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Using Vintage Cameras - Working out the exposure?

20 Mar 2012 11:11AM
I've bought myself a couple of old 'vintage' 35mm cameras from the 50's & 60's and have my eye on several others from the 30's - 60's simply because I just love the look of these old cameras. As all of the ones I've bought so far are all fully working I also quite fancy running the old roll of film through them for a bit of fun.

In doing this though it's highlighted something I hadn't really considered before. Every camera I've ever owned had a built in light meter and so setting the correct exposure was nice and simple. All of my 'vintage' cameras predate built in lightmeters (or at least predate before they were mainstream) but I can adjust aperture and shutter speed. So how did people using camera like this work out what exposure to use?

Considering that these cameras were aimed at the general public and not 'photographers' it seems like it was a very hit and miss affair. Did everyone just know the sunny f/16 rule? I've bought myself a light meter app for my iPhone which is actually surprisingly incredibly accurate but it's a bit of a faff to use that before every shot.

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NEWDIGIT 7 401 United Kingdom
20 Mar 2012 11:25AM
If your iphone app can take account of film speed (iso) then your all set
timbo 15 596 United Kingdom
20 Mar 2012 11:49AM
The sunny f16 rule does work, especially when exposing black and white film as you would have in the vintage cameras. Adjustments could be made in the processing and printing stages. Also, cheap lightmeters have been available for many years and i would assume anyone taking photos seriously would have owned one.
thewilliam 9 6.1k
20 Mar 2012 12:14PM
The classic cameras make use of the tremendous latitude of negative film. You can underexpose by one, sometimes even two stops or over-expose by up to five stops and still get a print. One assistant that I employed would create artistically great images but was useless when it came to getting exposure right.

The fastest shutter speed on an old camera was often 1/250th so overexposure in bright light was a certainty.

Digital is like tran film in that exposure needs to be on the nose!
Sooty_1 8 1.5k 221 United Kingdom
20 Mar 2012 12:18PM
The sunny 16 rule was printed on most film packaging.

Meters have been around since before WW2, though the early ones (extinction meters) depended on a human assessment for their accuracy. Then selenium meters (and all meters since) took the human element out of the equation, increasing the accuracy.

Plus, as long as the film was developed correctly, there was a lot you could do in the printing to compensate for minor exposure errors.
High speed shutters were not considered when you are talking about ISO 6 being commonly available for a long time (eg Kodachrome 6 ASA) before making the jump to ISO 25 or even ISO 50 for fast film (such as Kodachrome 25 or 64 or B&W equivalents)! So a small error in exposure when shutter speeds were closer to 1 sec than 1/1000 were less severe.

franken Plus
15 4.6k 4 United Kingdom
20 Mar 2012 1:31PM
Many years ago I had a camera without a meter, I had a hand held one but more often than not I guessed it. I used b/w and negative film.

250th & F8 was used widely.

I've just had a very quick look on Ebay and there's a lot of hand held light metres there and here's an example. This ones not in the best of condition but still works apparently.

keith selmes 14 7.4k 1 United Kingdom
20 Mar 2012 1:39PM
My father told me, you set the exposure and then carry on until the weather changes, and you have to adjust. He didn't have a meter.
This wasn't really serious photography though.

I have used sunny 16, or the chart on the back of a Rolleiflex, but would usually use a Gossen Sixon meter, which were about 5 on ebay until recently.
Unfortunately they are now called "vintage" and the price sems to be going up.
KenTaylor Plus
13 3.1k 2 United Kingdom
20 Mar 2012 1:57PM
An exposure was mostly done with a light meter with Weston being the favourite by many amateurs. .
The f16 rule works although there was a time when the film was supplied with an exposure table.
I still use a light meter despite what the DSLR wants to use, old habits die hard.
Surprisingly enough you can often judge the exposure approximately by eye resulting in a good many years not relying on the camera meter
20 Mar 2012 3:04PM
Thanks all for your replies.

I think somewhere at home I have a very old Sekonic light meter from the 60's (I think) which may still work but I like the idea of using the Sunny f/16 rule as I think it will make me think more about exposure rather than just relying on the camera.

