Vintage Film Photography Guide | Cameratique

A basic understanding of film photography, and how to use 35mm vintage film cameras.

Loading the film:

Loading film into a standard 35mm vintage film camera typically involves a straightforward

process. Begin by opening the back of the camera, usually achieved by either lifting the film

spool holder or pressing a designated release button. Once the back is open, insert the film

cassette into the chamber, ensuring that the film leader extends across the camera's film


Then, secure the film spool holder back into place by pressing it down firmly, ensuring it

locks into position. Take care to wind the film advance lever gently until the film's sprocket

engages properly, indicating that the film is correctly seated and ready for use. Once the film

is loaded, close the back of the camera securely to prevent light leaks. Finally, advance the

film to the first frame by gently winding the film advance lever until resistance is felt,

confirming that the film is properly tensioned and ready for exposure.

How film works:

35mm film is a popular format used in photography and motion picture filmmaking. It

consists of a strip of transparent plastic coated with a light-sensitive emulsion containing

silver halide crystals. These crystals react to light exposure during the image-capturing


When loaded into a camera, the film advances through the film path, passing over a series

of rollers and guides. As the photographer exposes the film to light by opening the camera

shutter, photons strike the silver halide crystals, causing a chemical reaction. This reaction

forms latent images on the film, which are invisible until the film is developed.

After capturing all desired images, the exposed film is removed from the camera and

developed using a chemical process. During development, the exposed silver halide crystals

undergo further chemical reactions, resulting in the formation of visible images. The

unexposed portions of the film remain transparent.

Once developed, the film negatives can be printed or scanned to produce final images. In

motion picture filmmaking, 35mm film is similarly exposed and developed but is projected

onto a screen rather than printed.

How the camera works:

A 35mm camera functions by using a combination of optical and mechanical components to

capture images on a light-sensitive film strip. When you press the shutter release button, the

camera's shutter opens for a fraction of a second, allowing light to pass through the lens and

onto the film.

The lens gathers and focuses light from the scene onto the film, while the aperture controls

the amount of light entering the camera by adjusting the size of the lens opening. The

focused light exposes the light-sensitive emulsion on the film, forming latent images.

After exposure, the shutter closes, preventing further light from reaching the film. The film

advance mechanism then moves the exposed film to the next frame, ready for the next

exposure. Once all frames are exposed, the film is rewound into its cassette.

Finally, the exposed film is developed using chemical processes, revealing the latent images

as visible photographs.

Due to the analog nature of film cameras, the photographer is responsible for adjusting

various settings on the camera. These settings, such as shutter speed, aperture, focus, and

A.S.A., along with the basic understanding on how to use an exposure metre, is more than

enough for you to know how to take ‘the shot’ on a film camera.


Focus plays a pivotal role in photography, dictating the sharpness and clarity of an image by

precisely aligning the lens to ensure the subject appears distinct and well-defined.

In the realm of SLR film cameras, achieving optimal focus entails the act of turning the lens

ring until the subject comes into clear view through the viewfinder, a process essential for

capturing sharp images.

Conversely, with Rangefinder cameras, focus adjustment involves aligning the lens ring until

the rangefinder patch perfectly coincides with the entire image, a technique that ensures

accuracy and precision in focusing.

This manipulation of the lens elements orchestrates the convergence of light rays onto the

film plane, resulting in a crisp portrayal of the subject with intricate details. The importance of

proper focus cannot be overstated, as it significantly enhances the overall quality and visual

impact of the photograph.


Aperture is like the pupil of your eye; it controls how much light gets in and how sharp the

picture is. On a film camera, you adjust it by turning a ring on the lens (not the focus ring).

If you want more light or a blurry background, use a lower number. This is equivalent to

focusing your eye on something close to you so that it is in focus, leaving the background

blurry. In photography we call this a bokeh effect, and it creates a depth of field in an image.

For less light or a clearer background, pick a higher number. It's like focussing your eye on

something in the distance, and your entire vision is clear, or ‘in focus’. This is often used

when there is a desire for more of the photo to be in focus, typically a photo with lots of

content within.

Shutter speed:

The shutter is a physical barrier between light and film, which opens for a set amount of

time, determining the amount of light which reacts with the film.

Shutter speed refers to how quickly the camera's shutter opens and closes. It determines

how long light hits the film, affecting exposure and motion blur. Faster speeds, freeze action,

ideal for sports or moving subjects, and typically require more light.

Slower speeds create motion blur, conveying a sense of movement, and typically require

low-light conditions.

On a film camera, shutter speed is adjusted by selecting a setting that controls how quickly

the shutter opens and closes, typically measured in fractions of a second or f-stop. This is

normally a knob that twists on top of a camera.


ASA/ISO is a variable of film you can use. ASA/ISO, or film speed, measures a film's

sensitivity to light. A higher ASA/ISO indicates greater sensitivity, meaning it requires less

light to properly expose an image. This is advantageous in low-light conditions but may

result in more grainy or "noisy" photos. Conversely, lower ASA/ISO films are less sensitive

and need more light, yielding finer details but requiring brighter environments.

On a film camera, ASA/ISO is set by selecting the appropriate film speed on the camera. It is

important to set your ASA/ISO before shooting, because your shutter speed depends on your

ASA and the light environment around you. ASA/ISO is a once off setting, until you change


How to use a light metre.

Using an external light metre with a film camera involves several steps. First, set the metre

to the same film speed (ISO/ASA) as the film you're using. Then, aim the metre towards the

subject, ensuring the sensor receives the same light as the subject. Press the metre's button

to measure the light. The metre will provide readings for aperture and shutter speed settings.

Transfer these settings to your camera's lens and shutter controls. Finally, compose your

shot and press the shutter button. The metre ensures proper exposure by calculating the

right combination of aperture and shutter speed for your film.

For beginners, I recommend purchasing a film camera with an INTERNAL LIGHT METER.

This feature simplifies the process of taking a photo and makes it far quicker. You can also

buy light metres which attach to the camera, which function similarly to an internal light

metre. All you have to do is adjust the aperture or shutter speed on the camera, until the

needle, or light, is in the middle, indicating a proper exposure balance. If you get this wrong,

the photo will either be over exposed (too bright) or under exposed (too dark).


Outside of these few things, it all boils down to subject matter. You are now equipped with

everything you need to know, to fully operate a vintage, fully analogue, film camera.

Experiment, try new things, and you will get ‘the shot’ in no time. Now all you have to do is

mix this knowledge with your creativity!

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