Equipment and Techniques
Where to start... I guess I'll start out by discussing what I tell my photography students. When students ask me what kind of camera they should get to learn photography, I will recommend they start with a very simple camera like a Pentax K1000, or a Nikon FT2. I like teaching students on simple manual cameras. I tell them that the camera isn't going to do anything for them and that if there is a mistake in the exposure, they can figure out who caused it.
One of the good examples I give students is to take several photographs of a white wall, a field of green grass and a dark-colored wall during the day on a single roll of film with the meter zeroed or centered. Then I have them develop the film and make a contact sheet. Most students are really surprised when the three different subjects end up about the same shade of gray. I then tell them, "that’s because that is what the camera’s meter knows, and all it knows. If you want the photos to come out right you have to understand that the camera assumes that all subjects, under all lighting conditions are a middle gray in value."
Auto-exposure in a camera is a great feature— it’s very useful under the right conditions. The problem with auto-exposure is quite simple— unless you understand what the camera is expecting, the exposure it gives you is unlikely to be the one you want. This is particularly true if you are using slide films, such as Kodachrome or Fujichrome. However, if you don't know what the exposure should be on a given subject— you can't tell when the auto-exposure system is going to really screw up your photograph. (From what I have seen, most auto-exposure programs in cameras are biased slightly towards overexposure. This is good if you're using color negative films, which can handle a fair amount of overexposure and generally do a bit better with a little overexposure. It’s pretty much a break-even proposition with black-and-white negative films. But with color slides, it is a disaster. Slide film has a much lower exposure latitude than black-and-white or color negative films. See below). So, I generally have them start with a basic camera— a "photobrick" that does nothing for you.
When you get right down to it... all a camera is supposed to do is hold film, and in the case of non-view cameras, help you control the exposure of the film to light. A Pentax K1000 or Nikon FT2 does this very well. In fact, if the battery dies in either of them you can still use them to take photos; you just lose the internal meter.
Now, you may wonder why I recommend these two cameras specifically... well, it’s because they're among the last of the true manual cameras that are widely available and relatively inexpensive, especially used. Canon stopped making manual cameras a long time ago, and the only Olympus manual SLR’s that are widely available are pro-level and fairly expensive. Another reason I recommend these two cameras is that used lenses for them are reasonably priced and also widely available.
When students are just starting out, they always ask me what lenses they should get... what they should be using. They usually hate my answer. I still think the best basic lens to start with is a "normal" lens. On 35mm cameras, this is usually a 50mm lens. The advantages of the "normal" lens are: they're fast— they have a large maximum aperture; they're cheap— since the lens is fairly common, produced in large quantities and fairly small, it tends to be low-priced; they have a field of view similar to what we see sharply— that’s why they're called "normal."
Another point I usually make to my students is that many of the most famous photographs, historically, were taken with a normal lens. This was often because the photographers didn't have the variety of lenses that we take for granted today, but that’s beside the point. I think some of the best photographs are still being made with a "normal" lens.
It’s usually about this time that students complain that the subjects are too far away for a "normal" lens. I tell them, "learning the limitations of a particular lens is an important part of learning the equipment. If you know what each lens can do, and what it can't do— you have a better idea of what limits a lens will place on your photography."
The next lens I usually recommend they get depends on what kind of subject they're interested in photographing. For the documentary and landscape photographers, I usually recommend a wide-angle lens, usually a 24 or 28 mm. For students interested in sports, I recommend a long telephoto, 180-200 mm, or a telephoto zoom 80-200 mm. For students interested in portraiture, I usually recommend a short telephoto, usually an 85 mm or 105 mm, or a wide-angle to short-telephoto zoom, 35-135mm or so.
The other pieces of equipment I normally recommend are a flash and a tripod.
A tripod is just a basic photo essential— this is especially true for long-exposures or low-light conditions. Most beginning photographers have trouble holding a camera steady for shutter speeds slower than a 1/125 of a second. It takes a fair amount of practice and experience to hand hold a camera for 1/30 or longer.
A flash unit is useful but not necessarily essential. Fast modern films can compensate to some degree, but a flash gives a photographer much more flexibility. A flash isn't for just low-light conditions— in bright sunlight, fill-flash can make for much more pleasing photographs.
