Travelling with film by Richard Wong

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by Bellamy /

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Travelling with film by Richard Wong
An interesting guest post today from Richard Wong, sharing his experiences of travelling with film.

I don’t travel a lot. But I really enjoy every holiday trip and also love taking photos during the trip. I love taking photos of my kids, my family, and documenting what we did, what we saw. But just like a lot of you, I have collected quite a few cameras over the years. Choosing which camera to bring to the trip is always a bit of first world problem.

Nikon F3 | Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.2 | Ilford HP5+ @ 1600

In the past, I have experimented with various options. I have tried bringing my full frame Nikon DSLR with a collection of my best (i.e. heaviest) lenses, I’ve tried micro four third camera with a few small prime lenses, I’ve also tried bringing just a small compact camera.  Each option has it’s pros and cons but I always feel the camera I left at home is actually the better camera for the trip. Not surprisingly, I still haven’t settle down on what is my ultimate travel photography kit yet.
At the beginning of the year, we decided we want to visit Australia this year and since then I’ve thinking about what camera should I bring this time.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_03Nikon F3 | Zenitar 16mm f/2.8 fisheye | Kodak Portra 400

If you follow me on flickr, you would have noticed I’ve started shooting with film cameras again since the beginning of the year and I’m really enjoying it. So I asked myself the question: “Should I just bring a film camera this time?”
“Yes!” I answered myself.  “I will shoot film, and film only for this trip.”
“That sounds great, but are you really sure? Do you trust your old film camera so much? How about a hybrid film and digital camera solution? It will surely be more versatile and safer?”
“Hm….. errr……yeah nah.  Just the film camera.” I told myself.
And the reason is, frankly I still don’t feel very secure when shooting film, I guess it’s my lack of confidence to myself. If I bring both a film and a digital camera, I know I will shoot a photo with my film camera first, then bring out the digital camera and take another photo as backup, or maybe two, or a few more.
And it pretty much defeated why I want to shoot film again. I want to shoot less and shoot slower. Shooting both film and digital means I would shoot more, and faster.
Another problem I can foresee is that after the trip, it would take me quite some time to have all my film developed and scanned. By the time I got all the photos from my film camera scanned, I would have gone through my digital photos already. This effectively makes my film camera the backup. Again, contrary to why I want to carry my film camera.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_02Nikon F3 | Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.2 | Ilford HP5+ @ 1600

It was a really tough decision. It didn’t help when I picked up a brand new, yet to announce (back then) camera from Panasonic just a week or so before the trip which has some really cool photo features and also shoot amazing 4K videos. That would be perfect for the trip. A lot of internal conflicts but in the end I made up my mind.
Digital cameras you all stay at home. And if I want to take video, I will just use my phone.
So which film camera should I take with me?  I don’t really want to bring a lot of gear as it’s a family trip and we will probably walk around quite a bit. (and I’m getting lazier).
My favourite film camera is the Nikon F3 and I definitely want to take it with me. As for the lens, I decided to mount the Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.2 on the camera and also bring along my Zenitar 16mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. I was also tempted to bring my Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/2 as well but didn’t bring it because of the reason I’ll explain next.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_14Nikon 35Ti | Kodak Portra 400

But while I would love to shoot everything using my manual focus F3, knowing that most of my photos will be photos of my kids who almost never stop, I want to bring along an autofocus camera as well. At first I was thinking of bringing my Konica Hexar AF as it’s my best street photography camera. Autofocus is fast, it’s amazingly quiet and it’s got a nice f/2 lens. But in the end I grabbed the Nikon 35Ti for two reasons.
1. It’s smaller than the Hexar.  2. It has a built-in flash.
And because of the 35Ti has a 35mm lens (just like the Hexar AF), the 35mm Zeiss lens stay at home as well to minimise the amount of gear I carry.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_07Nikon F3 | Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.2 | Ilford HP5+ @ 1600

