he popularity of plastic cameras like the new Diana + series means that there are more people out there taking their first steps with film and medium format, as well as dealing with the particular quirks of these plastic fantastics. I sometimes forget that in this digital age there are many people out there who have never actually dealt with film in their life!
I’ve outlined a few points below for those who have previously used digital point and shoot cameras set on auto to capture their photographs prior to venturing into this wonderful world of film (& plastic camera) fun.
To begin, if you have just got a ‘new’ camera, I know you will be eager to get out there and start photographing with it, but wait one, take a breath and read the instructions (if it came with any). The Diana + series come with quite detailed instructions and tell you what speed film to use (400) and how to modify your shooting if you are using slower film (say, 100) along with other useful info. If you read the instructions and/or do some research on the web (google is a wonderful thing) regarding the camera you just got, it can save disappointment (and expense) later on.
oading and unloading medium format film:
Prior to shooting, you will need to load your camera with film. If you are used to handling 35mm film you might find the 120 medium format film a bit more of a fiddle. If you can, load in subdued light. The film has a backing paper that protects the emulsion from light, but loading and unloading in low light is always a good practice (in case your film roll accidently loosens or unravels)
Speaking of backing paper, this has the numbers of your exposures on it so you can tell where you are up to on your roll of film. When you first put the film in your camera and replace the camera back, you will need to wind on the film quite a bit before you see the number 1 in the frame counter window. If this is the first time you have done this, don’t panic if you can’t see the numbers for a while, there is a fair bit of backing paper before you actually get to the numbers and before that you will probably see some lines and arrows.
There is a tutorial video for loading a Diana + with 120 film made by the lomo people here
There is one made by squarefrog for loading film into a Holga here
…and for loading film into the blackbird,fly (BBF) camera (which takes 35mm film but can still be a bit of a challenge for a first-timer) there is a tutorial made by yours truly here!
When you have finished shooting, ensure you have advanced the film on until it has completely wound onto the take-up spool (looking into the frame counter window there should be no backing paper visible, you can usually ‘feel’ the last bit of paper come off the original roll as well) – be sure to carefully remove the finished roll (again, in subdued light if you can) and secure the roll tightly with the paper band (some have adhesive, some need moistening, like a stamp) and store it in a cool dark place ready for processing.
After you’ve loaded your film into your camera, presumably you’re ready to start shooting! It’s good practice to make note of a few variables when first shooting with film and/or a camera you are unfamiliar with:
#1: Film speed
- this will be constant for each individual roll, so once you’ve loaded it into the camera that’s a constant for that particular roll/shoot (but an important one to keep in mind as it will often determine decisions regarding what aperture and shutter speed to shoot a particular scene/subject with or even to bother taking a photo at all!) As a general rule, the higher the film speed, the more sensitive it is to light, so 100 asa will be less responsive in low light conditions compared to 400 asa, so you will need either brighter lighting conditions or have a longer exposure time to get the same results as with 400 speed film. Higher speed films have, in the past, usually meant more ‘grain’ but with newer films made by manufacturers these days this is becoming less noticeable.
Because I have a brain like a sieve, I usually try and stick the cardboard tab from the top of the film box with the film speed information to the back of my camera to remind me what I have loaded in the camera. Some cameras even have a special slot to pop the film info in
- in the Diana + series it’s a choice of Sunny (f 22), Partially Sunny/Cloudy (f 16) or Cloudy (f 11) and lets not forget pinhole (f 150) – the larger the aperture (the smaller the f stop number) the more light is going to reach the film plane (and depending on the lighting conditions, shorter exposure time needed). The smaller the aperture (larger f stop number) less light and consequently longer exposure time needed depending on the lighting conditions. On most toy cameras, the aperture is indicated by symbols (like the previously mentioned sunny, cloudy, hazy symbols) In more sophisticated cameras the aperture is usually indicated by a number usually ranging from small numbers like 1.7 (large aperture) to 16 or 22 (small aperture) Some cameras have both numbers and symbols.
With large apertures (smaller f numbers) the depth of fieldis more shallow. That means that items in front or behind the subject you are focused upon are progressively more out of focus. Smaller apertures (larger f numbers) have greater depth of field, so objects outside of the focus distance are more in focus than with smaller apertures. In reality most toy cameras don’t have f-stops small enough (large enough apertures) to make this obvious, but if you are using a camera that can go down to small f-stops you can have some nice blur behind your portraits (for example).
