Photography Basics: Learning How to Use Film Speeds

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Cameras have lots of little knobs, dials and meters. If you look long enough on a camera, you can find more ways to adjust your photographs than you can count, and for most of us, more than we can process all at once. But did you know that one of the most important decisions you can make when taking pictures happens before you even load your film?

The speed of your film is one of the unchangeable qualities of a picture. There are plenty of ways to toy with aperture, exposure, and focus. However, once film is in a camera, there is absolutely no way to change the way that film reacts to light.

In every photograph you ever shoot with real film, you are adapting to the film speed. Film does not speed up or slow down to suit your needs, so it is important that you make the right call the next time you head out for a fresh roll.

ISO and You
Film speed measures how sensitive your film is to light. Low film speeds mean that the film is less sensitive and needs a longer exposure while high speeds are very sensitive and need shorter exposures. The speed of a film is commonly known as its ISO. Any film you buy will have its ISO marked on the box, and common speeds are 400, 800, and 1000, with 400 being the closest to the "standard."

The ISO of your film affects every aspect of the way your camera works. Your light sensor (if you have one) has to be set correctly for the film you're using, your aperture will be more or less limited depending, and your shutter speed will likely have to decrease or increase to accommodate the film. Even digital cameras use a simulated (and adjustable) "film" speed that they base their calculations on.

Selecting the Right Speed
The ISO of your film decides what you are capable of photographing, and how. Because high speed film needs less time to expose (ISO 800 or higher is a good general rule), you can take images with much higher shutter speeds than with slower film. The result will be a photo with crystal clear action; fast film is great for taking sports or anything with movement.

When you see a picture of a basketball player suspended in mid air, you know that the image was probably taken with high speed film. With a slower ISO, the player in question would likely be a huge blur. Faster film also requires less light and can be very useful in an indoor situation where a flash is not appropriate.

Lower speed film captures more detail because it has more time to absorb light. It is important to keep the words "detail" and "blurry" separate here - more "detail" in a photograph can be thought of in a similar way to more "detail" on a high definition television - more of what was originally there will be visible in the photograph. The more time the film can "see" a scene, the more accurately the scene will be represented. Lower speed films are great for images like portraits where you want to show great depth of field.

Film Speed Experiments
To get a good handle on how ISO works and what it does to your images, here are a couple of things to try out the next time you're planning a shooting day:

  • Get rid of your flash (if you have one) and take some fast film into a low light environment
  • Swing by a local high school, college, or little league game and try shooting (with permission) two rolls of film - one very slow (ISO 100) and one very fast (ISO 1000) - then have a look at how different the images turned out

Film speed is one of those great things to play with when you're pretty comfortable with your camera and you're looking for new ways to challenge your perceptions. Each speed has its strengths and weaknesses so it's up to you to decide which one works best for you. Shoot on, photographers!

Autumn Lockwood is a write for Your Picture Frames and is passionate about photography. Shop online and see our entire selection of picture frames in a wide variety of sizes like our 4 x 6 picture frames and 5 x 7 frames. Visit our online picture frame shop or call us at 1-800-780-0699.

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