, and this one is probably the most accessible and cheapest way into the world of swing.
Alfred Klomp has also written about the Horizon camera in far more detail than me.
This started with an interesting thought experiment in a podcast conversation I heard with Tim Urban. He asked ‘imagine a wicked witch removes everything we have made. How long would it take us to make a working mobile phone?’. Once we make one, we can have all our stuff back.
You might think ‘easy, assemble the chips and case’, but you have to make them. And the further back you go, the more you realise you need to take another step back. Then you realise you have to mine the raw materials, but first you have to make the tools to dig the mine. The same idea was explored in Lewis Dartnell’s bookThe Knowledge. He started with the question that, if you had to rebuild society from scratch, what do you do first and then next?
To give this a little relevance, Dartnell included in his book a section on how to reboot photography. His author picture in the book was made using his simple startup method, so it works.
The point that Urban was making and Dartnell trying to resolve, is that we are massively interdependent and very specialised. The other point is that some knowledge is declining. For a long time cameras had clockwork shutters. They were made in huge quantities and spares and repair skills were common. Then we started using electronics. And then we dispersed the manufacturing and assembled cameras from modules. Very few manufacturers now still need shutters and Copal might be the last company making 35mm type focal plane ones.
Why do we care? Because film photography is dying. It’s had a bit of reanimation recently, but the long term prognosis is poor. The reason is that we can’t make film or analogue cameras any more and we are losing the ability to repair them.
Yes, I know that Kodak and Ilford are still going and that Lomography make cameras, but you can also still buy a cut-throat razor or a valve amplifier if you really want one. But they are niche products. Of the two, the valve amplifier is probably the better comparison – valves are difficult to make*. Mechanical cameras and photographic film are also hard to make. Electronics, at least now, are easier.
There is a massive initial investment, for sure. But then you are effectively making small computers and as we know, you can make a computer do a different job with a change of software. Indeed, you can reinstate the functions that Canon switch off in their compact cameras using a hack. They don’t build different processors for each model – they use a single processor and switch off the functions that the lesser models shouldn’t have.
If you want another example of the loss of skills, look at film. Polaroid stopped production and it has proved almost impossible to recreate what they did. I understand that it’s even nearly impossible to recreate the clever origami that some of their film packs used. Kodak might also soon be the only manufacturer of colour film.
So what are we left with? If we want to use analogue methods we will probably have to do the same backwards walk through history and technology as Tim Urban suggested, to get to something we can easily make and sustain.
I expect that electronic film cameras will break first. The most recent ones may be the first to go, as the components are smaller, harder to replace, and designed to remove excess cost. It’s a bit like the perfect racing car, which should cross the finish line in first place as every component simultaneously wears out. As the designers say – if it broke, it wasn’t strong enough; if it didn’t break it was too heavy.
Next will be the vast army of clockwork cameras. The higher value ones may continue longest as broken ones are raided for spares. Their perceived value or goodness may make it worth the effort. Strangely, one of the simplest mass-produced 35mm cameras may end up being the last that works. Take a look at the Argus C3 – it could be serviced and repaired by a soldier.
If we lose 35mm film we are back to large format, which is simple enough to go on forever. A basic box that can be built or repaired by a carpenter and tailor. A basic lens that doesn’t even need a shutter. Sensitive material that can be made from paper, glass or metal. Some processes don’t even need silver. Perhaps we should start referring to large format photographers as preppers?
Of course digital cameras will continue for as long as people want them. They too need an infrastructure to make them work but they are riding the crest of the innovation wave. And if you fall behind that wave, you fall far. Does anyone still remember the floppy disks used for computer storage? Try reading one now. Or a backup tape, or Zip drive. How about the big laser disks that the BBC micro had and that a complete Domesday Book was stored on? At least I could scan the old negatives I inherited from my grandparents; I’m glad that I didn’t get a bag of obsolete memory cards.
So what’s the punchline? I can hope that a clever Chinese factory starts making knock-off copies of the Copal Square shutter and that film continues to be made. Or I could find a cheap large format camera and learn to make my own glass plates. But unless someone starts making analogue cameras again (and why should they**) then film photography is dying. So now is the time to plan your retreat back to a simpler time that can continue to function when our sources or support networks dry up.