#3: Exposure Time
- the amount of time the shutter is open to let light onto your film. With relatively simple cameras like Diana, you have N or I (approx 1/60th sec) and B (however long you hold the shutter open)
One of the most common mistakes a newcomer can make is to have the shutter selection on ‘B‘ rather than ‘N/I‘ – if your images come out blurred and overexposed, then this is probably what has happened – I still do it from time to time. It never hurts to check all your camera settings before each shot, because you can accidently flip the selector (especially on the Diana + I’ve found) from N/I to B.
B is best suited for long exposures such as night photography or low-light indoor shots. You also need to use B when shooting pinhole exposures. If you are taking long exposures and don’t want really blurry images you willneed to use a tripod or some other method of steadying your camera (a small beanbag is useful if you don’t have a tripod or don’t want to lug one around all the time)
#4: Lighting Conditions
- the way a scene or subject is lit and the intensity of light will help determine your choice of aperture and exposure time/shutter speed depending on what speed film you are using. If you know in advance what conditions you will be shooting in it will help determine your choice of film speed too.
I hope I’m not stating the obvious too much after all I’ve talked about above, but to reiterate:
Bright sunny conditions (especially with faster film such as 400 iso or above) necessitate the ‘sunny’ smaller aperture setting.
In overcast or low lighting conditions, or when using slower speed films, the cloudy, large aperture setting should be used and sometimes the ‘b’ shutter speed needs to be used (with a tripod preferably)
resources: For the Diana + there is a nice free exposure chart from INDIAN HILL imageworks available here.
- don’t forget to focus the lens. Most cameras have some form of focusing ability. There are very simple ‘fixed focus’ cameras but for the purpose of this discussion lets assume your camera has a focusing ring or similar to tell the lens what distance the subject matter being shot is from the camera. The Diana has estimated distance set by a ring around the front of the lens, the Holga has the estimated distance on the lens barrel, indicated by simple graphics, as shown in the example at left. Cameras like the Lomo LCA have a lever to set the distance. If you want your images to have somesharpness it’s best to try and get the focus right. Plastic cameras can actually achieve quite sharp images in the right conditions, despite being famous (or infamous) for their ‘soft’ focus, you can be surprised!
So hopefully now you can see that all of the factors above work together to get light to the film plane in order to make an exposure which will eventually become your finished photograph once developed and printed (or scanned). The variables you have control over can be changed to suit the conditions depending what kind of effect you want to get in your final images.
If you pay attention to these variables when you are shooting you will soon get to know what ‘works’ and what doesn’t.
Many plastic cameras have inaccurate viewfinders, so what you see in the viewfinder will not be what you get on the final exposure due to parallax errors. For example, the Diana cameras have their viewfinder above the lens which means the horizontal aspect will be positioned fairly accurately, but because the finder is above the lens you may think you have someone’s head in frame only to find it has been chopped off in the developed image. The Holga has it’s viewfinder on the side and slightly above, so the parallax error works (or doesn’t if you know what I mean) in both vertical and horizontal plane.
To confuse these matters concerning what you see in your viewfinder and what is actually captured on film, both the Holga & Diana have the option of 35mm film backs now. Combined with the different kind of lenses these cameras can use (teleophoto, wide angle etc) things can get rather confusing. There is an excellent explanation on this matter by Gimel Vav on a thread in flickr – if you are shooting with a 35mm back on these cameras (and optionally using different lenses) you would benefit from reading it at this link: Distances used with a 35mm back and lenses.
Eventually you will work it all out and adjust your compositions accordingly…
I would further suggest that if you are new to shooting with film or when using a camera you are new to, you start with C-41 (negative film) rather than E-6 (slide film). Compared to C-41, E-6 is usually more expensive to buy and process, sometimes harder to find a lab to actually even process it and has less latitude (not as forgiving in lighting conditions outside of the gamut of your film speed and cameras exposure capabilities) often leading to under or overexposed images. Related to this subject, you may find the ‘look’ of x-pro (cross-processing) very appealing, but I would suggest getting used to shooting ‘normal shots’ first! (Lomo has a lot to answer for!)
C-41 is the way to go for learning what your camera is capable of and it hurts the hip-pocket less if you make mistakes.
Don’t be discouraged by “bad rolls” – keep shooting, keeping in mind what I’ve talked about above and in no time you will be picking up your exposures from the lab with a big smile on your face when you see how cool they turned out. Of course there will still be ‘clangers’, we all get them, but sometimes your so-called mistakes can turn out to be some of your more interesting shots!
The most important thing is to HAVE FUN. If you can’t have fun whilst shooting, then chances are you will not get results that please you and also, what would be the point of doing something you’re not enjoying?
Photography with film cameras and plastic cameras especially (in my honest opinion) can be a lot of fun once you get used to them and once you do (get used to them) and see what you can get – you may be hooked!