I got the camera now, what about film? I want to shoot both colour and black & white as I believe they both good at capturing different kind of photos. Since it’s not that easy to buy film these days, especially when you are in a city you don’t know that well, I need to bring enough film to last the whole trip. I packed 10 rolls of  Kodak Portra 400 and 10 rolls of Ilford HP5+ for my 9 days trip.
One major difference between shooting with a digital and a film camera is that with a digital camera, you can adjust the ISO setting anytime, for any individual frame. But with a film camera, you have to pick the film speed and you’ll be stuck with that speed until you finish that roll. So you really have to choose the film speed carefully. It’s a big restriction but can be mostly solved by better planning.
One good thing about taking two cameras is that I can load film of different speed into each camera to give me a bit more flexibility. During the trip I mostly load the Kodak Portra 400 into my 35Ti for the day time photos. And I load the Ilford HP5+ into my F3 and push to 1600 to handle the darker scenes.
I also took a ND8 filter so I don’t have to stop down my F3 too much when shooting during the day. The only other item I took is a small Sirui travel tripod.
Everything including the tripod fit in my Manfrotto messenger bag easily with spaces for my other daily stuff.  Great!

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_01Here are the camera gears I took plus a small tripod minus the Nikon case

So I’m now already back from the trip. And how did it go?
I love it! It was a very refreshing experience.
I shot almost 12 rolls of film during my 9 days trip. That is about 400 photos in total or just over 40 photos a day. It is still quite a lot of photos and more than I expected. But then I probably would have took heaps more photos if I brought my digital camera instead.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_04Nikon F3 | Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.2 | Ilford HP5+ @ 1600

Frankly there was quite a bit of uncertainty feeling during the trip as I have no idea how the photos would turn out. I was quite worried that something bad might happen to my film and I don’t want to end up without any good photos from my trip. Paranoid, paranoid, paranoid!
Fortunately even though I shot a lot less photos and didn’t have a LCD screen to check my photos immediately after I took them, the photos turned out not too bad.
Compare to my previous trips when I only took my digital cameras, shooting film made me enjoy both photography and the trip more.
The biggest difference between shooting with film and digital camera is that each frame cost money and I only have limited rolls of film in my bag.  I have to think carefully before each time I click the shutter.  I shot a lot slower and gave a lot more though before I click the shutter.I paid a lot more attention to my composition, to smaller details. The slower pace makes me enjoy the process of taking photos a lot more.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_05Nikon F3 | Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.2 | Ilford HP5+ @ 1600

Over the last 10 years, shooting digital gave me some really bad habits. After taking photos with my digital camera, I would immediately examine the photo at maximum magnification. If the photo isn’t 100% sharp or maybe focus is slightly off, I would press the delete button on the camera straight away. If the photo is ok, I’ll then move on to the next photo. It’s not uncommon I would completely ignore the rest of the world until I’ve finished chimping through the photos I just took.
With a film camera, there is no LCD screen for me to chimp my photo and examine the pixels. I can immediately detach my mind from the camera after taking a photo and enjoy the next moment with the family.
And once the photos are developed, I also don’t mind too much if the photo is slightly blurry or mis-focused. The analog photos remind myself that I’m shooting photos, not shooting pixels. If the photo is a bit soft or out of focus, that’s fine as long as the photo composition, timing..etc is good.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_09Nikon F3 | Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.2 | Ilford HP5+ @ 1600

Taking photos with the F3 always make me feel great. Unlike the latest digital camera that has really advanced metering, autofocus system, image stabiliser..etc that does so many things for us,  the F3 is a lot more primitive, and you the photographer are the one in control of pretty much everything. Pulling that super smooth film advance lever. Using the buttery smooth focusing ring to slowly sharpen and solidify your subject from bokeh. Seeing everything through that big and bright optical viewfinder. Then finally press the shutter button to capture the photo I want. It just feels so good, so soothing and damn rewarding.
On the other hand, while the 35Ti is a premium compact camera with quite a lot of manual settings (and those beautiful dials at the top), it’s really a point and shoot camera. With the Nikon matrix metering, I can really just turn to P mode and shoot it without having to adjust any settings. It’s opposite to the F3 where almost everything is manual. Taking photos with the 35Ti is definitely doesn’t feel as rewarding as the F3, but together they are both good cameras that supplement each other. When travelling with the family and kids, a lot of time I just don’t have the time or hand to shoot slowly using the F3. The built-in flash is really handy too and the results is better than I expected. While it’s unavoidable the flash is slightly harsh because of the position, the flash light balance with the ambient light is surprisingly good and I didn’t even have one single blown out photo caused by the camera flash. I guess it’s partly thanks to negative film’s wide highlight latitude.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_06Nikon 35Ti | Kodak Portra 400

