Behind the Lens: Does Film Still Have a Place in Expedition Travel?

Behind the Lens is a new photography column from pro photographer Bill Green. It covers all things photographic, with a slant towards techniques and digital asset management in the field.

My last article about the sad but not unexpected demise of Kodachrome® has got me thinking about film again.

There is an elegance, purity, and honesty from film that I think is lacking in digital photography. I resisted switching to digital until late 2002, largely due to the costs, but that is a post for another time. I continued to shoot film for personal work until last year, but the cost and pain of processing and scanning film has since pushed me to a completely digital work environment. That said, every time I see a great medium format shot, I know that it is unlikely that I would have captured that image with a digital camera. There is no better way to “envision” a photograph than staring at a great big ground glass screen (well, perhaps shooting tethered).

While most who grew up around film will forever know the world through Kodachrome colors, I was always more of a Fuji guy. These films changed the way I see color and subject. Even though it has been a while since I’ve loaded a roll of celluloid, I still know how a scene will look through the a roll of Velvia or Astia. This has become a part of how I see and process digital files.

In addition to my own personal and client work, I also process and print files for other photographers. When working on tight deadlines I might color correct 1,000 images a day or more. After having spent all week painstakingly extracting every ounce of detail and color from a client’s images, the last thing I wanted to do was spend time processing my own photos. Instead, I could simply grab a handful of film, a camera body and lens that would fit in my pocket and head out. Once I clicked the shutter release, the image was done. Monday morning, I could just drop off the film at my local lab, who would, for a few dollars more, scan an uncut roll of film and I would get digital files large enough for proofing or small prints. Perfect.

I’ve become addicted to the instant feedback that digital provides, but it has its drawbacks. While traveling with Pangaea on the Carbon Neutral Expedition, I longed for the simplicity of film—load, shoot, repeat. With digital, the technical aspects of digital always loomed over us– How many shots do I have left on my cards? Are the batteries charged? Does the laptop have enough juice to download memory cards? We kept the power inverter in the Bio Bonatti working overtime the entire trip. I missed the campfire discussion most nights because while everyone else was sharing stories about past travels, I was at the truck offloading and backing up the day’s shoot. Nathan, having a newer laptop with better battery life than mine, enjoyed the nightly campfires, but would then offload during the night, waking up periodically to check on the progress.

On a side note, downloading 16GB of data over a USB reader takes a loooong time, if you want to shoot digital, spring for the FW800 card reader if your computer can handle it. Better yet, get yourself a Thunderbolt card reader when they become available later this year.

Somehow the classic simplicity of film-based photography seemed a perfect fit for the classic Land Rover Defender we were driving. The whiz-bang, cutting edge power-hungry digital systems seemed to stand at odds with a classic expedition truck and the timeless landscape we were traveling through. Looking back, many of my favorite images from the trip could have been captured on a 4×5.

Does film still make sense for overlanding? I would argue it does in certain contexts. There is no doubt that digital has advantages, but I don’t think film should be completely overlooked. There is no digital equivalent to a camera like the medium format Mamiya 7II, which may be one of the best travel cameras ever—a complete system weighs in at an inconsiquential 5 pounds, about the same as your laptop. Matching the image quality of 4×5 (or larger) film with digital can require an investment that surpasses the cost of most expedition vehicles.

On the other hand, you can buy a used Fuji 6×9 for about $1,000 and have image quality sufficient for 30” x 40” prints in a small, durable, completely mechanical package. I never thought twice about setting up my Fuji on a tripod in the ocean with waves passing just inches below the body and salt spray all around. I don’t think I would do that with my Sony and I know I wouldn’t do that with a $50,000 medium format digital camera, but I wouldn’t hesitate with a 4×5 film camera.

Another advantage to film is there is no real concern about “asset management” in the field. On a long trip, just number every roll and FedEx even rolls to the lab one day and odd rolls another.

For most people, overlanding is synonymous with four wheel drive, vehicle-dependent travel. However, a lot of people travel by foot, by bike, by motorcycle or by some other mode of transportation without a convenient way to charge camera and laptop batteries. In that case, how do you keep up with the power demands of a digital system? Until we can clothe ourselves head to toe with solar panels, it will be a challenge. Many of the advantages of digital over film, suddenly become moot.

While discussing my intention to shoot the upcoming La Ruta Maya trip with a mix of DSLR and 4×5, a colleague asked a question that got me thinking for weeks: did I actually prefer shooting film on trips, or was it the simplicity of film I was seeking? The answer I think is a bit of both, but perhaps it was the shooting style more than anything else — consider the shot carefully and edit in your head before you expose the shot (i.e. shoot less and shoot slower), and carry enough batteries and cards to get you through a few days of shooting, or invest in a portable drive like an Epson P-6000 or a Hyperdrive COLORSPACE UDMA that will download the card while you do other things.

For our next trip — a short five-day jaunt to Southern Utah — I’m going to try an experiment. I’ll leave behind the laptop, the card reader and the charger and am bringing just the gear I would I have used if I was shooting film. I am tempted to restrict myself to a single 4 gig card (a little less than 100 images) but probably won’t. I will however be investing in a new pen and large moleskine.

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