Photography Basics

Knowledge of photography basics can spare you having to spend big bucks to record your family's trials and triumphs.
By Ron Pesha
March/April 1981
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When you know some photography basics you'll have a better chance of capturing the vitality of your subjects.
PHOTO: RON PESHA


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"Doing more with less" implies using technology only when it truly enriches our lives without requiring that we pay too high a cost. Most people — including those of us who are always on the lookout for sensible alternatives to today's often wasteful ways of getting things done — enjoy photographs. Especially pictures of children growing up. But, unfortunately, modern "popular" photo techniques too often seem geared only to the well-heeled gadgeteer, and planned obsolescence results in ever-changing film sizes, flashbulb styles, and "improved" products designed to insure sales.

If you know some photography basics, it's still possible to buy an old camera at a "junk" store and take relatively inexpensive but good pictures. This article will tell you how.

Box Cameras and Film

The old-fashioned "box" cameras abound at many secondhand shops and garage sales, but — before you buy one — you'll have to find out what film size it takes. Roll film is still available in 127, 120, and 620 ... but 116 and 616 — as well as most other sizes that might be specified for cameras you run across — may be hard to locate.

Then, too, it's best to look for a real box camera ... not one with bellows. To check out your find, just look for a flash of light through the lens when you click the shutter. When you find a camera with a shutter that works, you can be reasonably certain the unit is sound. If it accepts an available film size, buy it ... provided the price is low enough to suit you, that is.

Most camera enthusiasts that you'll talk to will have a favorite film. But — as an "alternative" (low-bucks) photographer — you should keep in mind that, in size 120, Kodak's Plus-X costs $2.00 a roll, while Verichrome Pan (a similar and fully panchromatic film of comparable quality) sells for only $1.59 a roll and is available almost everywhere. If you have no particular brand preference, just ask for film in the size you need. If it's a Kodak brand, you'll get Verichrome Pan. (Of course, as I've been told when purchasing film, "no one shoots black-and-white anymore." No one, that is, except those of us on a budget!)

Both photo shops and drugstores will often sell outdated film at half price. Opinions on such bargains vary, but if the roll in question is black-and-white ... if it's no more than two or three years older than the age indicated by the box's expiration date ... and if the store is apparently not subject to extreme heat, give the film a try.

It's hard to predict just what sort of luck you might have using off-brand film. If you want to try such often inexpensive material, though, just check the ads in photo magazines (most libraries carry a number of these), and look for film, in the correct size, with a speed of ASA 125.

Check the same magazines' ads, too, for firms that provide inexpensive developing. And when mailing negatives to such outfits to get extra prints made, don't cut them apart. Instead, specify the "frame numbers" of the shots you want duplicated using the tiny numerals along the edge of the negative strip.

How to Shoot

Even in an old box camera, modern film doesn't require bright sunlight. In fact, many box camera pictures are overexposed (the mostly black negatives you may be accustomed to), while better quality photos originate from somewhat "thin" negatives. (The ones that appear "light" but show detail throughout should print fairly well.)

Besides, harsh sunlight makes harsh shadows and causes people to squint, while soft light flatters faces. Better pictures occur on bright but overcast days ... or in "open shade," perhaps near a tree but exposed to a large area of sky. And there's no reason to rely on expensive flashbulbs while nature is providing an abundance of free light!

When it comes to posing your pictures ... don't. Full-face shots with artificial grins look terrible! For the "real" thing you could, for example, have someone play with a child while you shoot a laughing picture. You may end up with several blurred shots, but one really fine photograph is worth it! (Remember, professional photographers often shoot rolls of film to get one usable picture.)

Keep in mind, too, that many inexpensive box cameras will produce blurry close-ups. Most are permanently adjusted for about 10 to 15 feet, but will probably let you get away with pictures taken as close as six feet.

And one last tip: When your prints come back, discard the bad ones. A few dozen really good shots will be much more interesting (and cherished) in later years than would an album bulging with primarily dull photographs!


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