(Before you read this, it’s worth reading our article on Understanding Exposure)
Early cameras, from the 50s and 60s, were nearly exclusively fully “manual”. In other words, the person taking the photograph was in complete control. You had to set everything on the camera every time you took a photo. The camera didn’t give you any help, and there was no way of asking for help from the camera either!
For those experienced with photography, or prepared to take the time to learn, this was great. You got satisfaction from the process of taking photographs, rather than just focusing on the actual photos at the end of it all, and you had total control over what was happening, meaning you could force a photograph to look a certain way if you wanted.
But let’s be realistic here – there are times when you don’t have the time needed to think all these things through, especially when you’re just starting out with film for the first time. On those occasions you’re going to wish you had some help, or automation in the camera.
Have a think about whether that’s a sacrifice you’re willing to make; the early manual cameras are truly things of engineering beauty. They don’t contain much in the way of electronics so they tend to be built to last too, but you’re undoubtedly making a trade off with ease of use and convenience.
Our advice would be to be brave and try to learn about manual photography when you start out. If you don’t make that effort, it can be easy to slip into just shooting in “auto” mode. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but you are missing out on part of the experience for sure. Learning about manual modes simply gives you the option to shoot that way when it’s right for you to do so.
During the early 1970s cameras started coming to market with “Aperture Priority” mode (sometimes abbreviated to Av). The Pentax ES was the first of these to hit the market.
With this Av mode all you had to do was set the aperture to whatever setting you wanted; the camera would then work out what shutter speed was needed to get the exposure right for you. Easy!
That seems rudimentary to us today, but it was quite a technological advance nearly 50 years ago! As always with new technology though, some people claimed it wasn’t for them, the usual combination of fear of new things and not understanding something no doubt. In time though most people “got it” and by the end of the 70s nearly all cameras came with an Av mode in addition to manual mode.
In time things went a step further. By the mid-1970s companies began to develop cameras that got rid of manual mode all together. These were aimed at the beginners market. You could buy a camera where you didn’t even have to change it from manual mode, because there wasn’t one! You got Av mode and that was that. All you ever had to do was set the aperture on the lens and shoot, and you were virtually guaranteed great photos. Nothing could go wrong.
These Av only cameras remain great cameras for the true beginner – take a look at the Canon AV1, the Nikon EM, the Olympus OM10 or the Pentax MV for a bargain and easy to use entry into the world of film.
On the opposite side of the same coin we have Shutter Priority mode (often abbreviated to “S” or “Tv”).
As the name suggests, you set the shutter speed and the camera works out what aperture is needed to get the right exposure for your shot. These cameras tend to rely on slightly later lenses for this Tv modes to work properly.
These days you tend to find more cameras with Av mode only, rather than Tv mode only. But plenty of cameras from the mid to late 70s offer Manual and Tv mode.
As things moved towards the late 70s and early 80s fully automated modes became increasingly common. Here the camera would make every decision for you, if that’s what you asked it to do. In 1978 the Canon A1 became was the first camera that came to market with this option.
You aren’t going to find many cameras with only this automatic mode. Instead they will usually have at least one of manual or Av, and sometimes Tv as well. The unmistakably 80s Canon T50 is one exception though – this has auto mode and nothing else.
There are some great and affordable cameras from this later period that will do everything you need them to and nothing you don’t. Any of the Pentax P30 models in particular are perfect, compact, lightweight cameras that will guarantee you great pictures and won’t break the bank. Lots of less recognisable brands – like Minolta for instance - made great cameras in this period too.
There’s also some fairly intelligent cameras, like the Canon T70, that include “portrait” modes – where the camera will look to use wide apertures – and “telephoto” mode, where the camera will prioritise a fast shutter speed for you.