Photography And The Joy Of Numbers

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.

My favourite photograph from that first roll with the Praktica BMS Electronic

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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14 thoughts on “Photography And The Joy Of Numbers”

  1. Another beauty – and both the memory and the image. Thank you again. Your personal reflections on shooting are, I think, my favorites. They often strike a chord within me.
    And I have twice gone through this learning process….

    1. Thanks Burt, I really appreciate you reading and sharing your thoughts. I’m curious about why you’ve gone through the learning process twice?

  2. It has been fascinating to watch the evolution of 35mm cameras from all manual rangefinders, to all manual SLR’s, to auto-exposure SLR’s, to auto-everything SLR’s with knobs, to auto-everything SLR’s with menus, to auto everything DSLR’s with menus, to mirrorless. I can certainly understand the wonderment of people who encounter the later examples without the historical knowledge of that evolution. And I suspect it will all turn out to have been a dead end with the rise of computer imaging with smart camera phones. (In the meantime, I will just continue clicking away with my ancient Leica.)

    1. Yes I think the wonderment can go in both directions in time. I find new tech fascinating and the pictures I can get with my smart phone and 30 seconds in Snapseed would seem absolutely mind blowing to someone used to only “proper” cameras even a decade ago, let alone a generation ago. But then I know when I first used cameras that existed before I did (like a Zorki 4 or Kiev 4A or Pentax S2a and many more) it amazed me how they work, what beautiful mechanical objects they are and so on.

      It would be interesting to know, out of all the DSLRs ever sold, how many have only every been used on some kind of auto or scene mode, like a big point and shoot, without the more manual modes and settings ever been touched. I would guess a high percentage!

      1. I suspect you’re right about how many DSLR’s have been used as anything other than a big point-and -shoot.

        In fact, the Getting Started section of the printed manual for my son’s Nikon D3100 recommends setting the camera to what it calls an “automatic ‘point-and-shoot’ mode.” I suspect that’s what he did, and then never changed it. It was still set to auto-focus and P (program) exposure when he gave me the camera and the kit zoom lens after fewer than 1,000 exposures in five years!

      2. Yes it’s a case of the manufacturers continually inventing new features they claim we’ll wonder how we ever lived without, (to sell more cameras) but then actually advising most users to just stick it on full auto mode and forget about all the extra features anyway (to not confuse or alienate the casual user)!

  3. This is a nice shared emotion, Dan. I enjoyed to discover it in a Canon EF, the black beauty, which is a FD mount camera and I think I shared with you in a post I made about it. It is empowering to set the numbers and get an alignment. is like one is really photographing. I wanted to experience that with my film Canon EOS 7, as I got a Jupiter 37A and an m42 to EOS adapter, but unfortunately it is not matching as it blocks in “low battery.” I think I should get a m42 body camera but I don’t feel like carrying three cameras or so.

    1. That EF is a handsome beast! I know many people use Canon EOS cameras (film and digital) with adapters to shoot other lenses, as because of the large mount, makes it easily adaptable to many other lens mounts. I used to shoot a couple of EOS bodies with M42 lenses with great success – an EOS 500 which literally cost 99p, and a more expensive (about £15) later model, a 300V, which did all I could ask in a 35mm SLR. Small, light, good handling, excellent metering. Just never could get very excited about a Canon SLR, they’re very functional, just kind of soulless. (Though I have been looking again very recently at an old DLSR like a 20D or 30D which are ridiculously cheap now!)

  4. Sweet photograph Dan. Shows that it’s the camera and how you use it that makes great photographs. My first camera was the Minolta SRT 201. It taught me how the camera, and different film emulsions sees the light. Still today, with the Pentax K10-D, I use manual mode without the viewer screen on the back of the camera, and I mostly know where to set the camera for a picture without depending on the meter. I think it’s important to know your equipment. When I was a photojournalist on one assignment to make pictures of a public figure at a press conference, just when the person walked in the room the lights went out … I was one of the few who got the ‘money’ shot. For the same reason, I don’t buy cars based on their electronic gadgets.

    1. Thanks Frank. I remember first seeing that photo and being blown away by the shallow depth of field – remember at this point I had no idea what it was, and just shot the whole first roll of film with the lens wide open at f/1.8. It really opened my eyes to what an SLR could do compared with the simpler compact cameras I’d used up until then.

      I agree about knowing your equipment, my battle the last eight or nine years now has been trying to balance the pleasure of knowing the camera you’re using instinctively, and the allure of new (old) gear with its promise and variety…

      It amuses and baffles me when I see car ads (on TV) and the main selling point seems to be that it syncs with your phone so you can open the door and control the radio with it. No mention of performance or fuel economy or safety or handling or comfort. Nope, apparently none of that matters, as long as you can control the music with your phone!!

      Even more stupid, the phone and the car software will be redundant in three years. I know someone who has a fairly expensive car with in built sat nav, but they stopped making updates for it years ago so increasingly it has whole roads and roundabouts and new housing estates entirely missing, so it’s becoming less useful by the day, but still occupies a huge screen in the middle of the dashboard…

  5. Also in 2013, my first “real camera” after using a (good) digital point and shoot for 9 years, was the Pentax K20D (I skipped the film SLR…) It came with the kit lens – and my copy was quite underwhelming – and a handful of manual lenses.
    I also remember being like a deer in headlights with all those controls on the camera and on the lens, and how the first few pictures would never come out as good as I wanted them to. It took me a few weeks and a lot of reading to start to understand what I was doing.
    I am glad that my tight budget made me buy this camera instead of a DSLR with modern lenses where I’d probably never really get to shoot in manual mode. It made me really have to learn those basic concepts.
    Unlike you though, I don’t miss those days. At. All. 🙂

    1. Ah, I was going to ask you about the K20D… You still use yours often if I’m not mistaken? Wondered about getting one as a companion to my older CCD bodies… I have all the lenses I need of course, just curious about the K10D’s successor and that Samsung sensor…

      1. The K20D is long gone… the K10D took its place, 4-5 years ago.
        The K10D was too big and heavy for you, so I don’t think the K20D would be a good idea. It’s basically the same size and weight.
        The sensor in it has one advantage over all others – somehow skin tones are fantastic. Pictures of people come out really great. Greens are also very, very nice, about as nice as CCD greens.
        Everything else about the sensor, however, has no advantage from what I can tell, except maybe when using the camera as a black and white camera, because contrast is very nice.
        The noise starting at ISO 800 is just horrible, it’s the worst looking kind and doesn’t look like film at all. I always had 640 as my upper limit – so in fact worse for low light than any CCD camera, where I can easily use ISO 800 as long as I don’t have to pull out more detail in post. In other words, if I expose right I’m good.
        While I miss the ergonomics of the K20D (it’s even better than the K10D, everything is more refined), the K200D is more than a good enough substitute.

      2. Which sensor does the K200D have, the same as the K20D? I did love the K10D, and the handling couldn’t be faulted, and arguably it’s the most comfortable camera I’ve ever held. But… If it was half the weight it would have been perfect. Just that much bulk and weight tired me out too quickly, even with something light like the DA 35/2.4 and especially with a vintage all metal and glass lens attached. My smaller and lighter DSLRs are light enough to hand hold an hour or two without becoming tiresome and ungainly.

        It might look further into the K200D, but really with the K100D, K-m and Samsung GX-1S (clone of the *ist DS2 I think), which are all CCD, plus the K-30 which I intermittently like then find too frustrating and flaky, I have all the DSLRs I need.

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