The biggest limitation I found with the film cameras was that even after pushing the film to 1600 and shoot with a f/1.2 lens, quite often my shutter speed still dropped to really slow when I’m shooting under low light. I guess I have been spoiled by my full frame DSLR’s amazing five or even six digits ISO performance. Of course people have been taking photo under dim lighting before digital cameras were invented, I just have to stop being lazy and rely on the camera’s brute high ISO performance.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_13Nikon F3 | Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.2 | Ilford HP5+ @ 1600

I did find that even at f/1.2 with 1600 film, I still don’t have enough light. I setup a tripod to take this shot as it was early in the morning and the room was too dark

I can’t remember when was the last time I flied with a film camera. But I remember the last time I had an oversea trip with film camera I was shooting with my Minolta 500si and digital camera was still in its infancy state. Things have changed a lot since then and going through Customs with film in 2016 is quite an interesting experience.
If you are new to film photography, please remember never put your undeveloped film in your check-in luggage as the high intensity X-ray machine the airport used to scan your check-in luggage could easily ruin your film. You may get lucky but I wouldn’t want to risk my film. So yes always put all your undeveloped film (exposed or not) in your hand carry bag.
Now while I’m quite sure my Kodak Portra 400 would be fine through the X-ray machines the airport use to examine our hand carry bags, I was a bit worried about my Ilford HP5+ as I push them to 1600 and my trip involves 3 flights which means I need to go though 3 checkpoints (end up being 4 as the Gold Coast airport requires international travellers to go through the bags check twice). Google cant give me a very conclusive answer whether 1600 film is safe or not. So when I was going through the Customs check point, I did tell the Customs Officers that I have some film in my bag. All the Customs Officer I talked to would pause for a few seconds, then went and check with someone else. It’s almost like this is the first time they heard of someone carrying this high-tech gadget called film and not sure how to handle it. Eventually they would come back and tell me their X-ray is fine. Im glad they are right as I don’t see anything wrong from my Ilford HP5+ photos.

richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_15Nikon F3 | Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.2 | Ilford HP5+ @ 1600

So would I travel with film camera again?
Absolutely!
I certainly won’t say the film photos are better quality than digital. But I do really love film photo’s aesthetic, how it renders highlight, the film grain…etc I shot a lot less photos during this trip but the number of keepers I got in the end is quite similar to my previous trips with digital camera. The keep rate is definitely a lot higher. And when I was seeing through the photos, each of them would bring back a stronger memory as I paid a lot more attention when I was capturing each photo.
But most importantly, I just really like shooting with old film cameras. They gave me a lot more restrictions and I need to do a lot more to get around most of the restrictions. It forces me to think harder and helps me bring out more creativity and problem solving skills. In the end I feel a lot more rewarding and definitely more fun.


richard_wong_travel_with_film_camera_12Nikon 35Ti | Kodak Portra 400

So if you are travelling soon and you have a film camera you could use? I would suggest you give it a try. Leave your digital camera at home and take your film camera instead. I can’t guarantee you’ll love it but you’ll never know unless you give it a try.
If you have similar experience, I would love to hear your story.

Richard

Richard is a multi-award winning wedding/portrait photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand.  Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com

21 comments on “Travelling with film by Richard Wong”

    Luca January 29, 2017 at 4:19 pm / Reply

    First things first: really nice shots, kudos!

    Secondly: the F3 had, in my opinion, THE best metering system of any camera (film or digital) I’ve ever used. Not to say it was infallible, but it was something much better: predictable and reliable, so with experience you learned quickly how to skew the results the way you wanted to. As a camera I liked the F4s better (it was love at first picture…) but the F3 was just right behind it.