* … and the Russians might be the only people still making them. So buy them at your moral peril.
There was a bit of an argument on Faceplop/ Melter (colour me surprised), about the right way to meter light for photography. So I thought I’d weigh in with my own version.
The reason for even thinking about exposure is because what it means is getting the right amount of light on your sensor/ film. To do that you need to measure the amount of light there is. To do that you need some form of meter (which is better than guessing).
Actually, it’s a two stage process. The first step is to measure the amount of light correctly. The second stage is to decide how you want to use that information. Let’s start with step one.
The amount of light emitted by the sun is effectively constant. The amount that reaches the ground (or the subject) varies with time of year, time of day and the weather conditions. This is why a meter is better than guessing.
Sounds easy though: point the camera at the subject and either press the shutter or change the camera settings to what the meter says. Most of the time this works, and the better or more modern the camera the more likely it is to work pretty well. If you have one of these cameras and you get good results, that’s the end of this article.
But… some cameras don’t have meters, or don’t meter light well, or the subject lighting is not ‘average’. This is where we need a better way to meter the light. The obvious tool for the job is a separate hand-held light meter. But there are two basic types and they work in different ways, which was the cause of the online argument.
The first and most common type of meter is a copy of the one you find in a camera. You point it at the subject and it measures how much light is being reflected back towards the camera. Providing the bright and dark areas in the subject average out, the reading is good to use. A reflected light meter can struggle if the view contains lots of bright sky, or is backlit, or is a bright object on a dark background. There is a specialised version of the reflected light meter that has a very narrow angle of view, so lets you meter on a single small part of the subject. These are useful if you can’t get close, or for measuring the brightest and darkest spots to calculate the full range of brightness (the reason for this is in step two, below). These spot meters are expensive though, and don’t give you the general average reading you also need.
The second type of meter measures how much light is falling on the subject. This type is an incident light meter. The idea is that light falling on the subject is the correct middle point that you need to expose for. The brighter bits of the subject will reflect more light and be brighter, the dark bits darker. Providing the total range of brightness fits within the sensitivity of your film or sensor, then this works very well and is immune to scenes that are not an average mix of light and dark. It does need you to measure the light falling on the subject though, which can be difficult if the subject is distant to you or under different lighting.
Which type of meter is best? The one you have with you, obviously. Both types work, providing you understand what they are measuring and if they might need some interpretation. The reason for the interpretation is step two.
Your sensor or film can record a certain range of brightness. Too little light and it won’t record. Too much and it will record as pure white with no detail. Ideally the brightness range of the scene will match the sensitivity range of the sensor, and it usually does (because sensors and film were developed to match the average range of brightness we encounter). So the average reading that a light meter gives you is intended to provide the mid-point of the camera’s range. How that average reading fits onto the range of a digital sensor or a film is shown below.
So despite all the noise about 18% grey and metering for the shadows or highlights, what you are trying to do is to find the average brightness and set it at the midpoint of the camera’s range. If possible you also set the camera so that the range of brightness in the scene or subject matches the range that the sensor or film can record. If the range of brightness in the subject is less than the range of the camera you can choose to move it up or down the camera range by giving it more or less exposure. Sensible people give as much exposure as possible, without the highlights going off the top of the scale. To be more accurate, the highlights in which you still need to see detail should be on or just below the top of the scale. If the sun is in shot, just accept that it will be overexposed. But if your subject has a white shirt or dress you may want any highlights to show a bit of detail and tonality and not be featureless white. This pegs the maximum exposure you can give. Alternatively, if the scene is low contrast (has a small range of brightness) you may want to give it more than the average exposure. This shifts the whole scene up the scale and will reveal more detail in the shadows. This is exposing for the shadows.
But what if the range of brightness in the scene is too great to get both the highlights and shadows within the camera’s range? You have options. One is to accept that part of the scene will not record. So you could let the highlights or the shadows fall off the scale. Most people keep the highlights and let the shadows go totally black, but it’s up to you.
