Travel Photography with Medium Format Color Film By: Logan Norton

Travel Photography with Medium Format Color Film

By: Logan Norton

www.seeingthelightworkshops.com

As someone who has done quite a bit of photography oriented travel, I have experimented with many different gear configurations in search of the most suitable solution for my travel needs. I have found that using medium format (120/220) color negative film (c-41) offers me the most versatility while ensuring that I can achieve the “look” that I desire. I know that many of you will probably have serious doubts about the practicality/convenience/wisdom of this choice, but I can assure you that I have tried just about every other format and, for me, this is the one that fits the best.

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Knowing that the digital vs. film debate will inevitably arise from this post is, I would like to address that a little before we get any further. This is not meant to be an endorsement of film over digital. I don’t believe there is a universal truth that one format is better than the other. They are both tools with advantages and disadvantages and the beautiful thing is that they both exist. You have a choice as to how you will achieve the goals you seek through the use of one or the other, or both. I have taken a Nikon D800 and a Think Tank bag full of lenses on a two week Costa Rica trip. I’ve spent a week shooting in Austin, TX with a Fuji X100s and I took a Leica M9 and a 1950’s 50mm summicron on a roadtrip up the west coast for two weeks. Recently I spent a couple weekends in San Francisco with nothing but a Leica MM Monochrom and a 35mm cron and these days, the majority of my shooting is done with a Leica M2 loaded with Kodak 400tx and an older 35mm summicron – a setup that I love for its simplicity.

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The point I am trying to make here is that I have enjoyed an assortment of equipment configurations, both film and digital, and I have been able to create wonderful images with each, despite that fact that all of them have unique challenges. Anytime you seek to find the most appropriate tool for a specific job you have to weigh the negatives against the positives for each option. I spent quite a bit of time doing just that before a recent trip to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I wanted to simplify my travel setup; I didn’t want to carry multiple cameras with different film format, battery or memory card needs. I wanted something that would not distract me from enjoying the process of traveling and photographing.

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The first question was film vs digital. I realized that I didn’t want to be tempted to spend my evenings poring over the thousands of images I had downloaded into my computer, or to spend my lunches thumbing through pictures on my camera screen. It was important to me that I enjoy the experience of traveling while also taking pictures, rather than being preoccupied with the pictures I was taking on my travels. I also knew that I didn’t want to be reliant on batteries as I often spend long days shooting without any opportunity for charging. Another consideration was that a huge amount of travel photography occurs during the brightest part of the day in very changeable light conditions. Film is able to handle these changes more consistently and pleasingly than any digital format I have experimented with. The latitude that film allows, along with its ability to smoothly control transitions between shadows, mid-tones and highlights makes it a more effective tool for mid-day shooting, in my opinion. I also considered the difference in the way I work with film as opposed to digital. With digital I have a tendency to shoot everything knowing that I have virtually unlimited capacity for recording.

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When I’m using film, however, I find my process slows substantially. I search each setting/situation for the right moment, knowing that my shots are limited. I find that film forces me to really get into each moment and to stay there longer, something that I find incredibly important when I travel. In the end, these considerations led me to choose film as the medium for my travel photography needs.

Next I had to settle on the format. 35mm would allow for smaller, lighter gear and many more shots per roll. Medium format would give me incredible dynamic range, detail and latitude while forcing me to be extremely critical while shooting. In the end, the technical advantages of the medium format option won out over the convenience of 35mm. I knew it was going to be medium format film, and because I was going to the amazingly colorful town of San Miguel I knew I wanted color film. I chose to bring Kodak Portra 400 as my only film stock as it affords exceptionally smooth renderings at low iso while also providing excellent push-ability, fantastic highlight retention (imperative for the bright Mexican sun), and great colors. It also translates very well to black and white Continuing my theme of keeping things simple, I chose a Fuji GW670ii rangefinder camera for the trip. These “texas leicas” are all mechanical so there was no battery life to worry about. Since rangefinder cameras are mirrorless, they are nearly silent in operation and they allow the user to utilize slower shutter speeds with less vibration than slr cameras. These cameras all feature a fixed 90mm Fujinon lens that is incredibly sharp with fantastic bokeh characteristics and color rendition.

