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How to Shoot a Roll of Super-8 Film

Updated on July 12, 2011
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If you’re reading this, then I’m assuming you are looking for specific details on how to shoot a roll of Super-8 film. If not, I recommend checking out my other hub about Super-8 which illustrates why I’ve come to enjoy the medium, no matter how old.

Let’s Begin

So, let’s get started. First things first, you’ll need to go get a few things:

· Super-8 camera (I recommend ones made by Cannon, but really any one you can get your hands on is fine)

· 50 foot roll of Super-8 film (I recommend Tri-X for beginners since it’s versatile and easy to process, but only shoots black and white. If you really want to shoot in color, get Ektochrome, but remember that you’ll probably have to send it to a professional developer)

· Tripod (optional)

· Production items such as lights, sets, props, actors, and costumes (optional)

The scope of this article will not cover the extensive process of making a movie with actors, plot, proper lighting, etc. Movie-making can be taught on any kind of motion-picture medium, so this article will instead focus on how to effectively capture in-focus, high-quality images on Super-8, whether you’re making the next summer blockbuster or not.


Basic Set Up

Once you have procured a camera and film cartridge (Super-8 film comes in cartridges for ease of use) it’s time to start setting up the camera. First, you’ll need to make sure your camera has batteries. Most Super-8 cameras take four AA batteries, and these are usually inserted into the handle that you can pull down off the side of the camera. If not, check the user guide to your camera for more specific instructions (in fact, this is good practice no matter what camera you’re using).

Once the batteries are in place, turn the camera on and pull the trigger. You should hear the shutter mechanism within the camera start clacking away as it tries to capture exposures. As long as there is no film in the camera, you are not wasting anything and it doesn’t hurt the camera, so it’s a good way to learn how it works before wasting a bunch of film.

When you’re ready to try your hand at capturing some images, it’s time to load the film by opening the film slot on the side of the camera. There should be a latch that opens up a large empty space for the film cartridge to be inserted. While all cameras are different, general practice is to push the cartridge into the camera with the label facing toward you and all text should be right-side up. Click it into place and give it another push to make sure it’s good and secure before closing up the camera and re-securing the latch.

Make sure the lens is open by locating the “open/close” switch somewhere on the side of the camera. The switch must be in the “open” position for you to see through the lens and for any film to be exposed. Make sure to switch it back to “close” if you stop filming for a little while because when it’s open, light is constantly entering the camera, which may put your film at risk of becoming overexposed.

At this point, you should aim the camera at something and pull the trigger for a few seconds to lead the film a bit. The camera needs this to get the leading edge the film out of the cartridge in order to get to the exposable part of the film behind the lens. You should also set your frames per second using the little dial on the side of the camera. I would recommend sticking with 18 frames per second as it balances smoothness of action with how long your film will last. You should get about three and a half minutes of footage on a 50 foot roll at 18 frames per second.

Here is also where you should set up a tripod if you are using one. If not, that’s fine. The next steps are the same.

Diopter

Before you do any actual filming, you’ll need to set your diopter. This is actually a neat little step that needs to be done on film cameras that isn’t necessary on video cameras. The diopter is in the eyepiece on the back of the camera (the part you hold up to your eye to see through the lens). What you want to do is turn the eyepiece of the camera either clockwise or counter-clockwise until the crosshairs in the center of the lens are in focus. Don’t worry about whether or not what you see through the lens is in focus just yet; Only look at the crosshairs.

Note: All cameras are a bit different, so your crosshairs may actually be a field of dots, a grid, or some other pattern. No matter what, it should be some kind of black pattern that appears to be floating between your eye and the image through the camera.

What this does is it sets the camera’s focus to match the focus of your eye. This ensures that when you focus the lens, the the image captured on the film will match what your eye sees through the camera. This sounds like a trivial step, but is actually extremely important for ensuring that your exposures are in focus. Also, everyone’s eye is different, so always be sure to re-adjust your diopter after someone else has used the camera.

Aperture

Next, you’ll need to set your aperture, the amount of light that enters the camera. This is important because if too much light enters the camera, your shots will be overexposed. If too little enters, the shots will be underexposed. Either way, you won’t have very nice images when you develop them! If you want, you can set the camera to “auto” via a switch on the side and just leave it at that. This means that the camera with constantly be adjusting its aperture depending on how much light it senses is entering the lens. If you’re pretty casual about all this, this may be alright for you, but remember that you’re letting the film camera (a device with no computer inside) make decisions for you, some of which you may not agree with.

If you want more control over the aperture, you’ll probably want an 18% gray card. This is a piece of cardboard painted gray on one side, and is specifically designed to reflect 18% of the light that hits it. For true accuracy, I wouldn’t recommend printing one yourself, but a DIY job is probably better than nothing. For those that really don’t want to bother with it, I will describe how to set your aperture without one, but they really are a big help if you’re willing to cough up a few extra bucks.

Now, to set the aperture, you should set the gray card down where you’ll be shooting, placing it where the normal lighting conditions will prevail. If you are filming a friend, have him hold the card up to his face under the same lighting conditions you want to film him under. Then you want to zoom in on the gray card so it fills the entire field of view of the camera. Don’t be afraid to get closer if you need to. If you don’t have a gray card, be sure to zoom in on either your friend’s face, or another object in the room that you will be filming so that it fills the frame completely. Next, set the aperture setting to “auto” and check it. Your aperture will be presented on a scale somewhere on the camera, either inside the eyepiece as you look through it, or on the side of the camera near where you set it to auto. Remember the number that it says and set the aperture setting back to “manual.” Then you want to rotate the knob that sets your aperture so that the dial reads the same number that the auto setting indicated. Again, this dial is located either on the side, or top of the camera, but each one is different so check your manual. You are now done with the gray card so feel free to set it aside.

Remember that lighting levels can fluctuate with very minor changes in the environment. You’ll want to reset your aperture every time you change rooms, lighting, and sometimes even filming angle. If you are relying on sunlight at all, be sure to reset it every couple of hours to accommodate the changing light over the course of the day.

Focus

We’re almost ready to start filming! There’s only one more thing you need to do: focus the lens. This is actually one of the easiest parts. On your lens, you should have two different kinds of zoom: a dramatic zoom, and a finer, more detailed zoom. Usually the one farthest down the lens makes the most dramatic changes in focus, so use it to zoom it in all the way on a part of your scene. Then use your finer zoom adjustment to focus the lens to that the details of the shot are in focus. Then pull your dramatic zoom out to the kind of shot you want to make, and voila! You’re ready to yell “action!” and get to filming! One minor point to remember is that even though something may seem in focus through the eyepiece, the camera may not be able to actually focus on it if the object is too close to the lens. As a general rule, be sure to stay at least three feet away from whatever you’re trying to film to ensure proper focus.


A short movie I made on super 8 film

Final Notes

Now you’re all ready to film and everything’s under way! Just be sure to keep resetting the aperture and focus in between shots so everything comes out right in development. It may seem like a tedious process, but that’s really the nature of the beast. Shooting on traditional film is a labor of love but is a unique experience that I think everyone should enjoy at least once.

Once the meter on the back of the camera rolls over to 50, and you hear a sharp “click” within the camera, you’re out of film! Open up your film slot and eject the cartridge. Then put in a new one and keep going if you want. After you’ve finished filming all you want to film, you can send it away to a professional developer, or set up a dark room in your bathroom and develop it yourself. Either way, pat yourself on the back because you’ve just accomplished a venerable feat in today’s age of extreme convenience. I understand that this form of filmmaking is not for everyone, but I can only hope that some of you will come to enjoy the experience, just as I have.

Good luck, and happy filming!


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