Understanding your camera: The basics of analogue photography

This week is all about the 3 main components of analogue photography - aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Exploring how each of these work and the effects they have on your photos is fundamental to understanding film photography. This is a really basic run through of each, just to help you wrap your head around the workings of your camera and to get you shooting!


Exposure is a critical aspect of any form of photography. When talking about analogue, exposure refers to how much light reaches the film, and therefore, how dark or light your photo will appear.

If too much light hits the film, the photo will be overexposed, and will appear bright and washed out, with little definition.

Photo by Nigel Willox

If not enough light reaches the film, the photo will be too dark, and you will be unable to make out any clear features. This is known as underexposed.

Of course, you can play with exposure to achieve different effects, but on the whole you want your work to be correctly exposed to really capture all the detail and definition of your subject. ISO, aperture and shutter speed all work together to control the exposure of your photograph. 



The aperture is a hole in the lens of the camera that can be made wider or narrower to control the amount of light allowed through the lens. You will find the aperture controls for your camera on a ring around the lens.

Aperture settings are measured by f stops, which represent fractions of the focal point of the lens. It can be a little confusing to wrap your head around the numbering system at first, I find it helps to think of it as the opposite to what you would expect. On a camera with f stops ranging from f/2.8 to f/16, f/2.8 is the largest aperture, and f/16 is the smallest.

The lower the f stop, the larger the aperture, so the more light enters the camera.

The higher the f stop, the smaller the aperture, so the less light enters the camera.

The difference between one f stop and the next is a doubling or halving of the size of the aperture, and therefore of the amount of light entering the camera.


Effects of aperture

Aperture is used to determine the depth of field of a photograph, and therefore how much of your shot will be in focus.

A larger aperture (lower f stop) will result in a narrow depth of field, where the subject will be in focus, but the background wont be. A smaller aperture (larger f stop) will produce a much broader depth of field, where focus extends to both your foreground and background.

Larger aperture 

Smaller aperture 

These photos illustrate how aperture can be utilised to achieve different effects. A greater depth of field (smaller aperture) would be perfect for capturing landscapes like the ones above, but selective focus (using a larger aperture) is much more suitable for portrait shoots. 


Shutter speed

Aperture controls how much light enters through the lens. Shutter speed determines how much of that light reaches the film - how quickly the shutter in the camera will open and close, and therefore, how much time light has to reach the film.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds and fractions of seconds. The shutter speed dial on a camera might range from 1 to 1000. 1 represents 1 second, whilst 1000 represents 1/1000th of a second.

Just as with aperture, the difference between stops is a double or a half. So moving up a stop will halve the amount of time light has to reach the film, whilst moving down a stop will double it.


Effects of shutter speed

Aperture and shutter speed work together and you can adjust each to balance the effect of the other. For example, if you have a small aperture, less light will be entering the lens, so a slower shutter speed will be needed, creating a long exposure.

This is also the case in night photography, or in low light situations. Because there is less light available, the shutter speed will need to be slow in order to take in as much light as possible.

Photo by Urban Adventure League

Shutter speed settings also control how you shoot motion. A fast shutter speed will capture movement, freezing the object, whilst a slower shutter speed will result in a blurred effect. This is why you need to use a tripod when photographing at a slow shutter speed - any slight movement or unsteadiness whilst the camera takes the photo will result in blurring and a less sharp finish.

Photo by Nis Daniel. An example of slow shutter speed - the moving parts of the photo are blurred whilst the subjects standing still remain in focus. 

Photo by @rorylangdondown.This was taken using a much faster shutter speed, freezing the swinging bag in midair. 



Finally, let's look at the last of the exposure variables, ISO, or the film speed. The ISO of a roll of film refers to how sensitive it is to light. You can find out a film stocks ISO by looking for the number on the box or the film roll itself. Some cameras will take a scan and set the ISO for you, but most of the time you have to set the ISO on the camera manually.

The lower the ISO number, the slower the film reacts to light. This means that in brighter light photography, a slower film, with a lower ISO is more useful. Therefore it's important to choose a film suitable for the lighting you're going to be shooting in.

A higher ISO will also give a grainer finish whilst a lower ISO will produce a smoother look. You can see the difference in the photos below. It's completely up to you what look you prefer in your photographs, and which ISO you shoot at.

For some guidance, here's a rough outline of the best lighting situations for each film speed.

  • ISO 100: Bright sunlight, bright overcast, studio lights
  • ISO 200: Sunlight, overcast, some shade, studio light
  • ISO 400: Outdoor (sunlight/overcast), indoor (during the day/very well lit)
  • ISO 800: Outdoor (very overcast), dusk, interiors, motion/high speed
  • ISO 1600: Night, interiors (day or night), motion/high speed
  • ISO 3200: Night, interiors, motion/high speed


Cover image by @_erinmarshall

Author : Becca Knight 


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