What I Learned Shooting My Vacation on Film

2000 1125 James Tocchio

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. Some I only recently discovered. Some were learned the easy way and some 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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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
39 comments
  • I think the photos look nice – they look like old photos. Film is supposed to look like the past, anyhow, IMO.

    • It took a lot of massaging in Lightroom to get them to where they are now. Thanks though! I think they ended up fine.

      • Why shoot vacations on film?
        Because you are inteliigent.
        Why only one lens and only one camera?
        Because you are really intelligent all the time.
        The images are wonderful. Happy family 😉
        May I use one more reason to shoot vacations on film and more we can on film?
        BECAUSE IT’S SAFE!!!
        when you shoot some images with some mobiles, there are risks: https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-58652249
        This is the reason why all my tools have from selected places all over the world, I do not want to be spy, I do not want to be censure, I do not want to be followed, I do not want that some have access to my life, especially my personal vacations. So, one more time, you are very right with good proposals: FILM IS MARVELOUS. It provides us great images, it is creative, it is safe, and your datas will not disapear.
        Film is the original raw.
        Also you are again very intelligent to propose slide, yes, slide is the best. We can process it in BW.

  • Fellow dad here. Love the article. Very well written, shared with my wife who had a laugh at my expense as well. I’ve recently come through similar journey of self photo gear discovery. Over the pandemic I’ve collected quite a bit of new film gear, 2 new medium formats and 6 new 35mm slrs + lenses.

    Now planning my first family trip in 2 yrs, I’ve come to realize it’s simply not feasible to wrangle a 1yr old, a stroller, diaper bag, a DSLR (for click and spray baby shots) and a selection of film camera formats/lenses. As I found my P&S olympuses a little boring (lacking new gear factor), hence the only solution was new camera.

    Just settled on a Bessa L with 25mm skopa. Just did a test roll stroll, so far, loving it. Non descript, quick to shoot, and wont not take me away from the experience of the trip

    • Well Bojangles: I’ve used the 25mm f4 Snapshot Skopar quite a lot since acquired in 2007. I got the viewfinder for it at the same time. I popped a Leica screw-M adapter on it and use it on a Leica MD. This is the 1965 viewfinder- less, rangefinder-less M2 body. Metering by a Sixtomat Digital meter that takes a single AA battery. I’ve spent all summer here in the U.K. with this outfit and Kodak Ektar 100 colour print films. Oxford, Cambridge, Scarborough, York, Henley-on-Thames, Stratford-on-Avon, Barrow Hill and Staveley etc. Provided the lens is stopped down to f8, then moving the focus to the first detention gives depth of field from a couple of feet to infinity. Far faster than auto focus as it’s no focus at all. Now that is minimalist. I thoroughly recommend the Billingham for Leica Combination bag M for outfits like this. The front zipped pocket accommodates a personal size Filofax for notes etc.

  • Great post! And despite it all, you did get some great photos.

    I’m with you on the expired film bit, especially since nowadays most expired film costs more than fresh. I brought some expired slide film with me on a couple recent trips, and despite the rolls being sold to me as “cold-stored”, the results were sub-par,. I won’t do that again. I guess I got fooled by using some cold-stored expired slide film before this, and the results were fine. Wonder if it has anything to do with brand: the sub-par rolls were Fuji, the good ones were Kodak.

  • Great story, we are all adjusting to a new normal that for some is vastly altered, others less so. To come through with your family intact is a win! I occasionally shoot expired film – I received some from the fridge of a professional photographer friend who passed away a couple of years ago. All refrigerated since new, but expired around 2005. So far it has been pretty good, I have shot several rolls of Portra VC and found it is still pretty close to fresh film. My wife has been working through a stash of TMax 100 and it has been absolutely fine. I do have some Ektachrome of similar age but stored in a cool dark place, must try a roll one day and see if it has survived!
    But, like you, if it matters I always use fresh film.
    And I generally stick to one 35mm camera, the Contax 139Q, which I have been shooting since 1984, apart from a fifteen year digital absence. Great camera, great glass, and I know it intimately. For medium format the same, Mamiya RZ67, which I have been shooting for a couple of years now and am starting to become familiar with.
    On another note, I have discovered going back through forty plus years of slides and negatives, Kodak has held up much better over time, if stored correctly it would be archival quality in my opinion. Other emulsions (and I shot pretty much everything over the years) seem to have degraded much faster.

