Traveling with Film | How do You Travel as a Film Photographer?

 The Guam humidity in November exceeds the rating for all of my camera equipment and probably the recommended rating for human life. As I drag my Pelican case on the long walk from the airport to my hotel I begin to wonder about my packing choices. Every drop of sweat the equatorial sun juices from my body further soaks my clothes and affirms these questions. 

As photographers we’re conditioned to be prepared for the moment; being in the right place at the right time is paramount, but having what you need to capture the moment is arguably as important. With that said, it’s also easier than ever to inundate ourselves with gear heavy choices that make photography a burden. 

Long before the cabin doors have closed for departure I start by planning how I want the project to look. For personal work I think about how my choices could affect where the work is used and if it’s for a commission I make certain that the gear I am packing will allow me to meet the expectations set by the client. I think it’s important to note that you need to have a backup plan, especially when traveling with only film. 

As a digital shooter it seems almost second nature to have a backup camera. Having been on the unfortunate side of a mid-shoot camera failure I can personally attest to the fact that shooting without a backup, for commissioned work, is a terrible idea. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s a disaster waiting to happen. 

If I were shooting digital in Guam, for example, I knew of at least one place that I could buy a 5DMKIII. If I had been working on a commission and in desperate need I could have done the unthinkable. But, how does planning affect what you travel with as a film shooter? There’s definitely nowhere in Guam selling Hasselblad 500 C/M’s, or replacement parts. 

While I don’t think traveling with a backup body is always necessary I do think having a backup plan is. Recently I had a Hasselblad 500 C/M fail while shooting in Guam and the mental toll was devastating. For weeks I’d planned about how the project would look when completed in all of it’s square format glory. The most important lesson I took away from this is that you have to adapt and you need to make sure that your project is dynamic enough that it can withstand some outside forces. 

A backup plan is simply being able to adjust to the situation if something should happen. I’m not advocating for you to plan a photography project two different ways. I am however saying that it’s important, if not essential, to have an idea of what you will do if and when something goes wrong. 

When I go out and shoot I often have an idea of what I’m looking for. That is, I have key shots in mind that I think can tie a narrative together about people, a place, or some thing. During my shoot on Guam I had envisioned a project of mostly color, heavy fill flash, square images about the battle for Guam. When the Hasselblad failed all of this changed. For starters, I had another camera, but was no longer able to use the fill flash. Furthermore, the camera was not capable of shooting square images and was also 35mm. 

It was a devastating blow and honestly it took me a full day to lament the loss of my 500 C/M. A day, much tequila, and some serious contemplation led me to some new ways of seeing the project that allowed me to leave Guam with something that I was happy with. As I packed up the carcass of my Hasselblad for the flight home I began to wonder about other film photographers and how they pack when traveling. 

Garrick Fujii is an exceptionally talented travel photographer, and the first person I go to when I have a question about travel. He has been all over the world photographing a wide range of places and naturally a go to for this interview. 

Do you have a backup plan if a camera fails? 

-- I never really carry two of the same camera as a backup. I actually don’t even own two of the same camera, but I do usually carry at least two cameras with me on any trip, but lately I’ve been carrying three -- one medium format camera and two 35mm cameras. I usually load one 35mm camera with color and one with black and white, and then the medium format is a toss up. It’s typically been a Contax t3 and a Ricoh GR21 plus one medium format camera; either the Hasselblad 503cxi, Makina 67, or Contax 645

What do you carry your film in?

I have a few different methods of carrying my film when traveling or just shooting in general. I alternate between a discontinued Fuji film case that holds ten rolls of 35mm (the same case that Japan Camera Hunter has rebranded) and some cheap two dollar cases from (the now closed shop) Porters Online that will hold six rolls of 35mm or four rolls of 120/220. I put stickers on my porters cases so that I can tell them apart and will already know what size/type of film is inside before opening them. I also use the five pack paper box that 120 film comes in to hold my medium format rolls when traveling with a large batch of film. Lastly, if I need just one or two rolls for 35mm I’ll use the regular film containers, and for 120/220, I emptied out some mini M&M’s containers (which I surprisingly found in a random gas station on the way to Death Valley) that will fit one to two rolls each.

Do you care about the dreaded X-Ray machine?

I’ve gone through a lot of X-ray machines with my film and haven’t really seen any negative (heh) effects for anything below ASA 800. I do have a medium sized Domke film guard bag that I use when traveling by air and have faster film with me. I can say that this bag definitely gets me pulled aside for a “bomb check” sweep more often than not, but I have learned through trial and error that if I place the pouch strategically in my carry-on bag as to not block the view of the x-ray machine, then I’ll get by without getting stopped (as often).

What’s your typical load out when you travel by air, and is it checked or carried on? 

