My family and I just returned from a vacation, our first trip away after a truly challenging couple of years. During the trip I made 360-odd photos on film, and I learned some lessons in the process. Some of these lessons I’ve known for years. Others I’ve only recently discovered. Some were learned the easy way and others were a bit more… painful.
Here’s everything that I learned shooting my vacation on film.
Expired Film is Terrible
Here I am, complaining about expired film. This is nothing new. I complained about it here, in a hyperbolic fever dream of pain and suffering. In another fun article I satirically skewered expired film with my rapier wit (and only one guy in the comments missed that the entire article was a self-deprecating joke). Even when expired film didn’t totally ruin every photo I made, as when I shot it for this article penned last summer, I made sure to whine and cry about shooting the stuff.
Every time I shoot expired film I think I’ve learned my lesson. Why, then, did I think it would be a good idea to bring nothing but expired film on the first vacation that my family and I would take in over two years? Oh, that’s right, because I’m very stupid.
And so it was last month that my few brain cells and I packed my carry-on bag with ten rolls of various types of expired film just prior to boarding a plane to Florida. Slide film, C41 color, black-and-white; I brought it all and shot it all during my time away with the family. Just yesterday my scans arrived from the lab by e-mail, and you’ll never guess what happened next!
You probably guessed.
I was disappointed.
The lab technician’s notes said it all – “You were working with some old film here, so expect the usual; low contrast, tons of grain, color shifts and bad exposures.” I opened the folders and, sure enough, found low contrast, tons of grain, color shifts and bad exposures.
Over the next five hours I did everything that I could to salvage the best of the shots in Lightroom, and some of the photos have ended up… fine. I might even like some of them – wow! But getting these shots to where they are now took major adjustments. And there’s no escaping the truth that the shots that I like would’ve been liked a lot more had they been shot on new film or with a digital camera. They’d be crisp and sharp and pop with vibrancy and beautiful colors and tonality and show ultra-fine grain and – oh, can you imagine? Well, you’ll have to imagine. Because the shots I got, ain’t it.
Expired film can, of course, be a beautiful medium. But its unpredictability and unreliability, its extremely low hit rate, and its high cost (why are people selling expired film for more than fresh film?) make it a no-go for me in any but the most frivolous situations. I should’ve learned my lesson years ago, and maybe I have by now – expired film sometimes, but never when the photo matters.
One Lens Only, Please
From one hard lesson to one which I’ve finally internalized after seven years of shooting cameras professionally. I only need one lens.
Over the past seven years I’ve packed my bag for trips like this one with way too many cameras and lenses. I’d bring the wide-angle prime for that perfect landscape photo. The standard fast fifty for when the light gets low and I need that bokeh. I’d pack the telephoto zoom to take a specific shot of a specific lion on the Animal Kingdom safari, knowing well that the lazy king of the jungle would be sleeping under a shade rock just out of sight every time our ridiculous safari truck rambled on by. I recall one year I even brought a tilt-shift lens, which sat unused in the air-conditioned hotel room for the entirety of the trip.
Well, this time I brought one lens. Just one. For ten days away from home. And I couldn’t be happier with that choice.
Less to pack. Less to carry. Less to worry about. And as long as I chose the right lens, the right focal length, I’d miss nothing by bringing just one chunk of glass on a family trip away.
It took me a while to find my single favorite lens from within my favorite focal length. But now that I have, there’s no going back. I’ll never travel without it. But more importantly, I’ll probably never travel with anything else.
Slide Film is Best Film
Experience has taught me, as mentioned, that expired film is bad. And in my experience, the worst of the bad is expired slide film. I don’t think I’ve ever made a single good photo from a roll of expired slide film (and I’ve tried many times). Which is why, when I was shooting the single roll of slide film which I brought with me on this particular vacation, I actively thought with every shot “Ahh, another terrible photo.”
The phrase became my mantra, repeated with a psychotic, unhinged smile. Click! “Another terrible photo…” Click! “Another terrible photo…”
Well, time has once again proven that I’m a moron. The best photos from my ten rolls of expired film all came from that single roll of expired slide film – a roll of Kodak Ektachrome E100VS (Vivid Saturation) which expired in 2014. Who could have guessed?
I can’t explain it. But I do know this – slide film is great! Even the shots from this long-dead film are great! Which leads me to think that, had this been fresh, new slide film, the shots would be damn-near stunning, even with a ham-fisted, brainless sack of oatmeal like me holding the camera.
Next vacation I’ll consider bringing nothing but new slide film and see how we do. The operative word in that sentence being “new.”
One Camera Only, Please
There’s nothing better for creating great photos than to have a perfect understanding of the camera in your hands. I don’t care what camera it is, if you don’t know how to use it fast and without conscious thought your photos will be bad (or at least not as good as they could be).
I’ve written before about how to cheat at film photography. And the biggest cheat is to use a camera that gets out of your way and lets you focus on making the photo. That’s what I did on this vacation (for the most part). I brought my favorite camera, the one that I use when I want to make a good photo, the one that feels just perfect in my hands and does everything I need.
There were no instances during the trip in which I was looking down at the camera in my hands wondering how to make it do this, or that. I never accidentally shot in the wrong mode, never accidentally forgot to set the ISO, never picked the wrong shutter speed or aperture, and never took a photo with the lens cap still on (because lens caps are for nerds and I didn’t use one – also, it’s an SLR).
The camera just worked, which in turn allowed me to just work. And more importantly, it allowed me to take pictures fast so that I could get back to having fun with my kids. When picking your next camera, eschew complication and style and instead use the camera that just works (for you)!
The Last Lesson
2020 was not a great year. Despite a positive attitude and a generally forward-marching personal philosophy, I suffered major setbacks. I won’t complain or repeat what I’ve already written about previously, and I acknowledge that plenty of people have had a harder time recently than I have. But I’d be lying if I pretended that the past year wasn’t a killer.
Political upheaval in the country where I live, natural disasters, societal unrest, doom and death and end of days, a chilled bag of misery intravenously drip-fed into us by a destructive industrial news complex where numbers mean everything, conflict means clicks, and bad news sells big ads. And all of the turmoil somehow harder to take during an isolating pandemic which replaced friends and family with the cold unfeeling screens of our computers and phones.
Worse than anything, for me and my wife, was a jarring personal loss.
It’s easy to lose sight of what matters in life, with the crowding crush of the world relentlessly pressing in from all sides upon our own tiny lives. And when the strength to push back leaves us, when we’re tired and sad and depleted, it sometimes feels like there’s nothing we can do except to be crushed under it. We suffocate. Or we find some strength and push back.
This vacation, one where I took 360-odd photos, 70 of which might be decent, has helped me push back on the saddest year of my life. The trip was magic, the photography (a hobby which I’ve not engaged with in any real capacity in over a year) was fresh and useful. And looking through these photos for the first time last night reminded me of a lesson I’ve known for years, but had nearly forgotten. The last lesson learned shooting my vacation on film; photography is good, and family is everything.
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I think the photos look nice – they look like old photos. Film is supposed to look like the past, anyhow, IMO.