How I Shoot Film Simply Without A Light Meter

Fujica ST701, Fujinon 55mm f/1.8 lens, FujiFilm Superia 100 expired film

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.

Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, FujiFilm Superia 100 expired film

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.

Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, FujiFilm Superia 100 expired film

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.

Minolta SR-1s, Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 55mm f/1.7 lens, Kodak Color Plus 200 expired film

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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Minolta SR-1s, Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 55mm f/1.7 lens, TudorColor XLX200 expired film

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.)

Minolta SR-1s, Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 55mm f/1.7 lens, TudorColor XLX200 expired film

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.

Kiev 2A, Jupiter-8 50mm f/2 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film

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.

Kiev 2A, Jupiter-8 50mm f/2 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film

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).

Kiev 2A, Helios-103 53mm f/1.8 lens, Truprint FG+ 200 expired film

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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Lessons From The 135

Contax 159MM, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5, FujiFilm Superia 100 Expired Film

As a change from my beloved standard 50/55/58mm lenses, I decided a few weeks back to try shooting a different focal length, and went for the once upon a time very popular and ubiquitous 135mm. 

Added to this, as I’m focusing almost entirely on the M42 mount – using my three all manual and mechanical M42 cameras, the Spotmatic SP, Spotmatic F and Fujca ST701, as well as my Contax C/Y bodies using an M42 > C/Y adapter – the choices were vast.

I wanted to try a couple of lenses, which inevitably has turned into double that.

Two of those are widely held in high regard – the Jupiter-37A 135/3.5 and Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Electric Sonnar 135/3.5.

The other two – a Revuenon Special 135/2.8 (supposedly a rebranded Mamiya/ Sekor) and a Cosina Cosinon 135/3.5 – are more like wildcard experiments on my part , and were much cheaper lenses.

A few rolls of film in, here’s what I’m learning most from shooting with a 135mm lens…

– They’re fantastic for isolating a small detail and making the background dissolve into a dreamy blur.

Contax 159MM, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5, FujiFilm Superia 100 Expired Film

– It’s odd standing so far back all the time, but with the Jupiter-37A’s minimum focus of a shade under 1.2m and the Sonnar’s even closer 1m, it’s not as far away as some others with much greater minimum focus.

Either way, I did quickly get used to it.

Contax 159MM, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5, FujiFilm Superia 100 Expired Film

– Whereas with a compact SLR and a 50mm lens I have shot at 1/15s and even 1/8s on occasion and got away with it, in terms of avoiding motion blur. With a 135mm though, it’s SO much harder to keep still.

I went to 1/60s on some shots, and the resultant images aren’t soft because of the lack of sharpness of the lens (see the chain photograph above), but because of micro movement on my part.

I think I’ll stick to the rule of the reciprocal of the focal length as minimum shutter speed at the very least, and most times aim for 1/250s or above.

Contax 159MM, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5, FujiFilm Superia 100 Expired Film

Shooting with the Jupiter 135mm (and the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 135/3.5) has opened new possibilities and has been a refreshing change from my usual default 50/55mm lenses, and I’ll certainly use them more.

I have the two others to play with also, the Revuenon and Cosinon, and photographs will follow once they’ve seen a roll or two of film.

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