Color Print or Color Negative Films
Color print film— C-41 process— is by far the most common type of film sold today. It’s used in most point-and-shoot cameras and most of the "disposable" cameras. It has the advantage of being widely available and getting it processed is easy, quick and fairly inexpensive.
Color print films also have the added advantage of having a fairly wide exposure latitude. These films can still produce a usable negative with as much as two-stops of underexposure to two-stops of overexposure. This is a far wider range than either black-and-white negative films or color slide films.
Color negative films have the disadvantage of being the least stable of the films. Color prints are also less long-lived than traditional black-and-white silver-based prints.
Black-and-White Negative Films
Black-and-white films are available in two types— traditional silver-based black-and-white films such as T-Max 100 and HP5 Plus— or chromagenic black-and-white films such as Ilford’s XP2.
Chromagenic black-and-white films are processed in C-41, just like color negative films and can be processed by the same machines and the final negative is made up of dye, like a color negative. These films have similar exposure latitude and longevity characteristics as color negatives films— this makes sense as they're based on the same underlying technology.
Traditional black-and-white films must be processed differently, and finding a lab that handles traditional black-and-white film is more difficult than finding a one-hour color lab. Traditional black-and-white film results in negatives where the image consists of metallic silver particles. These films are the most stable of modern films, if properly protected from chemical contamination— the image can not fade as it is made of actual silver particles.
Traditional black-and-white films have about two stops of exposure latitude, about one stop over or under the proper exposure. Heavy overexposure of silver-based black-and-white films leads to the "blocking out" of highlight areas due to a very high density of silver particles developing out in those areas. However, underexposed or overexposed film can be adjusted for in the development process to some degree.
Traditional black-and-white prints can be archivally processed and have expected lifespans of hundreds of years if processed correctly. Traditional prints can be made from either chromagenic or traditional black-and-white negatives.
Black-and-white film has advantages for students. The first is the flexibility of the black-and-white developing process— no strict temperature controls are required. The second is the relatively low cost of the equipment and chemicals need to process black-and-white films. A darkroom isn't necessary for processing film— a changing bag can provide the light-tight space for loading the film onto the reels and loading the developing tank. The chemicals for black-and-white film are less caustic than those used in color film development. Many communities have darkrooms that are open to the public for printing black-and-white photos.The third advantage is the film is often less expensive than color print or slide films.
Color Slide Films
Color slide films have the smallest range of usable exposure. This is due in large part to the fact that the final slide or transparency you see is the actual film exposed in the camera, and the development process leaves much less room for exposure error. Slide film does not tolerate overexposure well. Overexposure of slide film leads to highlights that have no detail or color. Often, the best looking slides are usually slightly underexposed as slight underexposure can yield richer color saturation and detail
Currently, color slide films are generally available in two types— Kodachrome or K-14 process slide film is one type— the other is E-6 process slide film, this includes Ektachrome, Fujichrome, and most of the others. The main difference between the films is the chemical makeup of the films and the necessary developing process.
E-6 type films are chromagenic and the color dyes are actually embedded in the film’s emulsion layer. The color in the final slide is created by development of the silver in a color developer, similar to the color developer used for color negative films. In fact, one of the exercises I usually have more advanced students work on is processing color negative film in E-6 chemistry and color slide film in C-41 chemistry to experiment with alternative color spaces.
Kodachrome is the only K-14 process film. It is different from E-6 films as it has no dyes in the emulsion. It is essentially a color-sensitive black-and-white film which has the color added during the developing process. Because the dyes are added during the development process, there are fewer limitations on which dyes can be used and the dyes are more stable than those used in E-6 films. Kodachrome is currently the most stable color transparency film in terms of color fidelity. But like dyes used in other color films, the best long-term stability is under dark storage conditions, as light exposure breaks down most color dyes.
With the invention of high-resolution film scanners and digital cameras, color slide films have become less important. Previously, one of the largest uses of slide films was for magazine and stock photography— areas that have largely gone digital. Slide show presentations have also largely gone out of style— having been replaced by computer-based presentations.