All cameras, regardless of make or price, can be broken down into two basic categories: Rangefinder or Single-Lens Reflex (SLR).
Disposable cameras, point-and-clicks and most digital cameras fall into the rangefinder category. If your camera has a little viewfinder, many times off to the side, you probably have a rangefinder. Inside the viewfinder will be markings letting you estimate where the edges of your photo will be.
The easiest way to spot an SLR is by its interchangable lenses. Light passes through the lens, bounces off of a mirror and exits through the viewfinder. With an SLR, what you see is what you get. The edges of the viewfinder will be the edges of your picture.
Both types have advantages. Rangefinders can be made much smaller because they incorporate a built-in lens. The major advantage of SLRs, besides the ability to change lenses, is that you can see your exact composition. (back to the top)
Film is essentially a light-sensitive material sectioned into frames. Most people use 35mm color-negative print film. This film processes into strips with inverted colors. A photo printer reverses the colors to create prints. Similarly, black-and-white print film processes into strips. An alternative is slide film, which is processed with correct colors before being cut and mounted in slides. The easiest way to distinguish slide film is by the name, which typically ends with 'chrome' (ie. Kodachrome, Fujichrome).
After selecting your film type, you next need to determine what speed film you want to use. Most typical are 100, 200, 400 and 800. The higher the number, the faster the speed and the faster shutter speed you can use. But don't get carried away with the speed factor. As film speed increases, so does the amount of grain.
To capture sports or action in low-light, use 800-speed print film. If it's the middle of the day, you shouldn't have trouble shooting action with 400. If you want to shoot landscape pictures, 100 speed film or slower is preferred. Slide films work great for sunsets because slide film typically makes oranges and reds brighter and bolder. There are hundreds of options, so try out different films and see what works best for you. (back to the top)
The main function of a lens is to focus. Lenses also let you change the focal length, or perspective, of the lens to allow for different views. Since we're discussing 35mm cameras on this site, we can think of focal lengths as relative to our eyes. For 35mm lenses, 50mm gives the same perspective as our eyes. Any length greater in number is considered telephoto and anything less is considered wide-angle. Sports photographers prefer telephoto lenses to let them get close to the action. Landscape photographers typically opt for wide-angle lenses because of the larger area shown.
The next important characteristic of a lens is its maximum aperture, or opening for light. The larger the opening, the more light can be let in, which means a faster shutter speed can make a correct exposure. Apertures are denoted by f-stops. You might see something like f2.8 or f3.5-5.5 on the side of a lens. The lower the number, the wider the opening. (back to the top)