  • Thanks James for a really good article-both re the photographs/film and the difficulties of the last year or so. I thought your comments re family were just right as well. I currently have a roll of long expired Fuji Reala (found in an archive box in the attic) in my Contax N1 so will be interested to see how that comes out. I also have a couple of rolls of Velvia from about 15 years ago and am not expecting much but will give them a try with those caveats in mind.

  • Despite all the negatives, and there are many, it’s a wonderful life. Wonderful article, wonderful photographs, wonderful vacation. You are a wonderful man, and you have a wonderful family.

  • Wonderful read, as usual! Not just for the photography itself, but for reminding us that, yeah, there’s still a whole world out there.

    But hey, not all expired film is that bad! There’s a lot of Kodak Colorplus 200 expired in 2012 that’s been going around here in Brazil that’s simply stunning and performs just like fresh film. I’ve no idea where it came from or how it was stored, but I’ve shot maybe 30 rolls of it in the last year, and the stuff delivers every single time. I swear, you can’t tell it apart from fresh faced honest to god Portra 400, and I’ve the shots to prove it!

    Also, yeah, slide film. Oh boy… I shot my last trip entirely on Ektachrome 100, and my mantra was “click! another shot ruined… click! Another shot ruined…”, but when I sent it in for developing, the lab techs actually felt the need to message me just to praise how amazing the photos look, and they don’t even have them scanned yet. I was expecting total loss from those rolls, now I can’t help but wonder if the shots actually look… good?

    • I’ve heard (possibly from you, even) that film is very expensive in Brazil. Has that stayed the same? Is the expired film cheaper?? If so, lucky that it’s developing well. Buy more!

      • Peter Bidel Schwambach October 2, 2021 at 2:00 pm

        Well, so far it’s been pretty expensive, mostly because so many people started shooting film between last year and now, plus this whole pandemic schtick causing havoc in the supply chains, and then Kodak quitting selling officially in Brazil, only to come back two months later. It’s been mad drama for the budding local film community, but passionate enthusiasts did what they do best and got creative.

        About two years ago, you could get a roll of ProImage for 15-20 bucks, Gold and Colorplus went around 20-25, Ultramax and Superia could be had for 30-40 and professional stuff like Portra, TriX, TMax, Pro400H, Acros, Slide films etc ran the gamut from 60 bucks all the way to 100 or so. At the worst of it, you probably couldn’t get film for less than double those prices, which is why folks started stashing expired Colorplus and Ferrania Solaris.

        Now, I don’t really know the details, but some stores seem to have access to a nearly endless supply of rolls from a specific lot of Colorplus made in 2012 that still performs like new, I have about 8 rolls of the stuff still stashed away in my freezer, and I did some comparison shots last year, and you really can’t tell it apart from brand new Portra 400, for example. It just works. The stuff is so ubiquitous, even publicity campaigns have been using it locally for the retro film look. You can usually get these rolls for 20-30 bucks per 36 exposures, so not that bad.

        Motion picture film also got huge here in Brazil due to the shortages and price increases. Most labs now sell their own lines of rebranded Kodak and Fuji cinematic emulsions, mostly Vision 3 and Double X, and because reloading used cartridges is a lot more cost effective than buying traditional boxed film, you can get them for the same price of an expired roll of Colorplus. You can also order them with as many or as few exposures as you want, and some labs will even go the distance and hack the DX coding with duct tape if you so desire. Vision 3 is probably the bulk of my shooting these days, with Double X and Ektachrome right behind.

        Film photography has actually grown a lot here im Brazil in these last couple years, goes to show what a bunch of passionate enthusiasts are really capable of.

  • James, you had me nodding in agreement with your lessons learned, laughing at your self-deprecating humor and welling up with your summation of the trying times and what is truly important. Thank you.

  • Sadness can be a hole, I am glad this experience gave you light in this year. I think expired film works for industrial or decaying urban settings, but here I loved some off the expired tones, very nice compositions (the egret or heron looks lovely) and about the memories with your family of course the memory of their joy is the only important and I believe they are happy to be with you doing what you love.