Another option is to decrease the range of the subject. You can add light to the shadows with flash or a reflector. You can reduce the highlights by changing the lighting or adding some haze or filtering. Moving out of direct sunlight into open shade works well (but beware of the blue cast you will get from the sky).
A third option is to expand the range of the sensor or film. This is what HDR does for digital. With film you can play with different types of film, developer and processing. The aim with both is to be able to squeeze a wide range of subject brightness onto the narrower range of the sensor.
So, to get back to measuring exposure, a reflected light meter is saying ‘this is the average brightness of everything I can see’ while an incident light meter is saying ‘this is how much light there is. If everything in this light averages out, this is the correct exposure’. Which is better? If the full range of brightness in the subject fits into the range of your camera, the incident light meter is better as it can’t be fooled by non-average subjects. But if the brightness range is too great for the camera or you have something special in mind, you will need to set the camera differently to the average, change the lighting or take special measures to widen the camera’s range.
How do you know if the subject fits the camera range? Digital cameras win here if they can display a histogram or the under/overexposed flashies. If you can adjust the camera settings, you want the histogram shifted as far to the right as you can (as bright as possible) without losing any important highlights. With film I’m afraid it comes down to experience, and knowing that negative films, particularly colour negative, can take a bit of overexposure and still produce good results (due in part to that S shaped response, as above). If you have a separate light meter and you are close enough to the subject to be able to measure the highlights and shadows separately, try measuring the range. It works best with a reflected light meter. Take your overall average reading. Then measure the brightest highlight that should still show a bit of texture and tonality. This should be no more than 3 stops brighter than the average. The darkest shadow that you want a hint of tonality in should be no more than 4 stops darker. It is possible to capture a wider range, but this is about what works without taking special measures.
The special measures? There are ways of developing film that can capture a wider range of brightness. With slide film you are really stuck with what it offers. With digital you can try HDR. This combines a set of over-exposed shots (that capture the shadows) with under-exposed ones that capture the highlights. With some techno-magic the best bits of each are combined to compress a wide range of brightness in the subject to fit onto the range that the sensor is capable of recording. It can look strange if it’s done badly, and it often is.
The alternative is to base your exposure on what is important in the subject and let the rest fall where it may. If there are people in the scene, you would normally set the exposure so that you can see their faces. Just be aware that there is range of skin tones around the ‘average’ – don’t be like Kodak.
So if this is all getting too confusing, this is what you do in practice. Most subjects are average. Point your reflected light meter at the scene and angle it down a bit if there is a lot of sky in the shot. Or point your incident meter back towards the camera, with the meter in the same light as the subject. Job done. If the range of brightness in the scene is likely to be too wide, you will need to decide which end of the scale to keep, and it’s usually the highlights. On a digital camera take a test shot and look at the histogram or flashies. Reduce the exposure until the highlights are inside the histogram or stop flashing. With a reflected meter measure a highlight and give it three stops more exposure. It’s harder to gauge the difference with an incident meter but you could try taking one reading with the meter pointing at the camera and one pointing at the main source of light (often the sun). Try setting the camera at the midpoint of the two readings. And bracket – take extra shots with one stop more and one less of exposure. Bracketing is good for learning, as you can tell just by looking at the results that a scene like the one you shot really needs more or less exposure than what the light meter says.
So there you are. The purpose of metering the light is to work out how best to fit the scene onto the sensor. No one type of light meter is best – you need to use your brain with both of them. Incident light meters are less likely to be fooled, so may give more reliable results. Reflected light meters work from further away. The histogram or flashies on a digital camera do the same job. Light meters work best with average scenes, but luckily most scenes really are average (by definition). But look hard at your subject and the light and you will learn what different to average looks like and what to do about it. And then you can join the perpetual squabble on t’interweb about how exposure works. (As an aside, the only comparable geek argument is how countersteering works for motorcycles. So if you really want to start a flame war, ask people how best to expose for a countersteering bike.)
And by the way, you may have heard people either praising or damning the Zone System. All it does is help you try and fit the range of brightness in your subject onto your sensor, just as described above. None of this is magic, or even particularly difficult. It’s all about squeezing what there is into what you’ve got.