The first thing we budding photographers had to learn was a sequence of f-stops (aperture sizes) – f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, etc – and that each was twice/half the size of its neighbour, with f2.8 being the largest, and f16 the smallest. Similarly, the shutter speeds were 30th, 60th, 125th, and 250th (on my camera anyway), and each was twice/half the speed of its neighbour. The final bit of information came with the film; a slip of paper that said something like this (for 100 ASA film):
1/125th and f/16 on a sunny day with distinct shadows
1/125th and f/11 on a slightly overcast day with soft shadows
1/125th and f/8 on an overcast day with shadows barely visible
1/125th and f/5.6 on a heavily overcast day with no shadows
1/125th and f/4 on in open shade or at sunset
All the camera settings were guesswork, and some shots would inevitably be incorrectly exposed, or blurry. The solution was to learn from mistakes (give it a bit more/less exposure in certain conditions) and gain more knowledge via and understanding of aperture/shutter speed combinations, and depth of field.
The correct exposure setting can be maintained by corresponding adjustments of shutter speed and aperture choices. For example 1/125th at f/8 is the same as 1/60th at f/16, and the same as 1/250th at f/5.6, and so on. The most obvious application is using a higher shutter speed with a larger aperture is elimination of motion blur.
Depth of field (hyper-focus) is the distance over which all objects are acceptably sharply in focus. Many cameras had a handy scale of the lens that illustrated the depth of field for each aperture setting. The concept to be grasped was that large apertures have a small depth of field (only the subject might be in focus), while small apertures have a large depth of field (the foreground, subject and background could also be in focus). As distances had to be guessed, the best method of ensuring good focus was to use smaller apertures. However, good photography demands that differing apertures should be deliberately selected to expand or compress depth of field, so that backgrounds can be intentionally sharp, or blurred.
This was the point at which I moved up to a new camera to eliminate some of the guesswork: an accurately focus-able SLR, which dispensed with the need to hyper-focus, and allowed a more creative use of shutter speed/aperture combinations and depth of field. My camera didn’t have a built-in exposure meter, so I had to get a hand-held.
Taking a picture took a long time (composition aside). You had to take a light reading and transfer settings to the camera, think about the relative importance of freezing action and controlling depth of field, and adjust accordingly. Then the sun would go behind a cloud and you’d have to start over again.
Life was much easier when I moved-up to a camera with an integrated exposure meter. One of the joys of a simple viewfinder match needle metering system was that you could continually monitor the quality of the light, and easily make exposure compensations to over or under expose when necessary by not matching the needle pointer (when you knew better than the meter).
Better yet, the next development was shutter or aperture priority auto exposure (most cameras featured one or the other, but not both), where the user had to make one selection, and the other would follow automatically. While you still had to apply the same thought processes, there were a lot less knobs to twiddle, and most systems could be made to work backwards (e.g. manually changing a shutter speed would force a preferred aperture selection).
Automation started to get a grip on camera design, and not all of it was good. For example, exposure compensation might require changing the ASA setting to force a different exposure, or twiddling a dedicated exposure compensation dial. It wasn’t really progress, and it didn’t make operation easier. I was just a different way of doing things.
I guess increasing camera automation was largely aimed at new photographers. It allowed them to use the tool without knowing about shutter speeds, apertures, and depth of field, but for those of us who had started with a simple wholly mechanical camera, it felt like creative control was being lost.
The next big development was auto-focus. This was a very attractive proposition, since a necessary task could be performed by the camera freeing-up concentration on creative control. However, auto-focus came with auto everything else. Cameras had become the high-tech version of the point and shoot I started with in the 1960s.
My first auto-focus camera was a Pentax MZ-5n. This camera had various program modes, which essential addressed set-up decisions for the type of subject I was trying to photograph. Instead of thinking about shutter speed, aperture, and depth of field, I had to think about navigating menus to tell the camera what I was photographing so it could affect an appropriate set-up on my behalf. It wasn’t easier to use; it wasn’t better; it was just a different way of doing things.
My interest in photography (as opposed to operating a camera in the same way one might operate a washing machine or any other bit of electrical equipment) faded once I’d acquired the MZ-5n. I think it only ever had one film passed through it. More than that, film photography was dealt a death sentence shortly after when digital cameras came of age.
My next camera was actually a digital, and I easily acclimatized to the fact that it does everything for me, but I use it in a very different way. The digital camera is a tool in a multimedia age. I use it to captures images in a way that is factual, and unemotional. To be creative, I still reach for one of my old film cameras, and put some effort into capturing the moment.