FPP 250 - How To Expose Film In Your Vintage Movie Camera

Posted: 05/01/2020
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Film Photography Podcast
Episode 250 - May 1. 2020
On this episode Michael Raso and Owen McCafferty discuss how to set the proper exposure (f-stop) and ASA setting (a.k.a. ISO) on your manual or automatic home movie film camera.

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What is the #1 question we get here at the FPP when it comes to 8mm movie film? “How do I properly expose new 8mm (Double 8) film in my vintage movie camera?” It’s become the hot topic, so Mike and Owen chat about this frequently asked question in the latest FPP Podcast (and YouTube Simulcast)!



Discussed are typical regular 8mm movie cameras and the differences in how the cameras expose movie film. Understanding how different vintage 8mm movie cameras need to be adjusted for proper exposure, is key to achieving the best results for your home movies. Let’s outline the key takeaways from Mike and Owen’s conversation:


3 Types of Regular 8 Movie Camera Types - Fully Automatic, Semi Automatic, & Fully Manual


Most vintage Regular 8 movie cameras come in three varieties. Fully automatic (meaning the camera has a built-in meter that reads the light based on the speed of the film and automatically adjusts the camera's aperture–aka f-stop–for you). Semi automatic (meaning the camera has a built-in meter that tells you what aperture to use but you have to adjust the f-stop yourself) and fully manual (meaning there is no meter on the camera at all. You have to set the aperture yourself and either guess the f-stop or use a handheld meter or phone app to get a proper reading.) Understanding which type of camera you have is important before you get started.


Know Your Basics - Film Speed, Shutter Speed, & Aperture


Just like in still photography, exposing your movie film essentially comes down to setting your camera for the correct exposure. On movie cameras, the shutter speed is determined by the frames-per-second (or fps--how many frames of the movie film are running through the camera per second). The standard fps for regular 8mm cameras is 16 fps. That translates to 1/30th of a second (though some cameras can be 1/35--check your manual). Your film speed means the ISO (aka ASA) which is labeled on your film packaging. Once you set that information into your meter, you’ll get the correct aperture (f-stop).


NOTE: If you camera doesn’t have the ability to change fps, it’s almost certainly set at 16 fps (the standard/native fps for Regular 8mm movie cameras)


Check Your Camera’s Meter - It Could Be Faulty


If your camera is fully or semi automatic, that means there’s a built in meter on the camera. This feature was also called Optronic Eye or Electric Eye. Back in the day, meters on Regular 8mm cameras came in two varieties: the older selenium cell type or the ‘newer’ Cds type. The technical stuff doesn’t really matter–the important thing to know is that the older selenium cell meters are more apt to fail over time, while the newer Cds type meters tend to be more reliable.


How do you know if your camera has a selenium or Cds meter? Simple. If your Regular 8mm movie camera has a compartment for a small battery, it probably has a Cds type meter. If there’s no place for the battery, it’s probably a selenium type. Selenium type movie cameras also usually have a big honey-combed window on the front for the meter to read light. In this case, be suspicious–check the meter’s reading against a reliable meter you use.


If your movie camera meter is broken, it doesn’t necessarily mean the camera is kaput. As long as you can manually adjust the camera’s f-stop, you can still use your camera! You’ll just have to dial in the f-stop yourself instead of letting the camera do it for you.


Beware of High Film Speeds (the ISO of the film) - Some Automatic/Electric Eye / Optronic Eye Cameras Can’t Meter Above 40 ISO


During the heyday of Regular 8mm movie making, the highest film speed that the average person would shoot was Kodachrome which was 40 ISO/ASA. Even if your camera’s automatic meter works perfectly, you need to make sure you can dial in the correct film speed you’re shooting. Currently, the slowest film speed for Regular 8 on the market is 50 ISO/ASA. If you’re shooting a 100 ISO/ASA film but can only set your camera to 40, your film will be overexposed–by a lot!


Don’t Trust Your Movie Camera’s Suggested Setting - Use A Meter


If your camera is fully manual (meaning it doesn’t have any kind of built in meter) it probably has suggested aperture/f-stop settings based on the lighting conditions–like “Bright Sun” or “Deep Shade.” Remember, Regular 8mm cameras were built at a time when the average consumer was shooting film that was no faster than 40 ISO/ASA. Almost always, the suggested settings on the camera are designed for that speed–not 100 ISO/ASA or above. Instead, use a handheld meter or the Light Meter app on  your phone to get the correct exposure.


Still Too Bright Out? - Use an ND Filter!


Whether you’re using a fully-automatic or fully-manual Regular 8mm camera, you may discover that when using film speeds over 50 ISO/ASA, it’s still too bright out to get the right exposure–especially considering the normal film speed on a Regular 8 camera is 16fps (aka 1/30th of a second)! So what’s to be done?


An ND filter of course! ND stands for Neutral Density. Essentially, it’s a filter that lets less light into the lens, meaning you can shoot in brighter conditions. ND filters are great because you can use them with either color or black and white movie film.

How do ND filters work on your movie camera? It’s simple. ND filters are graded and come in numbers based on how much light they keep out. Most commonly, you’ll find ND 2, ND 4 and ND 8. The higher the number, the less light it lets into your lens.


How do you make the adjustment on your camera once you have the ND filter attached? The easiest way is to do some simple math to determine what your new ISO will be so you can get the correct aperture/f-stop from your camera’s built in meter or from your handheld meter or app. Here’s the equation:


Original Film ISO  / ND Filter Grade Number  = New Film ISO


So, if you’re shooting a 100 ISO/ASA movie film, and have a ND 4 filter attached to your lens, you would do the following:


100 / 4 = 25


Instead of adjusting your camera’s meter for 100 ISO/ASA (or your handheld meter or app), you adjust the meter for 25 ISO/ASA. Then, you’ll get the correct exposure! This will let you use higher speed films in much brighter conditions.


Some camera manufacturers did make ND filters specifically for their cameras (check eBay or your camera’s manual). If you can’t find the exact size ND filter for your lens, buy a larger filter, and hold it to your lens while you film. Even better, get a ND gel (a thin plastic sheet instead of a glass filter) and tape it over your lens. Both will work great.


We hope these basics help you to make better movies. Like most things, practice makes perfect. Don’t expect your first 1 or 2 rolls to be perfect. What is great about starting out with Regular 8 is that, compared with Super 8 and 16mm, it’s more affordable!


Where Can I Get Regular 8mm Film?


The FPP's Cine8 film  of course! We’re constantly working to manufacture new and interesting movie films to offer to customers. Check out our entire Regular 8 film stock options here.


Who Will Process Regular 8? What about scanning.


The FPP does both–we offer processing for just about every kind of movie film out there. We also have top-of-the-line HD / 2k / 4k scanning services to make your films shine their best. You’ll find our full line of movie film services here.



Have questions? Still confused? We’re here to help. Send a note to podcast@filmphotographyproject.com and we’ll be at your service.

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