Very interesting about the fact that much slower film used to be widely available. That would certainly make sense as according to a chart I've just made up based on Sunny f/16 values for one of my cameras which only has shutter speeds of B, 1/25th, 1/50th, 1/100th, 1/250th & 1/500th that in very bright sunlight i.e. sand or snow I would only have three apertures available to me at ISO 100, f/22 @ 1/125th, f/16@ 1/250th & f/8 @ 1/500th - potentially quite limiting if you wanted a shallow depth of field!
adrian_w Plus
10 3.7k 4 England
20 Mar 2012 4:07PM
Kodachrome 25 ASA. Agfa 50 ASA. FP4 50 ASA. Exposure values printed on the paper inserts that came with the film. If you were a "serious" photographer you used a light meter & if you were a "professional" you used a Weston meter.
100ASA film was FAST & 400ASA (TriX) stratospheric!
Ah those were the days!
lemmy 11 2.7k United Kingdom
20 Mar 2012 5:33PM

Quote: If you were a "serious" photographer you used a light meter & if you were a "professional" you used a Weston meter.

Luxury! Said with a northern accent as per Monty Python sketch Grin

I started out as a trainee press photographer using a VN 9x12cm plate camera. This had no metering at all and though you could get meters, mainly the Weston, they were regarded as combersome and time wasting for a press man.

The VN had three adjustments, f stops on the lens, of course (a Ross Xrpess 150mm f4.5 standard lens) and two knobs on the back for the blind, altering width and tension. Higher tension (from 1 to 10) governed the speed the blind traversed the frame and the width of the slit the amount of light applied as it traversed. Therefore meter would have been little use because the VN had no marked shutter speed.

In practise, getting exposure wrong didn't happen. You were taking pictures day in and day out, several assignments a day and to look at light was to know its strength. Because of the technology we have today, much need for human skill has gone by the board. Duff exposures were vary rare among my seniors at the paper and, like fuzzies, a duff exposure was occasion for paying for a round of drinks in our local newspaper pub.

The focus of that 150mm lens was critical, at 5.6 with a 2 yarder for a head shot or a child playing at a fete you had little leeway. Again, mistakes were rarely made because focus and exposure became instinctive. You didn't think, you just looked and knew.

Whilst I wouldn't see any point in going back to those cameras, I think that human beings enjoy exercising skill and judgement and that makes those cameras very pleasing to master and use. You feel you are doing something the person next to you can't, you have a honed skill. It gives you confidence and makes you feel you stand out from the crowd.

Working with the old cameras made you feel you were more a part of the elements you were photographing, you had to know something about light and tone, keep an eye on how the elements were shaping and changing them. The new ones have more of a feel of imposing on the elements, exploiting them.

There's a remark by Arthur Koestler that I always liked. He said that when you have a mountain with two routes to the top, a hard, steep one and a soft, easy one, it is a mistake to think that the view from the top will be the same.

Having said that, I have no intention of chopping in my Panasonic Gh2 and G3 and going back to DSLRs, let alone plate cameras!
strawman 14 22.1k 16 United Kingdom
20 Mar 2012 6:30PM
Hi I have a 1955 rangefinder with no light meter and I have (sad moment coming up) made a small card up based on the sunny F16 type rules so for different light conditions I work out a Ev level, then on the reverse I have a table of f stop and shutter speeds at different ISO levels that equal that Ev level.

It works very well as modern negative film is very tolerant of bad exposure.

So err that is my tip.

This article has a chart though mine is a bit better Smile
Paul Morgan 17 19.1k 6 England
20 Mar 2012 8:42PM
Shcokete 7 32
29 Apr 2012 5:25PM
If you are keen , why not join the camera collectors club PCCGB to meet other addicts, and buy or sell secondhand stuff very cheaply from/to other members, without paying big commission to e-bay or Amazon. You can usually get second hand meters in working order for 5 or less. I bought an excellent Ziess Ikon "Ikophot" for 4. A new meter from a shop would probably be 35 or so.
The annual sub is 30 or so and you get a magazine sent full of interesting stuff about old cameras.
petebfrance 6 2.7k France
10 May 2012 3:14PM
Usually the cardboard box that the film came in had a small chart - based on I think 1/125th - with sunny, cloudy etc. so it was easy to adjust up or down if a different speed / aperture was required. Some camera cases had a place (with a cut-out - no clear plastic windows then) that the piece of card with the chart could be pushed into for reference. I haven't bought film in years so don't know if that's still the practice. I rarely had a problem with exposure as there is a fair amount of latitude - the bugbear for me was focus with cameras only had a distance scale. 'Serious' photographers used light meters, of course, did incident light readings and so on.....
Really accurate exposure (as a result of metering / experience) I think will produce better results as although there is plenty of latitude I would expect optimal results to be, well, at the optimal exposure (?)

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