Today’s article comes from Alim Sheikh, a CP reader and a shooter who’s relatively new to film. He left his digital camera at home during a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, and here he talks about his experience shooting film while traveling. Enjoy.
The decision to shoot solely on film during a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro was not an easy one. In the last five years, during which time photography has become a near obsession for me, I’ve shot just three rolls of film with mixed results (and that’s putting it kindly). Nevertheless, I decided to dive into the deep end and pack only five rolls of Portra 400 and five rolls of TRI-X to accompany my Minolta X-700, a camera I was inspired to buy after reading James’ article.
There were a number of reasons I decided to leave my digital camera at home. The first was that I was heavily inspired by some of my photographic heroes like René Burri and Elliott Erwitt, who made some incredible photos of Rio on film between the 1950s and ’80s. There’s something magical about their photographs, and I was desperate to try to capture that magic myself.
The second reason was that I was tired of spending ages in Lightroom or VSCO trying to replicate in my digital photos the aesthetic of TRI-X or Portra, which would never quite match up to the original film. Why spend hours stuck in front of a screen when I could just shoot the bloody stuff? It took me longer to arrive at that realization than I would care to admit.
Anyone who’s made the jump from digital to film photography will know there can be a steep learning curve, which at times can be incredibly frustrating. Before I’d even begun shooting, I struggled long and hard just to get the film loaded (not my finest moment), and that was close to becoming my only experience with film photography. Later came the challenges of manual metering and manual focus. These struggles faced, my expectation for success in film photography was low (not much different from most of my photographic endeavors, to be fair).
And even practically speaking, film photography isn’t as simple as digital photography, especially when traveling. You have to make sure you bring enough film with you, make sure the film is stored properly, and most importantly, ensure you don’t lose your film. When traveling, you have one chance to get the shot. If you make a mistake, an entire vacation’s worth of memories could be ruined. There’s also the added anxiety of handing over the fruits of your labour to a lab for processing. There are lot of photographers who process their own film at home, but I don’t have the focus and have never been one to follow a recipe (just ask my wife), so I take my chances with a lab.
All those worries noted, when I look back on the trip I can confidently say that shooting nothing but film in Rio was one of the best photographic experiences I’ve ever had. A big part of that was down to the fact that film really slowed my process down and made me think about the composition, the light, and the subject of the photograph. When there are only thirty-six exposures per roll, the possibilities are very finite.
But this limitation also had an impact outside of the scope of photography. Shooting film caused me to spend far more time than usual just taking in the sights and sounds and feeling of my surroundings before ever deciding to snap a shot. To my surprise, film helped me enjoy where I was at any given moment, even if I was simply holding the camera without using it.
This runs in stark contrast to my previous experience with digital photography and travel. Typically I’d fire off thousands of shots and photograph anything that moved. That’s not to say I didn’t get any good shots doing that, I just didn’t appreciate the process (or where I was in the world) as much.
I was very surprised with the results when the photos came back from the lab, especially after my earlier, rather unsuccessful forays into film photography. The images I made are by no means perfect shots, even the ones I selected for this article have flaws. But that’s part of the learning curve and the journey.
In the early days of your film photography journey, you have to get yourself out there and shoot to know what works and what doesn’t. From choosing what film to use, to simply sitting in the sand and waiting for my frame, film photography brought a new dimension to my travel photos. It’s not just about the end product, the process itself was immensely satisfying, and the extra effort is worth it. If you’ve never traveled with film, it’s something you should certainly try.
More of Alim Sheikh’s photography can be found on Instagram.
Many thanks to Alim for sharing his thoughts and images with us.