My first SLR, bought early in 2013, was a Praktica BMS Electronic.
It was vastly more complicated than any camera I’d had before, and to me, its prolific decoration in numbers of various colours was testament to that – and at first utterly intimidating.
Let’s take a quick tour, from my beginner’s perspective back then.
On the top of the camera on the left was a dial (ISO, or film speed), numbered in white from 12 to 1600, not in even increments but apparently doubling each time – 12, 25, 50, 100 and so on.
Symmetrically opposite on top was another dial (the shutter speed) with numerals in both green (B, 4, 2), orange (1, 2, 4, 8, 15) and white (30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000). Again there appeared to be a kind of doubling logic going on here, but why the different colours?
Then, on the lens, even more numbers – three sets more!
First, closest to the camera (the aperture scale) went 1.8, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16. No apparent logic or pattern at all, though I noted that when I turned this dial the metal leaves of the iris inside the lens closed or opened.
The 1.8 setting was fully open, and the 16 end left just a tiny hexagon for light to pass through.
A little further down the lens barrel, another row (the depth of field scale). This was at least symmetrical, with a red line in the middle, and the marked numbers of 4, 8 and 16 again conformed to that curious doubling order.
Finally, nearer the end of the barrel a third set of digits, or rather two sets (focus distance), one in green (feet), and one in white (metres). The scale didn’t seem at all linear though, as the distance between 0.45 to 0.5 was about the same as between 1 and 1.5.
All in all I was rather baffled about all of these sets of numbers, and didn’t know where to start.
My previous experience with more automated film cameras taught me about the film speed at least, so I began by setting that correctly – 200 for my ISO200 colour negative film (though as time went on I discovered you don’t always want to set the ISO to the speed printed on the film canister).
For the other settings, I realised from trial and error that turning the thicker part of the lens enabled me to focus, and the numbers on the barrel were a guide to the distance you wanted to focus (a scale in metres, another in feet, for those older than half a century), rather than needing to be used, when you could rely on focusing in the viewfinder.
The aperture ring I think I just left at the 1.8 end, and marvelled at how the camera made parts of the scene super sharply focused and other parts beautifully soft and blurred as you turned the focus ring of the lens.
(Indeed this remains my most exciting and mind blowing experience of photography to date, just looking through an SLR viewfinder and focusing the lens in and out at maximum aperture.)
All that was left was the shutter speed dial, which I figured out was connected to the LEDs inside the viewfinder. They indicated the shutter speed selected on the dial, and when that was in the correct range to enable a good exposure (though at the time I just followed the colours).
The first roll of images I had developed left me in awe at what I’d later come to know as depth of field, and as mentioned before, how a larger aperture gave a shallow depth of field and deliciously blurred the backgrounds.
But aside from the images themselves, I was quite in awe at the camera itself.
With experience and a number (ok, hundreds) of subsequent cameras, I’d learn the ISO and shutter and aperture scales off by heart, and know how they impacted the final image.
At this early stage of discovery though, the old Praktica was, in my naive eyes, just some kind of complex magical box, designed to be confusing to all but highly experienced professional photographers.
As an object, the numbers fascinated me, and my strong background interest in mathematics (I’ve always enjoyed it and have a Bachelor of Science degree) implored me to discover more about their mysterious scales.
These days, I kind of take all this for granted.
When I use a DSLR (I haven’t used an SLR in about four years), I just know without thinking which shutter speed and aperture to use to get the effect I want.
I know that with a 50mm lens I can usually take a shot hand held down to 1/15s or 1/8s without any motion blur, and that f/5.6 is my usual sweet spot between too thin a field of focus yet enough blur to make the backgrounds appealingly hazy.
And more often than not I start with the lens at its minimum focus distance and work outwards if I need to (I usually don’t).
And ISO is generally an easy decision too, with the DLSRs I use (old Pentax CCDs) I shoot at their native ISO 99% of the time to get the best from them.
But I kind of miss the wonderment of those early days with the Praktica and others that followed, not knowing what all the numbers meant or how to adjust the camera just to get any kind of photograph, let alone one with any creative control.
Sometimes, the joy of numbers is in their mystery – being able to see them lined up, but not knowing why they’re in the sequence they are, how to understand it, or if you ever will.
How about you? Do you remember your first days with an SLR or DSLR? How did you make sense of all those numbers?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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