I once had a film compact camera, but I was too young to understand anything else than "click". I'm much more familiar with digital photography, and setting exposure has always been a possibility in my experience.

Now, thinking about my older camera I realize that it didn't have any electronics inside, and no way to set aperture and shutter speed.

So, besides using film with different ISO, how could you change exposure in these cameras? Were you limited to just one?

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    It would help if you could specify the camera make and model, or at least the type, as there have been a number of different compact film cameras with different capabilities on the market over the years.
    – Caleb
    Mar 3, 2014 at 23:11
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    Presumably he is talking about one of the super basic 110 film style cameras that had pretty much a ratchet, a spring and a super simple mechanical shutter. Otherwise similar would be any of the numerous disposable cameras that lacked any kind of electronics or means of setting exposure.
    – AJ Henderson
    Mar 3, 2014 at 23:23
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    @AJHenderson I'd assume the same thing, but compact can mean a lot of things, from the half-frame Olympus Pen F series to a Kodak Disc camera.
    – Caleb
    Mar 3, 2014 at 23:45
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    A lot of film point-and-shoot had a small control for "sunny", "shade", "indoor" --- I remember it quite clearly. What I do not know is if it acted on shutter or aperture.
    – Rmano
    Mar 4, 2014 at 0:21
  • Can you at least remember if it had batteries? It was pretty common for compact cameras to use batteries but would be great if you could find out if it did or not.
    – BBking
    Mar 4, 2014 at 2:59

3 Answers 3


So, besides using film with different ISO, how could you change exposure in these cameras? Were you limited to just one?

If your camera didn't have any electronics or user controls, it's likely that it really was limited to a single aperture and shutter speed setting. That shouldn't be surprising -- the same is true of single-use disposable film cameras that are still common today. A middle-of-the-road aperture like f/8 lets you take pictures under a wide range of lighting conditions and still get a negative that can yield an adequate print. And using the film sensitivity to adjust exposure was something that people used to do all the time -- even today, I'll bet most people old enough to remember using a consumer-grade film camera think of ISO 100 as "outdoor" film and ISO 400 as "indoor" film.


Some cameras had no means of controlling anything. Some automatic cameras, however, used a small photovoltaic cell to move an internal spring-loaded "meter movement". Note that the cell could produce only a tiny amount of electricity, but that a sensitive meter movement doesn't take much. Note that the meter movement did not directly have to move anything else with the camera, and as consequence it could be very sensitive.

When the shutter button was clicked, a "staircase-shaped" piece of metal would be moved perpendicular to the meter movement until its path was blocked by the needle (the metal would be stair-shaped rather than being a ramp so as to avoid having it push the needle sideways). Such a piece of metal could be used to set the aperture, or--if the piece of metal started moving at the same time as one shutter plane opened--contact with the needle could trigger the other shutter plane to close.


If your camera required just the pressure of a button to take a photo it almost certainly was capable of metering, setting aperture and shutter speed all by itself, just like digital cameras; you just didn't have access to those settings, because of the simple design, intended to lower costs while making it user friendly. All of this also implies it had some electronics inside.

Compact p&s film cameras usually have very simple center-weighted metering and a small range of aperture and shutter settings, however this is enough to handle most scenes in daylight. It gets much worse at dusk or indoors, I'm sure you noticed :)

Can you remember if your camera needed some kind of battery? If film advance was hand operated you probably wouldn't need to change battery for a very long time, and a simple camera like that could really look like it had no electronics.

edit: I'd say it's probably most common for very simple film cameras (at least in the last decades) to have a single aperture and a narrow range of shutter speeds, with some electronics for metering and setting the shutter. I remember some almost-toy cameras with switches to select sunny or cloudy, that might have been a way to control exposure, probably altering shutter speed.

  • I don't think this is right — that is, I think it's very likely that the camera had no electronics, just as remembered. My mother had a Kodak Instamatic X-15, which has a fixed aperture of f/11 and two shutter speeds, not selected electronically but simply by whether or not you had a flash cube connected.
    – mattdm
    Mar 4, 2014 at 0:09
  • Film cameras could still (yes, depending on the model) analogously metre the light and auto expose. They still had electronics, it just wasn't digital. Upvoting, not because it's entirely correct but because it has 2 downvotes that aren't really needed. Just a no vote is fine.
    – BBking
    Mar 4, 2014 at 2:57
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    @BBking But the point is that many film cameras actually didn't have electronics, just as the question says.
    – mattdm
    Mar 4, 2014 at 3:28
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    A large number of compacts had no way of metering anything. They had a lens fixed at infinity, a preset aperture, and a preset shutterspeed, and that's it. The only way to influence exposure was to put in film with a different DIN/ISO rating. I had several when I first started out. And there were many others that had no meter, allowing aperture and shutter speed to be set manually using an external meter to determine values.
    – jwenting
    Mar 4, 2014 at 7:57
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    Perhaps because you continue to ignore OP specifically stating "it didn't have any electronics inside" - so the camera didn't decide when the flash was needed; the photographer did.
    – dav1dsm1th
    Mar 5, 2014 at 23:25

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