    Finally, for your troubles in low light with “measly” ;) 1600Iso films. When I was shooting film (I still do, btw), as the cheap digital DSLRs were still 30.000€, I used a simple rule of thumb. If it was dark, I started ignoring the exposure meter and simply set 1/15s, f/2, 1600Iso.

    Especially with negative film, color or b/w (but sometimes I did this with slides too), and as long as you’re careful, watching how the light falls on your subjects when you’re shooting (it has to fall on a part you find interesting, for example the face etc.) your pictures will be on the dark/night club/moody style side but still look good. Essentially you will be exposing for the (dim, like in an interior or outside at night at a bit of distance from under a street lamp) lights.

    Steve Evans January 29, 2017 at 4:41 pm / Reply

    Just a quick clarification although airport X-ray can affect 1000asa and above film ilford hp5+ is still only 400asa regardless of what Asa you decide to expose it. The asa refers to the sensitivity of the emulsion “pushing” the film merely means it will have to be developed longer. I recently took some fujica reala 400asa through 7 airport checkins in hand luggage with absolutely no ill effects.

    Sam Taylor January 29, 2017 at 4:54 pm / Reply

    I just wanted to say i thought you’re article was a great read with some amazing shots from the trip. I have just taken my first roll from my Nikon F3 into the lab for developing and am very intrigued to see how it turned out.
    I have to say it will be my go to camera for my next trip also. 2015 i took my Hasselblad to orlando florida to capture some of the iconic parts of the theme park and i have to agree with you. I slowed down my shots and put a lot more thought and time into capturing the subject and the results from the first roll of velvia were very pleasing although nerve racking the final results were worth the wait.
    Thanks again for the article ✌🏻

    Eric January 29, 2017 at 5:57 pm / Reply

    Great article.
    Great photos.
    F3 : great, i prefer F4
    Nikon 35TI a beast I have the Nikon 28TI a great beast, with Velvia, Tmax, Ilford Delta3200, Whaouuuuuu

    Jordan January 29, 2017 at 6:24 pm / Reply

    Nice photos Richard! As a previous Gold Coast resident, I must say you’ve taken some gorgeous photos of my old home town. I hope you enjoyed your trip to Australia, even if the airport customs guards did stir you up a bit :)

    iglad January 29, 2017 at 7:29 pm / Reply

    Excellent article as i will be visiting Cuba on holiday later in the year and was in two minds about what to take 35mm film only, digital one;y or both. At this moment it’s film lots of Ektar 100 but I could just shoot B&W. decisions decisions. I’d love to shoot 120 but the weight will be too much.

    Michael Häggqvist January 29, 2017 at 9:28 pm / Reply

    Nice artikel. I did the same thing, went for a months trip with only film. I took a olympus mju and a olympus 35 sp with ligthmeter broken but in exelent cla condition. I brougth with me 40 rols of kodak tri-x.

    Absolutly wonderfull! It was my first real experience with film beside a roll or two. I decided to go out on the deep end. I messaured sometime with a camera app but mostly i used sunny 16.

    I used from iso 400 all the way up to iso 12800 and it came out so good! Yes only one roll of iso 12800 and so grainy but still ok.

    I thougth the autofocus do it all would give me the best pics but nooo, it was the all manual no ligthmeter camera that gave me the best pics!

    Dont be affraid to go to high iso if u need it, it can give exelent results!

    In fact i love it so much i will go back and stay one more moth but this time i migth ad a mamiya c330 proffesional for that mediumformat look. Oh and i will bring some colour film to.

    Now if only streetpan 400 was avalibel in 120 roll….

    Wendy January 30, 2017 at 12:18 am / Reply

    I take both when traveling. The lightest setup for me is to take my Canon 5DMk2 DSLR and the Canon 1v. Both use the same lenses and I can shoot both film and digital. I understand your point about shooting both, rather than just sticking with film. I will alternate while on the trip. I’ll go out for a walk and bring only film, or go to a particular site and only bring digital. I like the digital for doing star trails or other work in low light, and I’m not skilled enough to do that with film as I find I have to play with the timing quite a bit to get the look I want. So I can get the best of both worlds but still the fun of each. Great article! Thanks for sharing!