I never ever check my luggage unless I am forced to and I try to stay within the carry-on size limits. I have been forced to check luggage once or twice while traveling on budget airlines in other countries, but for US travel, I can’t even remember the last time I checked anything. When I was forced to check my luggage, I separated my bags so that all of my gear and film came with me as a carry-on and I just ended up checking in my clothes and toiletries. I’d much rather be wearing dirty clothes than not have a camera or have someone lose my film. Those things can be replaced very easily, but the cameras and film cannot.

 Domke F6. Image © Tiffen

Domke F6. Image © Tiffen

 

I typically carry a Domke F6 black canvas bag with a two pocket insert instead of the four pocket insert that it comes with, and a Domke postal shoulder pad. Fully loaded for air travel (not for shooting), I have fit a Contax 645 with 80mm f/2.0, Contax 645 35mm f/3.5 lens (huge lens with a 95mm filter size), Ricoh GR21, Contax T3, several filters, one set of extra batteries for each camera, and probably 30+ rolls of film. This entire setup will fit inside of pretty much any backpack or carry-on sized piece of luggage that I own. Day-to-day use, I keep the 35mm cameras on my belt in their respective belt loop cases so they are easily accessible (and to look extra cool for the ladies), and keep the medium format camera in the bag if it is a sketchy area or possibly out if it is a very touristy, safe area. The cameras I carry will always vary, but the bag holds pretty much anything that I’ve wanted to bring anywhere.

How much film do you carry and how do you decide that?

It really depends on how long I will be traveling for, how many different things I am expecting to see, and whether or not I have a backup place to purchase film during the trip. Every trip is a little different, but for longer trips with many attractions, I’d say around 20-30 rolls of mixed 35mm and 120. Usually the majority of the rolls will be made up of a lot of Portra 160/400 in 35mm and 120, a handful of neopan 400 in 35mm, one roll of neopan 1600 in 35mm, one or two other high speed films like tmax 3200 for 35mm or tri-x 400 (and push to 1600) for medium format, and then one or two rolls of velvia 50 in both formats. 

For some further insight I asked the UK photographer Hans ter Horst about his travels. If you have ever seen his monochrome work you know that he’s the kind of photographer who takes his work very seriously and has traveled the globe in search of images. 

When you pack for a trip do you bring a backup camera?

I now only carry my film camera but my wife brings a DSLR so it does happen that I use that for some 'fun' shots. Before I used to bring both a DSLR and a film camera but I do get better results when my brain is in 'film shooting mode' constantly. Plus that was when I shot 35mm film, but now I am using a formidable medium format camera and it would be just too heavy in my camera bag.

What do you carry your film in?

I put my film in my camera bag and I usually carry lots of film as I don't want to end up without film or the wrong film when I find an awesome spot or when the weather changes. I usually put exposed or unused film in the fridge/freezer at the hotel or apartment where I'm staying if it isn't in my camera bag.  

Do you care about the dreaded X-Ray machine?

I always carry my film in my hand luggage and have had it scanned many times at many different airports and never had an issue. Note that I never use film more sensitive than 400 ISO. And even if I exposed the 400 ISO film at 1600 ISO, I never had an issue. However, never ever check film into the hold as the scanners there are certain to ruin undeveloped film.

Do you always bring your own film or do you risk it by landing and trying to find a shop?

I usually stock up on film at home before the trip as it is rare I walk past a shop carrying film and carry plenty of film on me and shopping online while on vacation sounds like a risk to me. I just don't want the stress to hunt for more film. My last trip to Japan was a bit different as I know that film is still being sold in the Bic Camera shops in Ikebukuro (Tokyo) so I filled up with two boxes of T-MAX 400 when I was over there. 

How much film do you carry and how do you decide that?

My last trip (4 weeks in Japan) I used 50% colour (Velvia 50 and 100) and 50% B&W (Fuji Acros for the slower films and T-MAX 400 and HP5+ for when it is a bit darker outside). I usually use film that I have used many times so I don't need to experiment with important shots. For this trip I brought 15 rolls of 120 format of colour, and 15 rolls of B&W. I bought 10 more rolls of B&W when in Japan. Most of the film I bring is at 100 ISO film for normal use and about 30% of the film I bring is at 400 ISO which I then can push to 800 or 1600 ISO.

This time I had the colour and slide film developed in Japan as I know that they would use the Fuji labs and it would cost me about the same to do that from home. 

 

Join the discussion and tell us how you travel with film.

Tokyo photographer, Cameron Kline, prepared this article for the Film Shooters Collective. When he's not busy writing about what others do well he's trying to get through airport security with a giant bag of film. Help for this post was received from Garrick Fujii and Hans ter Horst. Check out their work and help support film photography.