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Armed with my newly simplified kit I headed off to San Miguel de Allende for 12 days of exploration and shooting. I would be lying if I said I didn’t immediately question my decision upon leaving the rest of my gear behind, but after the first day I was convinced I had made the right choice. The Portra performed as well as I’d hoped in capturing the beautiful colonial architecture and brightly colored haciendas of San Miguel. When shooting in the mid-day sun I was able to rate it at 100 iso without any need to pull the processing when I got home (which was critical while using the Fuji which has a top shutter speed of 1/500) and it produced amazing results pushed as high as 6400 iso at I spent countless hours walking San Miguel’s beautiful cobblestone streets, sampling the local cuisine, meeting locals, and capturing amazing images. I found it to be one of the most welcoming and warm environments for travel that I have ever experienced. My days were spent exploring the magnificent el Charco del Ingenio Botanical Gardens; the el Tianguis Tuesday Market, a huge bazaar that features a little bit of everything; and the central square known as El Jardin that sits right next to the beautiful Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel cathedral, the main architectural landmark of the city. During my trip I was privileged to witness two daylong celebrations in and around this immaculately maintained square, as well as a traditional Mexican wedding at the church. These events provided further insight into Mexican culture and afforded me some amazing photographic opportunities.

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Spread around the city are a number of other spectacular cathedrals, as well as a number of other squares where people gather. I could not help but fall in love with the uniqueness and beauty of the city and its people; and I returned home with 53 rolls of film filled with amazing memories from my time there. I cannot wait for Ultimately I was incredibly happy with my decision to simplify my travel photography setup. I believe that the careful process of selecting the right tools afforded me the ability to be in the moment more during this trip than any other before it.

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48 Comments

  1. Excellent work! What’s funny is I went through the exact same process and ended up with Fuji GW690iii. Great minds think alike! And maybe ours do too! The Yashicamat 124g is also a great travel camera–always a conversation piece.

  2. Great images and thoughts. If you can get your hands on a Mamiya 6 system, it is the ultimate solution for MF travel photography. The 6×6 format, combined with the rangefinder, is extremely versatile and portable.

    • Hi John,
      I have had the M6 in the past and while I think it is a really fantastic camera I had too many electronic glitches with it. I am tempted to buy another one all the time, I just wish it could be used without the battery/electronics! All mechanical Mamiya 6 would be the ultimate for me.

      • Too bad you had those glitches. I owned two M6 (pre-MF) bodies and all three lenses. With the collapsible body, I carried all that plus two flashes and film in a simple Domke F2 bag. Used this setup to shoot weddings for several seasons. Never a problem. Of course that was in the mid-90’s.

  3. GW670 is nearly silent? I have a 690ii and it has the loudest and harshest noise of any camera that I own! Is there a solution?

  4. I will be in Paris for a couple weeks in April. I was planning to only take a small pocket digital camera (the new Leica D-Lux), But I seem to pull the Mamiya M6 out of its drawer once a day a think “should I”?
    You are pushing me in the right direction.

    Let me ask an incredibly stupid question if I may. My last international trip by air with raw and then exposed film was way back in 2006. What are the rules today for keeping your film safe?

    • Go to your fav photoshop and ask for a used bag where the photo-paper comes in. Those bags are lined with foil. Does do the trick to keep your rolls, used and new.

      • As far as I am aware, if the security staff can’t see through the bag with x-rays they will increase the power until they can, thus possibly causing more fogging than with no protection. I’d love to know if this is myth or fact though! It would be interesting to compile a list of airports where hand-check is accepted: Hong Kong, Bangkok and Manila in my part of the world have all been fine. Sadly, both airports in Cambodia now refuse unless the film is marked over 1000ASA.

    • Steven,
      For the most part, airport staff will still happily hand check your film for you. The last two times I have flown with film I have not had them do it and just allowed it to go through the scanner. I have had no problem with it as the highest speed film I have been carrying was 400 iso. I would be much more concerned if I was carrying some Delta 3200 or something fast. Always a concern of course but I have found it to be a non-issue with 400 speed film at least.

  5. The oof rendering is beautyfull, so peacefull and calming. Analogue for sure, even scanned.

  6. Exceptional photos. Medium format has such great color and detail.
    I could not afford 53 rolls! That’s like close to $600 before processing..
    Medium format yields for me, highest success rate !
    My problem is i shoot real slow, a film 12 exp in Rollei MX, lasts weeks/months.

  7. Try 6×17 or 6×12 next time with large format lenses.
    They will make you rethink thevimage digital debate.
    Alternatively a hasselblad Xian on 35 mm film

    I have a preference for transparency film

    Great article

  8. Nice pics, interesting story (story got me more than the pics I think). But the colours, particularly in the “Lady on the steps” image. Why the harshness? Is that the “oversaturation”? Not so obvious in the other images.