    Casey Stanton January 30, 2017 at 12:40 am / Reply

    Great post. It’s refreshing to see someone pack for a trip and minimize the gear they bring. YouTube seems to tell us that if you’re not packing a full suitcase of DSLR gear, you’re not cool.

    Robert Pavich January 30, 2017 at 2:49 am / Reply

    Interesting read.
    I recently got back from a trip where all I took were two Olympus Trip 35’s and a dozen rolls of film. (and a few lens wipes)

    You will find that the more you shoot film the more you’ll start to trust yourself and I do agree with you; after shooting film, pixel peeping to criticize the absolute perfect focus point is something of the past.

    Nice job…nice pics.

    Dan Castelli January 30, 2017 at 10:02 am / Reply

    I enjoyed the article, but I honestly thought it would address the obstacles we film users encounter when travelling both domestically [by air] and internationally.

    My wife & I travelled to Florence Italy from Boston in the autumn of 2015. We had a layover in Paris. Each point of security required me to explain, pantomime or stand my ground until an official would agree to hand inspect my film. It is my failing that I don’t speak French or Italian; and it is to the credit of the French & Italian security officers that they spoke English, and were accommodating to me. They could have easily [and within their rights] refused to hand inspect my film [Ilford XP-2 & Delta 3200]. I know not everyone who travels with film had such a positive experience. BTW, my XP-2 was processed by SkyPhotographic in Florence before we returned to the US.

    We’re travelling to London in early June. I’ve decided to pack a couple of rolls of film, and purchase the bulk of my film in London, and have it processed in London.

    It’s just getting harder & harder to pass through security checkpoints. Film just adds another layer of stress.

    Gavin Go January 30, 2017 at 11:25 am / Reply

    Everything that goes through your mind in preparation for a trip is what Im suffering with all the time. I travel a lot and imagine how difficult it is to be in that scenario in at least 30 flights a year.
    I love film but it has gotten too much of time preparing them. Imagine going back home and finding another time developing them or sending it to the lab.
    Im trying now to adjust and focus on certain gear this year that way Ill have the consistency and extra time to play with my kids instead. Of course I also need to work more. This way I will have more time for vacation which I only did once with my wife in 10 years.
    1600 is a problem btw w xrays 400 isnt

    Dan Castelli January 30, 2017 at 12:18 pm / Reply

    The x-ray effect on film [example ISO 400] increases each time your film passes through an x-ray machine. After 4 passes, the film will show some damage. It’s just not airports…I’ve had to pass through x-ray machines in the Louvre, in Florence, etc.
    I now take a Sharpie marker, and mark the # of times a film goes through x-ray machines. I use that as an argument for hand inspection: “The film will pass through multiple machines, officer. If you would please hand inspect, then the effect of multiple x-rays will be minimized. Thank you.”

    I’m lucky [or simple-minded] in that I can comfortably work with one camera & lens. That’s how I see my world. So, packing for my upcoming trip to London is the same as going into NYC for a day trip. JCH sourced for me an excellent 40mm M-Rokkor. That lens, and my M2, is all I need. And enough boxers for 10 days. :-)

    Richard Wong January 30, 2017 at 5:34 pm / Reply

    Thanks for all the comments and feedback. I’m still quite new to film so learning every day.

    Re the x-ray damage, my understanding is that:
    1. Multiple passes would increase the damage, as damage is accumulated, like what Dan said. So 400 film after 1 x-ray is probably perfectly fine, but may not be the case after 20 x-ray scans.

    2. If you shoot (and develop) film at different speed, the film is effectively te same as the speed you are shooting at. So for my example, i push my 400 film at 1600 so my film will be as easy to be damaged by x-ray as if I was carrying 1600 film shot at 1600. It’s because when I develop I will have to push my 400 film 2 stops which also “push” the x-ray damage by 2 stops.