  • James, look at it this way: Sure, expired film did exactly what it does, and then you had that sad panda face we all know too well, only to spend hours fixing as much as possible in Lightroom. However, since you know which camera and lens to take, and also know how to shoot, even your semi-broken photos are better than what many film photographers end up with using a fresh roll. So, there’s that, and may I say, well done indeed.

    • Thank you Máté. Sometimes I feel like my photography is under a microscope due to some of the critical comments that happen on this site every now and then, but nice ones like yours remind me to relax.

  • I have sworn off expired film many times in my life. But every few months it seems someone finds a few rolls in their garage or basement and gives them to me. And, inexplicably, I load them into my cameras and shoot. And later regret it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • Hey James, I love your writing. I know it took more work than necessary, but you did get some keepers. Anyway, I strongly agree with you that expired film is absolute arse (and not in any good sense).

  • James, for what it’s worth, discovering Casual Photophile and reading your writing has been one of the bright spots of the last 18 months for me. Thank you. You have a lovely family. Enjoy them in the moments you have.

    My oldest just started college. I miss her tons and worry about her taking wing in the midst of a pandemic. (She seems to be adapting just fine and messages me more in a week than in all of her previous life so all is well.)

    Recently got my first taste of expired film, shooting a roll of who-knows-how-old Kodak Gold that came along with a thrift store Yashica FX-D. I shot it for yuks and… the results were weird and moody and dark. But it’s very much an arty look that complements some arty work I had been shooting on digital. I like it! Definitely a Bob Ross happy accident and a brush I might take out to paint with again _for this specific purpose_. I wouldn’t spend a lot of money pursuing this, but I can see keeping a cache of cheap, expired bottom of the lineup Kodak film to experiment with further.

    Here’s an example: https://glass.photo/terry/6hZfUOifzL6PQwmcXktKIg

    On the subject of doing ill-advised things, I stumbled across some examples of adapting old Kodak 122 folders to shoot amazing wide 6×14 images on 120 film, and now I’m the proud owner of a pre-WWI 3a Folding Brownie. No idea what I’m doing — yeah, this is in fact my first “medium format” camera. What could possibly go wrong?

    Be well, James. Keep writing please.

    • Since I have discovered Film photography websites, I only read two: this excellent Casuaphotophile.com and Japancamerahunter.com they are excellent.
      Me too, I love to read there. I am waiting for new one’s, but can read the previous many many times, again and again.

    • Hey Terry. Thanks very much. It must have been tough sending your oldest off to college. Mine just started first grade and I have to fight off tears every time I drop her off in the morning. What have I become?

      Your expired film shot is great! Well done.

      To your last note – I’ll keep writing. I started fifteen years ago and haven’t stopped yet.

  • I totally subscribe to one camera / one lens. It doesn’t really matter which camera/lens. If it’s a Nikon F with a 28mm lens, that becomes my mindset – I’m looking for pictures that work with that combination and I don’t have to reprogram my brain for another camera. If it’s a medium format Fuji rangefinder with its 80mm lens I will likely find completely different images – literally walking right past the potential Nikon F subjects. Expired film I save for close to home (I can always go back). I particularly like the airport waiting area photo. The mask shots will be treasured when you can say “Remember the pandemic?”.

  • I absolutely love shooting trips and vacations on film. For the most part, I have used only film to document my travels over the last several years. Having come from a digital photography background, there was some measure of trepidation the first time I traveled with only film, since I couldn’t see my (irreplaceable) images until after I got home and developed the film. I think the kind of trip you’re taking determines how best to photograph it. In your case, you went to Disney with your small kids and wife. You were on the go all the time and couldn’t really take your time to photograph in a particularly deliberate way. If you were at a resort or beach-front condo where you had a “home base” you would probably have more flexibility to take multiple cameras, more lenses, explore the scenery at your own pace, and seek out the best light. There is nothing like looking back at the photos and memories from a vacation photographed on film. Nice shots too, BTW.

  • I agree 100% with your thoughts on expired film! It seems like a great idea at the time, but 95% of the time I’m bitterly disappointed. About 2 years ago I was given 3 x 100ft bulk rolls of FP4 and HP5 that had expired a long time back. They have not only cost me lots of precious memories, but also the cost of the chemicals to develop, not to mention my time to scan the rubbish I get from them. I guess I’m just not a low contrast, high grain, high fog kinda guy. I still have 20 something rolls of them just sitting there, waiting for the moment that I weaken again.

