Look, Ma! No lightmeter!
The most important factors in taking a good photograph, in order, are
something like having an interested subject, having a good composition
and only then getting technical matters like focus and exposure just
right. So, this post is all about the least important part.
Since I got into photography about three years ago or so, I have only
ever used cameras with lightmeters in them - that is, a small
electronic circuit which measures the amount of light falling on the
camera (usually through the lens, except in very early models) and
compares that to the ISO rating of the film to figure out a
combination of shutter speed and aperture which will result in a good
exposure. For the most part, getting a good exposure on a camera with
a lightmeter is just a matter of adjusting your settings until the
meter tells you you are in the good zone and then you shoot. Piece of
Of course, cameras are older than this technology, so in the Good Old
Days, Real Photographers had to look at what they were shooting,
think about it and Just Know for themselves what the correct exposure
settings were. The more mortal amongst them relied upon a rule of
thumb known as "Sunny 16". On a sunny day, when your subject is in
direct light, you set your shutter speed as close as you can to the
reciprocal of your film speed (e.g. 1/500s for ISO 400) and then your
apterture to f16 and you're good. If you want to open the lens up a
bit more you'll need to choose a faster shutter speed. What do you do
if it's not sunny? Then you need to estimate how many stops darker
than sunny it is and adjust accordingly.
I've kind of wanted to try my hand at this for a long time. Of course
it doesn't require a camera without a lightmeter, you can just ignore
the lightmeter that your camera has, but where is the fun in that?
Some time ago to my surprise at a local thrift store I came across a
FED-3 Soviet rangefinder at a reasonable price. I had been curious
about these cameras for a long time and so I got it. Very shortly
thereafter I was generously gifted an earlier, but IMHO superior,
model, the FED-2, by pkotrcka, who is probably the Lord of
Rangefinders in gopherspace. These are very rudimentary entirely
mechanical cameras with no lightmeter whatsoever, so a great
opportunity to practice using Sunny 16!
I took an awfully long time to put my first roll of film through the
FED-2, but last week I finally dropped it off for development and
scanning. I am pretty happy with the results! There is no great art
in there, and many of the shots are imperfect in some way. But the
vast majority of them either have really good exposure, or are within
one stop of good exposure. Which means I didn't fail miserably at my
Sunny 16 judgements, and with a bit more practice it seems likely that
I will be able to shoot confidently without a lightmeter.
This is a very liberating feeling! A lot of good old cameras have
lightmeters designed to work with old mercury batteries, which are now
banned for environmental reasons in most of the world. They need to
be used either with comparatively expensive modern substitute
batteries with sort lifespans, with external lightmeters (nowadays a
lot of people use phone apps for this, but there are none in FDroid so
that's not an option for me) or without a lightmeter at all. Some
early lightmeter cameras don't need batteries at all because their
lightmeters use selenium cells which are kind of like tiny solar
panels, making the meters self-powered. This neatly sidesteps the
problem of obscure old batteries, but the problem here is that the
efficiency of selenium meters degrades with light exposure, so old
cameras which have been carelessly stored with the meters uncovered
for decades can often be inaccurate. Several times in the past I have
encountered otherwise appealing cameras for sale in one of these
categories and put them firmly in the "too much hassle" basket and
moved on. I realise now that with just a little practice these kinds
of camera can be very usable in non-critical applications.
Maybe it's not a good thing, though, that I have one fewer excuse to
*not* buy more cameras!
I'll put a couple of the new FED photos in the photo section of my
gopherhole shortly. A big thanks to pkotrcka for the camera!