Composition and f-stops with the Pentax

Images recorded with Ilford Film Pan F developed in Rodinal
Camera Pentax S1a – Lens 50mm f2.0 Takumar

Film photography encourages one to think. Think about composition, exposure and the different ways of producing the image.

People become concerned about the aperture/shutter relationship. My feeling is that the area of critical focus can be isolated using a wider aperture (lower numbers on aperture ring). And isolated subjects hold more interest than a ‘busy’ mosaic composition. However, we should remember that to achieve the isolation effect we must consider the lens aperture selected and the relevance of the distance between lens and subject. 

The wide aperture gives less depth of focus (also called depth in field) – small aperture greater depth of focus. The closer we are to the subject, the less the depth (or zone) of focus. The following images and example should explain this important aspect of composition.

The image of Liz was taken about a foot away from the lens. The aperture is F4.0. The background is entirely out of focus and Liz is isolated. The depth of focus (depth of field) is minimal, I focussed on her eyelashes, and you can see her glasses are slightly blurred. 

Liz - f4.0 -1/250th second
Liz – f4.0 -1/250th second

With the lens still at F4.0, the next image is recorded with the scooter six or seven feet away from the lens. Look carefully at a depth of focus. The scooter with the basket is still in focus, although the third one is blurred. 

Scooter f4.0 - 1/250 second
Scooter f4.0 – 1/250 second

During the years as a professional photographer, I came to understand the client required sharp images which told a story. In other words, an image taken for informational purposes needs to be razor sharp and the image recorded with accuracy. To achieve this for architecture and industrial photographic records greater depth of focus is required. For portraits, dreamy imagery works well, although, sharp eye/eyes are essential; generally longer focal length lens and wide aperture fulfil this need.

Today. I record images for pleasure, and the pressure is not on to fulfil the client’s needs. Therefore, I travel light, one camera, 28mm, 50mm lenses, lens hoods and filters and light meter. I do not carry a tripod under any circumstances.

It is no coincidence the tripod is used for 90 per cent of all professional imagery. Camera shake is the main reason for supposed out of focus images. Therefore, for handheld work: the preference is to use a wide aperture and fast shutter speeds. Careful attention must be made to focusing on technique. Remember, you focus on the image, and the camera must be held still. If the camera is focussed and then moved forward or backward (moving off the focal plane of the film) even by an inch before the release of the shutter, the recorded image will be out of focus.

Try this when taking an exposure:

Hold the camera to the eye, focus, gently (as gentle as possible) press the shutter: Do not move the camera until the mirror has returned and the exposure is complete. Also, keep your viewing eye open during the exposure. Practice this with an empty camera: I can say without a doubt your images will improve using this technique.

The buggy picture is also taken at F4.0. The shutter speed is 1/125th of a second. I sat on the ground to take the image. Focussing on the cam belt guard gave sufficient depth of focus to the image. Remember, when making an exposure reading with monochrome film, expose for the shadows. (I’ll write about this in another article).

Buggy f4.0 - 1/125 second
Buggy f4.0 – 1/125 second

Now, the point about this photograph is the composition is weak. The image should have been more compressed and tighter. Why did I choose not to do this? If I’d closed in on the subject, I would have lost the depth of focus. There is plenty of shapes and facets to the image, and this is what makes it interesting. As F4.0 gave a 1/125th shutter speed, I reckoned the looser composition gave more information than a close focused composition. If I’d have closed in to compress the image, the depth of focus, which provides better detail of the engine parts would be lost. If I had a tripod, I would have exposed at F8.0 1/30th of a second and compressed the image.

Cropped Buggy
Cropped Buggy

I prefer not crop images: however, to prove the point here is the after ‘cropping’ picture. You are reminded: I knew, the image would be cropped at the time of recording the image, for the reason already stated. There was no way I would chance F8.0 at 1/30th of a second, the probability of camera shake would have rendered the negative as useless. 

Even in the U.K, we can use slow film handheld if the choice is to learn to focus and use wide apertures. Isolating the subject is a powerful compositional tool. Learning the various techniques of wet photography is not difficult. And once learned, the photographer can centre of on the most critical aspect of imagery: composition.

Film photography is the best way to learn about composition, because, the photographer has to think. Digital photography allows for immense leeway and adjustment after the images are taken. To be at its best, wet photography demands proper technique. Learn good exposure skills and dare to use wider apertures and magic will happen.

The 35mm photographer is guided not to crop the images in the darkroom or after scanning, in the early stages of learning the art. The more often the creative mind is coaxed to consider composition in the viewfinder, the better the images become. My darkroom print size is 6X4 or 6X9 inch; this allows for small but careful ‘crops’ for one’s final compositions. I see no point in making huge prints from 35mm. If I wish to make a 16X20 inch print, medium format is chosen. 

A final thought:

Try to free yourself from, test reports and internet experts. Photography can be Zen-like and encourage great calm. A student asked me what my favourite camera and lens was. My answer was ‘ten rolls of film’. The images used in this article were taken using a camera and lens purchased from eBay for £30:00 including postage. Not only this, the pictures you see are scans, a darkroom print will provide three times the resolution seen in this article.

Enjoy your photography – Keep it simple and stay focused

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