  • Driving to the shore in three more days for our first vacation since the plague came to town, and I know damned well I’m overpacking. “Do I really need to pack four cameras?” I asked my partner, “Doesn’t matter, you’re going to do it anyway.” “Do I really need 30 rolls of film?” I ask her. Same response. 90’s AF cam for getting the shots perfectly without worry, TLR for those big square detaily shots, SLR already loaded with 3200 film for moody evening shots in Salem, MA, a 4th SLR “Just In Case,” and enough film pulled from my freezer to give me room for some actual food in there. More than anything, I believe I’m just reveling in the ability to shoot somewhere else, and it’s more about playing with my favorite toys than capturing significant photos.

    • I’ve done this plenty of times and it’s fun. I hope you have a great time away, pal! Salem, MA isn’t too far from me. Look out for black cats.

  • Good article. I also bring too many lenses and cameras when traveling. I can actually fit the following in my Billingham Hadley Pro camera bag (a beautiful well made bag by the way) although I do question my sanity by taking so much: Nikon Df, Nikon F6, SB-400 speedlight flash, Nikon 28mm 2.8 AIS, 50mm 1.2 AIS, 105mm 2.5 AIS, 135mm 2.8 AIS. The SB-400 is nice and small for outdoor fill flash and indoor use. It works the same (iTTL) for both camera bodies and of course all the lenses can be used on both bodies as well. Sometimes I’ll take my Zoom Nikkor 50-135mm 3.5 AIS instead of the 105 and 135 primes just for fun.

    The 28mm gets the most use, with the 50mm a close second. And yes, slide film is the best film! My favorite is Fuji Provia 100F. It looks just as good as Velvia 50 to my eyes for landscapes with the advantage that it’s better for skin tones when shooting people. I also am fortunate to have stockpiled a lot of Fuji Provia 400X in my freezer right before it was discontinued. So I can shoot slide film indoors with the F6 and the SB-400.

    Speaking of the freezer I have about 50 rolls of film in there (mostly slide film). I assume when you say don’t shoot expired film you are not talking about film stored in the freezer. I still have film in the freezer that I put in there 10 years ago when I bought the film new. I’m happy to report that when I grab one of those old ones (with 2013 expiration dates) the results are quite good – no issues.

    Slides are so awesome. I love my Df but there’s nothing like having a physical object like a mounted slide instead of just 1’s and 0’s. Your pictures came out great! Well done!

    • I have a tendency to bring multiple cameras and lenses when shooting film on a trip as well. I have a Thule Aspect DSLR backpack and a Tenba DNA 15 messenger bag. On my last trip to the Dominican Republic, I fit in my Thule bag a Yashica D TLR, Canon A-1, 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, and 135mm f/2.5 lenses, and an Olympus XA. There was a dozen different rolls of film, hand-held light meter, tripod, polarizing and ND filters, extra batteries, and cable release as well. On a trip to Quebec City, I fit in my Tenba bag a Mamiya 645 1000s with 80mm f/2.8 lens, Nikkormat FT2, 28mm f/3.5, 50mm f/2, and 105mm f/2.5 lenses, hand-held meter, six rolls of film, filters, extra batteries. It’s possible to pack quite a bit in there.

    • Hey Greg. Yeah, when I say expired film what I really mean is “expired and unknown film.” Film that came from elsewhere, stored in who-knows-what conditions. That’s the stuff of chance.

  • Making me laugh, clench my jaw, and smile throughout this one, James. I love seeing a bunch of pics of the girls. My favorites of this trip are the girls with Rafiki, the shots from Morocco at Epcot, and the four B&W ones at the end. It’s amazing, though, how much the 28mm lens is reminiscent of the mobile phone photo–those cameras really have changed the way images feel to us.

    • Drew, I miss chatting with you pal. I know you’ve taken a step back from social media, so get in touch with me elsewhere.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence on the photos. And yes, phone photos have certainly changed the way I pre-visualize my shots now.

  • I use an iPhone currently, but my last days of film included one camera and one lens (Contax G2 and Zeiss 28mm Biogon). Even today, most of my iPhone shots are with the “normal” lens which I think is a 26mm equivalent. Just the way I see the world. Nice article.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio