How to Use a 35mm Manual Camera

By Valerie Kalfrin
Use a 35mm Manual Camera
Photos by Valerie Kalfrin

If you have a 35 mm manual camera, chances are it's a single-lens reflex camera like the Minolta XG-7 from the 1970s, pictured here, rather than a medium- or large-format camera used by advanced professionals. The parents of the fully-automatic cameras sold today, these cameras are a great way to learn the art of photography because you control the settings. This article covers some basic concepts to help bring your creativity into focus.

Familiarize yourself with the camera's controls. On a manual camera, you focus the lens, advance the film with a lever and set the shutter speed and the aperture (more on that below). Your camera should have a frame counter to indicate how many photos remain on the film cartridge. Some cameras, like the one shown here, include a light meter in the viewfinder, which is a tremendous help when gauging shutter speed and aperture. These cameras also have a "hot shoe"--a kind of bracket on the top--for adding a flash and a button to release the lens so you can change lenses. The camera pictured has an "on" switch to activate a self-timer, the photo counter and the light meter, so it requires a watch-size battery.

Select your film. When using a manual camera for the first time, be prepared to waste a lot of film as you overexpose and underexpose pictures. Film comes in different speeds that indicate its sensitivity to light. A film rated at ISO 100 (or ASA 100, in older terms) is slow enough to yield good quality images when working outdoors and in bright light. A film rated at ISO 400 (or ASA 400) needs less exposure to light to yield an image; you can shoot pictures indoors without a flash with a speed of this film or higher, provided there's adequate ambient light. If you're working indoors and outdoors, film rated at ISO 200 (or ASA 200) is a good general-purpose speed.

your film, the camera, the film, it

Load your film into the camera. To avoid damaging the film, never load it in bright sunlight. (Load the film indoors or offer the camera some shade, such as your shadow.) On the camera pictured here, you would open the back cover by pulling up the small crank in the top knob on the left. Position the film cartridge so the part that sticks out points down at the bottom of the camera. Slide the cartridge in vertically and push the back cover release crank down through the center. Grasp the flap of film extending from the cartridge and stretch it across the back of the camera, inserting the end into one of the slots on the take-up spool on the right. Wind the film-advance lever and make sure that the sprockets on the spool catch the holes on the strip of film. Press down gently on the shutter and advance the film, ensuring it winds smoothly. Close the back of the camera. Press down on the shutter and advance the film a few more frames until your frame counter shows you're at the start of the film. If the film doesn't advance, just pop open the back of the camera and reposition the loose film coming from the cartridge until it does. (You might have to remove the film cartridge, wind the film back a bit into the cartridge using a pencil and start fresh.) Once the film is loaded, set the camera's film speed to match the speed of the film you purchased from Step 2. On the camera pictured, this is done on the dial on the top right of the camera, where the shutter is.

each photo, a manual camera, you, what aperture

For each photo on a manual camera, you have to figure out what aperture and shutter speed to use. The aperture is an adjustable opening inside the lens through which light passes to form an image on the film. Think of it like the iris of a human eye. The shutter speed is how long the shutter is open to capture the image (the "click" you hear when you take a picture is the shutter). Think of that like a blinking eyelid. First, the aperture. On a ring at the base of the camera lens, you should see a series of numbers: 1.7, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11 and 16. These are the openings for the aperture. On this lens, an opening of 1.7 is the widest and 16 is the smallest. The wider the opening, the more light enters the camera. So if you're shooting in shade or low light, open the aperture to its widest to get in the most light possible. If you're shooting in bright light or outdoors, shrink the opening to 8, 11 or 16 to reduce the light coming into the camera to reduce the chance that you'll overexpose your pictures. (Think of it as squinting when you're outdoors without sunglasses.) In addition to the amount of light entering the lens, the aperture also controls depth of field. Depth of field is how far the lens can focus (like a nearsighted or farsighted person). As the aperture widens, the camera becomes "nearsighted." The lens lets in a lot of light, but the focal length is short, meaning any background is blurred. This can be good for portraits or objects photographed up close. The larger the aperture is, the more the camera's "vision" improves. The focal length increases, and the background is as sharp as the foreground. Choose a greater depth of field to capture every bit of scenery in a landscape.

The dial, the top right, this camera, the shutter

The dial on the top right of this camera surrounding the shutter controls the shutter speed. It ranges from "B"--where you can hold the shutter open for as long as you want--to 1000, or 1/1000 of a second. The speed you select depends on the lighting conditions and the effect you want to achieve. If you're photographing skyscrapers on a sunny day, you want a small aperture (see Step 4) and a fast shutter speed, so the film is exposed merely for a blink to capture the bright blue of the sky and all the details. If you're shooting in low light, you use a slower shutter speed, as if the camera's "eye" is staring, to soak up all the details. Varying shutter speed helps depict movement. A slow shutter speed will record the blur of wheels, headlights or rushing water instead of freezing the action.

To take a picture, aim the camera at your desired shot and frame it in the viewfinder. If you have a light meter in the viewfinder (as this camera does), the camera will tell you which shutter speed to use to take the picture under the current aperture. Adjust the aperture to alter the speed, or turn the dial to change the shutter speed independently. Focus the lens and press down on the shutter completely to snap your photo. Advance the film and try a few different settings. When you've taken your last picture, rewind the film (with this camera, you press a button on the bottom and turn the rewind crank on the top, then open the back of the camera to remove the film cartridge). Watch what develops.

About the Author

A Tampa resident, Valerie Kalfrin has more than 16 years of journalism experience, twice earning first-place reporting awards from the Florida Press Club. Her byline has appeared in "The Tampa Tribune," "Ladies' Home Journal," "Time Out New York" and "Word & Film." She has edited copy for "Ladies' Home Journal," "Vogue" and The College Board.