On Traveling with Film
Written by Katt Janson Merilo
Having the right camera with you on your travels is a vital step in any successful trip. Perhaps you already choose to travel with one or several trusted film cameras, and have reasons of your own for doing so. I wasn’t always a film camera traveler, but after years of tentative trials, I’ve now come around to the analog adventurer side. If you’re still mostly a digital photographer on the road, but curious about the other option, stick around. I’ve now traded my SD cards in for a bag full of film, and I don’t plan on going back.
Even as I re-embraced film – after a short digital hiatus – more and more in my work at home, I felt a lingering resistance to travel with a film camera. The reasons behind this are the same for why I still compulsively bring my 5D to any wedding and professional shoots that I do, even if I don’t plan on using it: I don’t want to lose anything, either by fault or accident, and the risk for loss sometimes feels bigger with film. Over time, though, my fear of loss has waned. With practice, experience, and discipline I’ve gained confidence in my ability to produce photographs without unpleasant surprises – I now believe in my ability to make the photograph that I think I’m making. Through maintaining my cameras I feel more secure in their reliability, and my ability to troubleshoot minor issues. And as for accidental technical losses, well, I’ve received far more “corrupted file” messages from an SD card than I’ve ever experienced loss of film to user error, lab error, water damage, Xray damage, accidentally leaving rolls behind in a hostel, or any of the other random acts of God I feared may rain down upon my bag of exposed rolls of film.
Once I realized I no longer feared film in travel, I started traveling with film, first in addition to my digital camera and soon instead of it. I now reach for my AE1 rather than my 5D when I go somewhere once-in-a-lifetime, and I keep finding reasons to prefer it that way. In an effort to spread the joy of film travel, here’s a countdown of my top 5 reasons to leave your DSLR at home when you take your next big vacation.
5. Decrease of liability and cost of replacement:
Some of the places I’ve traveled have been to high theft areas. Additionally, the risk of theft is naturally higher when you’re in an unfamiliar area, looking like an outsider. Bringing a film camera while traveling has provided me with peace of mind in regards to theft in several different ways. For one, while an undiscerning thief may grab anything left unguarded, film cameras don’t present quite as tempting of a target for most. Additionally, if your film camera is stolen, it is likely much cheaper to replace than a digital kit. The film cameras I most often take traveling with me are a Canon AE1 with 50mm f1.4 and 28mm f2.8 lenses, a Holga, and a Zero Image pinhole camera. No thief would know my wooden box is a camera, so there’s very little risk of theft there, but even if it did happen I’d only be out about $140. The Holga only cost me $50 new, and my Canon AE1 and lenses can all be replaced for about $400. If I were to lose my Canon 5Dii with 50mm f1.4 lens, I’d spend at least $1,000 replacing it in today’s market.
4. Sturdiness in the face of rough travel:
In addition to low costs of replacement for theft, film gear is often cheaper to replace or repair in case of broken equipment, as well. But traveling with a sturdy film camera also makes the potential for experiencing equipment damage far less likely in the first place. I personally have carried my AE1 in a kayak on the Adriatic Sea, around my neck in the unexpected damp bouldering of a handful of blocked PNW and Hawaiian trails, in the backseat of a muddy quad, wrapped in a towel on the beach, and in the bottom of a hiking backpack for days on the Inca Trail. While I do my best to protect my gear while abroad, my husband and I have taken up an interest in a variety of messy travel activities, none of which I’d feel comfortable bringing a plastic, delicate and very expensive DSLR into. My AE1, Holga, and pinhole camera, though? Yeah, they’ve got this.
I once accidentally knocked my AE1 off a minor ledge on a mountain, heard about a pinhole camera that was dropped in the ocean, and banged my Holga around many a cobblestone, and all continue to make photos today. Sure, there are delicate film cameras out there, as well as things that are just as sure to bust your film SLR as your DSLR, but for overall durability, it’s safe to say that mechanical and metal beats electronic and plastic any day. After the impending nuclear apocalypse, the world will be swept clean of everything except for two things: cockroaches and every single Argus C3 ever made (but definitely not the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, as Fallout 4 would have you believe).