    Ralph Hightower January 30, 2017 at 7:20 pm / Reply

    Great article. I like the dual camera approach also. I have B&W film loaded in my Canon A-1 and color film in my Canon New F-1. On my Canon 5D III, I turned image review off; I don’t look at the photos immediately afterwards. However, I may review the photos later.

    Jeb February 1, 2017 at 12:51 am / Reply

    I traveled to German for two weeks last year and only took film cameras. I for sure overpacked, but I don’t regret leaving the digital behind. I bought film in Berlin rather than taking it with me. Then I bought a roll of 3200 Ilford, shot it on my last night and threw it in my bag to at least technically meet the requirement for a hand inspection. In Berlin, London and Washington I had zero problems, it was only New York that was a sort of hassle. There’s just something about an Xray that makes me want to hand inspect even though it’s a hassle and time suck. Maybe it’s that I don’t have that digital backup in case something weird happens.

    I’m going back for two more weeks in April and I think I may even buy film at BH in New York before the flight. It’s a little cheaper than in Berlin. The things we do for our photos!

    Great article.

    Damien February 1, 2017 at 12:53 pm / Reply

    Very pleasant article, thank you. Actually, if shooting b/w, you’re not stuck to the set ISO of the film. Pushing or pulling film is quite common. What most people don’t realise is that if you stand develop, you are very welcome to change (i.e. push/pull) your ISO setting mid-roll. Why is that so? Because stand development doesn’t care about precise time and temp. You just dunk whatever b/w film at whatever ISO in the same very diluted soup (usually 1/100) for the same amount of time (usually 60 min.). This means that you can develop at the same time a roll of Tri-X, another of Ilford 3200 and another of Pan-F. And of course, those can be pushed or pulled. Even mid-roll. Gotta love stand dev!
    Sure, it might not give you the best results for each film if you wet print, but if you scan, this is very easily dealt with.

    Roy Karlsvik February 3, 2017 at 7:22 am / Reply

    Nice to see others travelling with film as well, and thanks for a great blog post.
    I am always travelling with film, and will probably go through a hundred checkpoints or so through different airports, mostly in europe. Earlier I used to ask for a hand check of the films, but the last few years I just let them scan them along with the rest of the camera equipment and everything, and have never experienced any big trouble to be honest. I suspect I got some traces of x-ray machines on one or two of my 120 size films, but that could also be something else for all I know. As I’ve had maybe a thousand films scanned, and many of them a lot of times, this is not an issue these days. Not even with films pushed to 3200, in my experience.
    As for the camera and what to bring… well, how could you possibly go wrong with the F3? I usually bring one or two Nikon’s and one or two Leica’s, or I only bring one or two smallish 135 cameras and a medium format camera. I seem to not think too much about the choice of cameras anymore, as I know they will give me more or less what I’m after anyway. But that’s me, of course. Other people will have other thoughts and preferences.

    Danjazz February 4, 2017 at 4:13 pm / Reply

    I had the same thoughts as you when i traveled to Thailand last year. I decided to bring my F3t on that trip. It made me more present during that vacation and enjoyed it more due to less chimping. Anyway great shots! I love them.

    My Nikon F3t
    http://wp.me/p79SVd-3d

    Peter Boorman February 27, 2017 at 7:42 pm / Reply

    On the X-ray issue, I think it’s easy to assume that the damage will be an obvious increase in base fog, or maybe something that looks a bit like a light leak. All the testing I’ve seen done that was designed to convince us not to worry about letting film go through the X-ray machines has measured the base fog level.

    It has always seemed to me that that is a bit of a simplistic approach. Long before an increase in base fog becomes a real issue in printing/scanning, I would be more concerned about a drop in contrast. An X-ray pass should affect the film like a (low level) pre-flash, and multiple passes will build up that effect. That is a much harder effect to spot – how do we know, maybe weeks after we took the shot, what the contrast should have, or could have, been?

    This is why I always have a few rolls of high speed film in my film bag, and ask for a hand inspection – which I have always received, though sometimes it has entailed a wait.

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