Now here’s a thing. I did a bit on how the clever kids use a light meter. Then I found that a manual exposure estimator from probably the 1950s also had a use.
I was planning to go out for a walk, and obviously planning to take some pictures. It looked reasonably bright outside, but would it make more sense to take faster lenses and film or the slower and sharper stuff?
I remembered I had this little calculator, dating from a time when a light meter would have been an expensive accessory and there certainly wasn’t one in your camera. Dial in the sort of scene you will be shooting in, the weather, time of day, month of year and the film speed. The front of the gadget shows the exposure setting. The values are based on the geographical latitude of the UK, but I expect there must have been versions for most places. So basically, a peep out of the window, a few spins of the calculator and it says I’ll be using 1/125 at f8 on ISO100.
Handy. And it saves taking kit I won’t use. And it’s a lot better than guessing.
What is it with expired film? Why shoot expired film when you can get new?
I confess to shooting expired film in the past, but it was mostly because my unused film got old. I was also given a couple of rolls of very old Kodak film, that gave me all the problems you’d ever expect.
Why shoot a film that will have high levels of fog, low contrast and even strange spots? If it’s colour film the colours will have faded or shifted. If it’s roll film there is a fair chance that the frame numbers will show on the pictures.
One of the old Kodak films I was given was so old that the tape holding the leading edge of the film to the backing paper dried up and let go. The film coiled into body of the box camera leaving me to wind-on the backing paper.
So why wouldn’t you shoot fresh film? If you want pictures that look expired, why not add the effect later? At least that way you have some control over it. There was useful article on DIY Photography about making your own grunge filter. Use one of these and you can switch the expired effect on or off as you need.
If it’s the uncertainty you want, fine. But why stop there? Try something like Oblique Strategies or take every shot from the hip. Otherwise, why are you taking pictures? Is the purpose of your photo the subject or the method? What is it you want people to see? If your vision needs the look of expired film that’s great, but how are you going to get it reliably? I suppose what I’m asking is how to get consistent inconsistency, and I think the answer is to find a filter or processing effect that delivers what you want. In a way it’s the Zone Adams thing – have an idea of what the final picture will be and capture all possible detail and tone. Then you can turn that into multiple versions of what you saw. But if you start with a partial or compromised capture, there are fewer options later.
If it’s the subject that’s important though, I think you need reliable methods. I wouldn’t want to work hard for an image and find it was foggy or blotched.
There is also the question of not biting the hand that feeds us. There are few enough people making film and even those are dropping some products. Buy new and the money goes to the makers right now. If the market looks buoyant, others may enter it and with luck it will be sustainable. If we’re really lucky a resurgent film market will persuade someone to re-tool and start making film cameras again (I know Lomo do, but I mean things like a 35mm SLR).
You won’t get that from shooting granny’s mouldy HP3.
We’ve all seen the results of HDR processing. Done well, it’s invisible. Done badly, it’s all you see. It went through a phase of everyone using it and eventually became overused and ugly. Extended dynamic range became weird luminance and a world without contrast.
Anyway, enough of the sarcasm. How much should you manipulate a picture?
I would have said just enough to get the result you wanted, but that’s pretty open ended. Take a look at the collages of Heartfield or Höch, who were Dadaists. Their work involved photography, but in the same sense that a painting might involve canvas. Their work was obvious manipulation to achieve a result. I’m not sure I often see the same intention in HDR photos, unless the aim is to show what the world looks like without contrast.
Or perhaps that doesn’t matter. The Filmosaur Manifesto says that the meaning of a photo is what the observer sees, not what the photographer intended.
How liberating is that? You don’t have to make a picture look like a photograph. You are free to have fun. The best medium for this is probably digital and the best camera is a phone. There are great tools like Paper Camera and (thanks to the Phlogger)Comica. Stop worrying about whether something is a worthy subject and just have some fun with it. The results are so far from a normal picture that nobody can judge the sharpness of your lens or how many megapickles you have.
So I’ve been having great fun, even during the dark months of lockdown, by playing with old pictures. Even ones I didn’t like as straight pictures can be pleasing when tweaked.
Who cares whether it’s artistic or even good? It’s something creative to do while we wait for the end of the apocalypse.
With luck, we’ll all be vaccinated and out to play this month.
Have you ever heard anyone say they are going to sunny-16 it? Do you think they only take pictures when it’s sunny? I’m curious because, while I know what the exposure should be in bright summer sunlight, I struggle to estimate it in the dull overcast of a British Standard Day. Even clear sunshine in winter can be two stops less bright than summer.
How hard is it to really carry a light meter? How about instead of a spare lens or a second camera?
How much would you spend on a roll of film? I can get Kentmere 400 for £4.30. How much is a light meter? I reckon you can get one for a fiver on fleabay (sanity check – I just bought two for £5). How much would you spend to get every frame on your film reasonably well exposed?
If you guess the exposure you will probably have forgotten your guesses by the time you develop the film, so you won’t have anything to learn from. If you use a meter then you will know for sure if you (or it) are over or under exposing. Then you can compensate.
I know there are some lovely new meters on sale and on kickstarter, but they cost more than a roll of film. Besides, they tend to be fixed to the camera so it can be difficult to know what you are pointing them at. I know that grass or a clear north sky will meter as that desired middle grey. I know that pale skin like mine (I can pass for Scottish) is one stop brighter. So if I’m shooting something in the same light as me I can meter off my hand and give it one more stop of exposure. It’s not very scientific, if you mean precise, but it’s better than guesswork.
I’ve been using a meter more often recently than I usually do, as I’m taking one camera a month out to play. I’m finding that I can’t really guess a good exposure when it’s dull or I’m under trees. And while the latitude of the film might save me, I’d prefer to do a better job. Even Don McCullin took the time to use a lightmeter, and people were shooting at him.
So how do you know the crusty old meter you find actually works? Got a digital camera or one with a working meter? Point it at something fairly featureless like a wall or field and see what it says. Then what the old meter says. Adjust the film speed on the meter to make them agree and make a note on the meter what you did. It could be something like -1 stop on ISO if it under-reads.
No digital? Try a mobile phone app. Speaking of which, even a phone app is better than no meter. I use one called LightMeter. I paid the extra to unlock it which let me check and calibrate it against a known good meter. I’d still usually rather use a small ‘proper’ meter though, just to save faffing with a phone.
My true confession though is in using the zone system. Not in the sense that large-format photographers do with special development and cleverness, but in knowing that the palm of my hand meters as zone 6. So meter my hand and overexpose by one stop. Or that sunlit snow will be at zone 9. Or the darkest shadow that I still want some detail in should be metered and then underexposed by two stops.
I hear that people who shoot portraits on colour negative film, which copes well with overexposure, meter the shadows and set that as the exposure. The reason is that they want to show some detail in the shadows and not grain or colour shifts.
A vague memory intrudes… I recall watching a documentary years ago about a famous photographer. He was photographing models walking around a pool. He sat in a wheelchair and had an assistant pull him backwards, in front of the models. What a great idea to avoid falling in the water. But the reason for the memory is that he didn’t use a meter (or claimed not to, he had assistants). He used the exposure advice on the inside of the film packaging. Given that Kodak etc want your pictures to turn out well and that he was shooting in sunlight (and that I think he was shooting colour negative), it probably worked very well. Nobody talks about film boxing it though, do they?
But you can’t do any of this by starting with sunny 16 and guessing. At the very least, print yourself an exposure guide. It’s not a light meter, but it’s still better than guessing.