3. Quality to cost ratio:
This is an advantage that is always present in the film vs. digital decision making process, and not inherently travel-specific. I hesitated to include it in my list, but if you’re like us, chances are you spend at least a year saving for your next big trip. That means that every dollar saved is significant, so it’s worth bringing up the debate here. After all, would you rather spend money re-purchasing the latest high cost digital point and shoot or DSLR camera with lenses and accessories, or get yourself an extra night in paradise? I know which one I’d prefer. We’ve already discussed the price differences in gear for loss, repair, and replacement, but if you don’t already have a camera of choice, you save big in initial costs, as well.
In the digital world, a cheaper camera often means lower picture quality. By going film, however, your choice does not come at the cost of quality: a high resolution scan of a 35mm frame is at least as many megapixels as the current high end DSLRs produce, and high res scans of larger formats such as 120mm and sheet film can exceed resolutions that current digital cameras are even capable of producing. When I look back on my older travel digital photos and compare them to the film photos I’ve produced on vacation, I prefer the look of my film work about 90% of the time. I sometimes find myself wishing that I could redo a previous vacation, this time with a film camera. There’s something undeniably special and beautiful about the look of film. Some argue you can reproduce the aesthetic in digital shots with post-processing, but it can be expensive, labor intensive, and difficult to replicate, so why bother trying? Just use a film camera and see what I mean.
2. Waiting for your photos and the potential good surprises they bring can extend your vacation:
I now feel like my vacation isn’t totally over until my photos are all developed, scanned, processed, and shared. By saving that unseen batch of images for after you’ve come home, you get to experience a bit of the magic of seeing a new (or loved) location all over again. Many people have forgotten the joy of sending off film and the expectant wait for the photos to return in the mail or over the counter. That magic of opening an envelope and going through the places you’ve been all over again is unique and almost as fun as the moment you made the images.
One of my favorite things about my travel film photos is something that I used to fear most about using only film on vacation: the unexpected quirk, mistake, and result. To illustrate what I mean, here’s an example. While on a secluded island in Lake Titicaca, we stumbled upon the villagers’ parade for their Independence Day. Kids were dressed like soldiers, nurses, and militia band members, and every inhabitant of the island filled the town square with excitement and celebration. I photographed it for hours and towards the end of the day I got what I felt was going to be my favorite from the roll: an image of a young boy wearing war face paint and holding a toy machine gun. The next day, I remembered how close to the end of the roll I’d gotten and grabbed a new roll to load. I was thinking about the day before, my hands on autopilot as I popped open the back and stared in horror at my film from yesterday stretched out and exposed before me. I slapped the back shut but was devastated, knowing most photos would be fine but certain that my war boy was most likely lost. When I got the film back weeks later, I saw him bathed in the characteristic red glow of fogged film, and I loved it. While technically far from perfect, it was still an interesting image of this surreal experience that I had, and much like the experience of being there, it was unexpected and full of a unique kind of beauty.
1. No picture preview means you keep your eye on your surroundings, not your LCD.
This is far and above the biggest advantage I have gained by switching to film for my travels. When I shot primarily digital, I could take 10 shots of the same thing, but then usually ended up liking the first frame best anyway. I found my mindset while carrying a digital camera on travels was more about documenting than experiencing. With an SD card big enough for a squillion number of photos and an immediate view of the image I just made, I’d obsess over reshooting to perfection. Arguments over capturing the moment versus participating in it sprung up among my travel companions. For years I feared the idea of not seeing the results of a shutter release until I was home – now, I overwhelmingly prefer it.
To be able to thoughtfully and purposefully fire my shutter and trust that I will, eventually, see an image at least as interesting as I hoped is a far more comfortable and powerful feeling than mindlessly shooting until my screen is perfect or I decide I no longer like what I’m looking at. The zen of film extends – in a related way – to impulse control, stopping me before I spend 10 minutes and 20 photos on something as unnecessary as a dinner plate. Several times I have found myself reflexively reaching for my camera as I would my phone and then stop. “I only have 2 more rolls for this week – do I really need this photo?” I would ask myself. When the answer was “no”, I would feel immediate relief that I had stopped myself from taking time away from a pleasant and unrepeatable moment to make a photo I didn’t even want. Instead, I could stay in the moment, creating a lasting memory rather than a disposable snapshot. That is the greatest gift that traveling with film has given me, and I recommend you all treat yourself to the experience, if you’re not doing so already.