Whilst many of my favourite cameras are electronic and require batteries to do anything, not just meter (hello Contax 139 Quartz, 159MM and 167MT!), I own half a dozen others that are fully mechanical and either require a battery just for the meter, or have no meter at all.
A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have thought it possible that I could use a camera without a light meter.
How would I have even the faintest clue how to set so many crucial manual controls – focus, aperture and shutter speed – to ensure I got any photographs at all, let alone reasonably exposed ones?
You’ve probably felt a similar anxiety and gone running back to the comforting security of Programmed AutoExposure modes.
Then, maybe a year ago I ventured out using a compact digital camera on aperture priority mode as a light meter.
I’d set the ISO of the digital camera to the same as the film I was using, the aperture of the digital to the same as my film camera (a Zorki-4 or Fed-3 at the time), then read the shutter speed from the screen when I pointed it at what I wanted to photograph. Then I changed the shutter speed on the film camera to the same as the digital, composed and shot.
This worked, and gave me reasonable results, but it felt very long winded going through this process for every single shot.
Plus it was clumsy trying to switch between two cameras and not drop one or both of them.
More importantly, this complication fundamentally rallied against the simple joy and escapism from the modern world I gain from using vintage cameras.
Later still I used a Light Meter app on my phone, which was quicker, more portable and more flexible. And gave great results.
But again, I didn’t like metering for every shot, or flicking between the phone and camera. Plus once again using a new digital device to meter kind of spoiled that timeless mood and experience of using vintage all mechanical and battery less cameras.
Being a fan of simplicity and minimalism, I finally decided to take the plunge, ditch the light meter(s) and try metering on my own, based on the Sunny 16 rule.
I’ve simplified and adapted along the way, so here is my current method for metering with as little interruption to that wonderful flow of using vintage cameras as possible…
- Set the camera’s default shutter speed.For the Sunny 16 method, you set the shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO you want to shoot the film at. If it’s fresh film this might be box speed, but I generally shoot expired colour negative film and like to lean towards overexposing. So for ISO200 film, where I would shoot it at ISO125 in a camera with its own meter, I set the shutter speed to 1/125s.
- Decide and set the default aperture.I use the Sunny 16 rule as a starting point, but living in England we never really enjoy Sunny 16 strength sunshine. So I change it to Sunny 11. In other words, in the brightest conditions when it’s sunny and there’s not a cloud in the sky, set the aperture to f/11. If it’s hazy sun, use f/8, overcast f/5.6, heavy overcast f/4.
- Compose, focus, shoot.I think you know this part already.
If/ when the lighting conditions change as you’re shooting, for example a sudden descent of cloud cover, or you move into a very shady area from a bright sunny one, just change your aperture accordingly, as outlined in step 2 above.
A way of simplifying this method even further is to make an assessment of the average light conditions at the start, add a stop maybe (I always lean towards over exposure, more on that below), “set and forget” your camera, and get on with enjoying shooting.
So for a day which is slightly overcast, with ISO200 film you want to shoot at ISO125, set the shutter speed to 1/125, and the aperture to f/5.6 (two stops under the min f/11 for bright sunny conditions). Then put the settings out of your mind and go and enjoy photographing.
(I would estimate that on such a day I will shoot 80% or more of the shots on the roll of film at those default settings of 1/125s and f/5.6 without touching either dial.)
Sometimes you might want more creative control than staying at one shutter speed and aperture.
So here are some simple tips, using our default starting point above of 1/125s and f/5.6 on a slightly cloudy day.
If you want greater depth of field – Decrease the aperture to f/8 or f/11 and take the shutter speed down to 1/60s or 1/30s to compensate.
If you want shallow depth of field – Increase your aperture to f/4, f/2.8 or f/2, and adjust the shutter speed in line – 1/250s, 1/500s or 1/1000s respectively.
If you want to freeze movement, like people walking – Set your shutter speed a stop or two faster than your default 1/125s, to 1/250s or 1/500s, and open up the aperture accordingly to f/4 or f/2.8.
If you want some ghostly motion blur – Take the shutter speed the other way – 1/60s, 1/30s and 1/15s will need an aperture decrease from your default f/5.6 to f/8, f/11 or f/16 respectively.
It turns out that shooting without a meter is not that hard after all.
A crucial reason for this is the latitude of the film I use. What latitude means is the amount you can over or under expose the film, and still get usable results.
Most consumer colour negative films I use like AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 (rebranded FujiColor C200), Kodak Color Plus 200, Ferranis Solaris 200 and Fuji Superia 100 have a very forgiving latitude.
You can see what it is exactly by looking at the DX code on the film canister and using a guide like this.
But a general rule, most of these consumer colour negative films can be under exposed by one stop, and over exposed by three stops (let’s abbreviate this to -1 / +3).
This is partly why I lean (fairly heavily) towards overexposing.
In practice, what this -1 / +3 latitude means, is that if at 1/125s the optimum aperture is f/11, I can still get a very usable photograph if I shoot at an aperture of f/16 (-1), f/8 (+1), f/5.6 (+2) or f/4 (+3).
Put another way, this same scene can be shot with very reasonable results at 1/125s and any aperture between f/4 and f/16!
That’s very forgiving indeed.
Or, if you were to fix the aperture for this same scene at f/11, and the optimum shutter speed was 1/125s, it means you could still get decent pictures using a shutter speed anywhere between 1/250s (-1) and 1/15s (+3).
With the basic starting point taken from using Sunny 16 (or in my case Sunny 11) and the confidence the -1/+3 latitude of colour negative film gives me, I can set my camera up before I start shooting, then virtually forget the settings and enjoy the pure, simple pleasure of using a camera in the same way it was used a generation or two or three before me.
And for me, photography doesn’t really get much more special or rewarding than that.
What is your experience of shooting without a light meter? Let me know below.
If you’ve never tried it before I strongly urge to grab some colour negative film and get out there. You’ll be amazed at what you can do without a battery, needle or LED in sight, and just how it enriches the whole photographic experience.
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