    I recall Mexico (well; Mexican bordertowns; a subculture in itself) and the colours I sometimes see here from some twenty years ago. FM2n, a few primes and Fuji NH Pro 200 or something. I just had them professionally developed and printed, and they came out beautiful. No special effects required nor wanted.

    As for the film vs digital debate (wow; how interesting!): a good digital camera can of course achieve similar though not identical results. A 36Mp camera, if used with care, can do better.

  9. A thought-provoking article – and wonderful pictures; the colours in no 6 (the woman in the doorway) are absolutely stunning.

  10. Great photos indeed!
    I did almost the same as I am also used to travel a lot for either business or leisure: in the past years I was used to bring kilos of gear with me (dslr + bulky zooms), then I reduced to something minimal (full frame dslr and one prime), reduced again (a7r + 35mm or 55mm) and last fall I went off to HK and Singapore with my beloved M2 + 35mm…my last trip in january was to Paris with my Hassy 500C and 80mm…5 rolls in three days…but I mainly shot BW self-processed at home…I love films
    Carry on mate!

  11. Great !
    I still use my 6×6 (Hassy), 6×7 (Pentax) and 6×9 (Fuji) with Portra films and get lovely results with each of them 🙂

  12. Beautiful shots and nice post. But:
    “I realized that I didn’t want to be tempted to spend my evenings poring over the thousands of images I had downloaded into my computer”.
    It seems that many photographers have troubles finding the ” willpower” switch.
    Just shoot digital as you did with film.
    Is simple like that 🙂

  13. Aw man, this is the $#!†. Thank you for topping off my day with some delicious tones, colours, subjects, and compositions.
    You don’t need to justify or explain your gear choices, your results explain everything.

  14. Wow. Just beautiful. A truly stunning set of photos. Not only is this inspiring, but makes me want to use the BH link and buy the camera now. Thank you for sharing.

    A Texas sized rangefinder indeed. As the saying goes: Go Big or Go Home. 😉

      • In some ways I totally agree with you Steve but in one import way I have to say that I don’t. Ibdont think there is any digital camera that can manage such a smooth transition between bright highlights, midrange and shadows. I just sold my MM because of its harsh highlight rendering, something I found to be pretty disappointing.

        Also, you say “over saturation”? Do you think the image is too saturated?

  15. These photos are amazing, and make me want to go shoot mf film. They have that soft-yet-clear bokeh with luxuriously detailed in-focus areas that you only get from medium format.

    Your sense for color in composition is enviable.

  16. Lovely images, I use Portra 400 on medium format too (Mamiya 7ii). Rob Hornstra’s Sochi Project work shows how stunning images can look with medium (and large) format film. I tend to select the kit I need for the look that I want. Sometimes I want the look that digital gives me over film – mainly if I do documentary photography work and want a more ‘edgy’ modern look. Both formats have their merits, we should feel lucky that we can use both as and when we want to – rather than say one is ‘better’ than the other. Nice well written article!

  17. “This is not meant to be an endorsement of film over digital.”

    But, it IS. An effective illustration of the beauty of film. Well done and thank you for sharing these.

  18. Wonderful images and great memories ! Portra is such a beautiful film. It is reason enough to dig out that old film camera dust it down and off you go.
    Scans beautifully as well.

    Thanks for posting.

  19. “This is … an endorsement of film over digital. I … believe … that one format is better than the other”.

    – Logan Norton, obvious hater of digital photography

    I joke, of course. These are gorgeous photos. Clearly you picked the right tool for the job.

  20. A honest thank you for this wonderful post! Colors are just beautiful. I like the doors and the natural perspective you chose. Medium format film is so rich and natural. Keeping things simple shows in great results. Thanks again.

  21. 53 rolls!! Now THAT is some serious weight and a big bag full of film 🙂 I like to travel with film too, both 35mm and medium format, but I usually only take maybe 10 to 20 rolls and shoot maybe 10 with my Hassy or Rolleiflex. Some wonderfully saturated colors you got there though. It almost looks like Ektar than Portra. Very nice!

  22. Many years ago my wife and I traveled to San San Miguel de Allende with a Leica M3 and probably Kodachrome 64 (my usual choice back then). For me personally, I would never go back to film. The cost, inconvenience, inability to see what you get, the processing ordeal, wasted shots, film storage temperature, etc, etc. But if it works for you and you enjoy it, who am I to argue with your choice.
    While I like your shots, and they have a pastel appeal, I now realize I really prefer the look of digital.
    Bottom line: Thanks for sharing, keep on doing what you’re doing, vive la difference!

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