Photo Documents: Nikon DSLR Guides

Photo Documents Main Page A History of Photography: The 2000s A Tedious Explanation of the f/stop

Photography Used to be Harder to Learn. Nikon tried to make it clearer.

Photography in the days of film was tougher to learn in many ways but simpler in others. It was harder because the feedback loop was so slow: take a roll of film, get it developed (or develop it yourself), then look at the photos to see what worked and what didn't. It is easy to forget nowadays, with easy access to EXIF files full of data on exposure, date, time, camera, lens, white balance, flash use, focus points utilized, GPS coordinates, etc., that this evaluation was made much more difficult by the imperfect information you had on the photos. Why was this photo so dark? Did you trust the light meter and it was wrong? Or did you set the wrong film speed? It was very possible to take a whole roll of film with the wrong film speed set, the exposure compensation set to something other than zero, the pressure plate at the wrong setting or, when it came time to develop, using the wrong chemistry. I've done all but the chemistry one myself, and I know a guy who did that. The challenge in film photography was thus the slow feedback loop and the imprecise recollection of what you did making it hard to recall what worked well and what didn't.

Photography Used to be Easier to Learn

Photography in the days of film was easier to learn because it didn't present itself as so complex. Cameras were amazingly simple. Kodak used to say, think FAST, meaning, Focus Aperture Shutter Think!, and that was about it. A lot of the settings we fret about today were embedded in the film choice--how many exposures, the white balance and the film speed. You couldn't vary these frame to frame within a roll. Also, f/stops and shutter speeds tended to be shown in full-stop increments, f/1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and shutter speeds at 1/30th, 1/60th, 1/125th, 1/250th, 1/500th, 1/1000th of a second. Automatic cameras (such as the Nikon FE I used for more than 2 decades) would, on automatic, set intermediate shutter speeds to hit the correct exposure for your selected f/stop, but you'd have no idea what it was. The needle would be somewhere between 250 and 500 and the camera might set 1/312th of a second, but you'd never know it. You just knew it was somewhere in between. With this presentation, it was easier to grasp the progression of f/stops and shutter speeds and figure out the trade off between them. All those complications...white balance, focusing, exposure compensation, etc, were still there, but they were properly in the background of the Think FAST! priorities.

Photography is a Challenge to Learn Now

Nowadays, advanced cameras can do things that were difficult or impossible in the days of film. This has opened up photography to, well, just about everyone. The cameras in smartphones do a wonderful job, much better than the Instamatics, Polaroids and APS cameras of old. Modern DSLRs and mirrorless system cameras give enormous control to the photographer. What's more, as you are learning, the feedback loop is immediate and you can always see exactly when you took the photo and all the relevant exposure and equipment information. This quick feedback is great and can help you judge results on the fly.

What is daunting is the sheer number of choices and settings. You used to focus the camera; now you select focus points, continuous or single autofocus, release priority, face selection or not. You used to load your film, set your ISO and shoot away. Now you set your ISO, the parameters of auto ISO setting by the camera, white balance from pre-set or custom settings, film simulation, detail capture, RAW or jpeg, card priority and utilization on multi-card cameras. It is all useful to the informed user, but there is a LOT to learn all at once, and the old familiar f/stop and shutter speed progressions are lost in the 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments on display (actually another setting on my D700--half or third stop increments). It was easy to figure out what 1 stop away from 1/250 at f/8 is, but what's a stop away from 1/320 at f/6.3? I know what it is (1/160 at f/6.3 would be one of many correct answers) but it's much harder for a new user to comprehend.

When Single Lens Reflex cameras began to make inroads into consumer markets in the early 1980s, Nikon realized that there were a lot of new users coming to the cameras for their flexibility and quality but who were confused about what the controls did and why they'd choose one setting over another. In 1982, they published a 54-page guide called "The Nikon Guide to 35mm SLR Cameras". They republished this in 2000 in an 80-page version updated to show the most current cameras. I have scanned these booklets into PDFs and they are linked to below.

The Nikon Guide to 35mm SLR Cameras (1982) (warning: about 19 megabytes) was put out by Nikon and provided to camera stores. I happened to work in a camera store in Des Moines at the time (the long-departed Beaverdale Cameras, but Des Moines is still served by the superb Christian Photogrpahy, named after founder Dick Christian and not after a religion, although ironically enough they are located in a former church) and we sold Nikon (and Canon) so Nikon gave us a bunch of these booklets. We'd give them out with each Nikon we sold and encourage customers to give them a good read. The book suggest getting a 36-exposure roll of film and a friend and going out and taking a bunch of pictures. They tell you what to do with each frame, demonstrating depth of field and the ability of different shutter speeds to stop motion, showing how several combinations of shutter speeds and f/stops would give the same exposure, showing how to compensate for backlighting and then venturing into compositional techniques, different angles and relationships of the subject to the frame. You don't get a comprehensive photo course in 36 photos, but you get a solid starting point to think about your pictures and how your camera and its controls opened up some possibilities. It ends up with Nine Photographers Share THeir Techniques and some more examples, still all in black and white.

In some ways this booklet was charmingly innocent. Everything is in black and white, they suggest a contact sheet rather than spending the money to print everything, the models look as if they might be family members and friends of whoever wrote this, and there is an earnest attempt to show compositional ideas at the end. It's also very much of its time--the cameras are the Nikon FM and new FM2, the Nikon FE and professional F3. There is a shot of Manhattan demonstrating grain as an effect but also, to modern eyes, showing the twin World Trade Center towers, not yet a decade old at that point.

The Nikon Guide to SLR Photography (2000) (warning: about 23 megabytes) is an update put out 18 years later. I wasn't aware of this one until I bought one off eBay thinking it was the 1982 version I remembered. This is essentially an update. It is in color, the layout is slicker, the models more fetching, and rather than tell exactly what to take on each frame, the instructions go into Exercises. Overall, the idea is the same--learn the controls, see how shutter speeds and f/stops affect things, think about basic compositional techniques, but there is more to learn. In the Nikon FE, the main features of the matching flash were that it would set the shutter speed to the correct sync speed and also flash a red light in the viewfinder when the flash was ready. Now Nikon had the FE2, N80 and N90 and the professional F3HP, F5 and F100 cameras with the through-the-lens flash metering, so they go on about using flash in this booklet where it was barely mentioned in the old one. There are many more examples of everyday photo situations, all in color, and no interviews with famous photogs about their techniques.

Do these guides still have relevance today? They do. Fundamentally, the shutter speeds and f/stops still have the same effects they did then. The exact degree that they have this effect (particularly the f/stop and its effect on depth of field) will differ to some extent depending on your cameras sensor size and thus focal lengths, but if you are using "full frame" DSLRs with 24 X 36mm sensors, none of that will have changed. The guides will be useless when it comes to advice on white balance, ISO settings and the myriad of preferences you can now set but the compositional demonstrations still relate and the things they have you try out still matter. Besides, it's 36 frames. Kids these days take that many trying to get just the right face for their next Snapchat post, take a fried out one afternoon and work your way through this.

Page last updated 4/7/2016

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