Yellowstone: Tiles on Film

In March of 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant did something remarkable; he created the first National Park in United States in an area of Wyoming. This park, known today as Yellowstone National Park, comprises over 3,000 square miles and hosts more than 4 million visitors each year. Those visitors have come to see the over 10,000 geothermal features that comprise the park - ranging from the famous Old Faithful geyser to small steam vents - two-thirds of the world’s geysers are located within Yellowstone.  

The geysers and thermal features of Yellowstone are famous for numerous reasons, least of which is the color. Few places in the world are home to the vibrantly colored pools that dot Yellowstone’s landscape. These memorable colors form the basis of a dazzling mosaic, captured in individual tiles.

Today I am sharing a selection of images - dubbed "tiles" - that were taken with a medium format Rolleiflex film camera. The tiles were shot using Kodak color films, and other than scanning the images, slight cropping, and dust removal from the scanned negatives, there are no other adjustments. The vibrant colors and surreal abstract art is the natural look of these film images.

Yellowstone  61.jpg
Yellowstone  63.jpg
Yellowstone  8.jpg
Yellowstone  27.jpg
Yellowstone  34.jpg
Yellowstone  11.jpg
Yellowstone  62.jpg

Review: RNI All Films 4 Pro

Over the past few years, there's been a resurgence in film photography- folks are going out to buy vintage film cameras and put them back to good use. Two years ago I joined the ranks of photographers returning to film and analog photography techniques. Since then, I've studied printing in darkrooms and explored a variety of film processing and development techniques.

As consumers flock to buy old film cameras, companies are joining in the movement by offering "easy out" film photography.... that is, film photography without the film. One such company is RNI (stands for Really Nice Images), a London-based company selling film presets for digital Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

Two weeks ago, RNI approached me asking if I would review their "All Films 4 Pro" software suite, which retails for $122 US Dollars. Full disclosure, they provided me a free copy of the software in exchange for my review- though I have reviewed this with the mindset that I had just shelled out my hard earned cash for the software personally. This lady can't be bought with free software (but maybe for cars).

Anyway, I downloaded the software and began the installation on my MacBook Pro. While they offer the features for Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, I only tested it for Lightroom as that's where I now do 90% of my editing.

Essentially the software is a suite of Lightroom presets designed to make your digital images look like they were taken on film. So if you aren't awesome enough to rock some film and learn a little development, this is how you can get the "look" with your digital files.

The installation of the software was relatively uneventful- RNI provides detailed step-by-step instructions for installing all of the presets and features, and it took me only a few minutes to complete. The software package took approximately 100MB of hard drive space.

After the installation, I restarted Lightroom and saw that I now had hundreds of new presets in the development module. So many presets that I stand no chance of capturing them in one screenshot...... 

When RNI says the software includes "All Films" they are only slightly off.... it includes presets for the most common films, and then a healthy stock of more obscure film. There was only one film I love to use frequently missing from their list, which is the Adox line of film, specifically the Silvermax film.

Anyway, I had a bit of shell shock seeing the list of film choices. It's actually overwhelming! To help with the organization, RNI has folders for each type of film, as follows:

  • RNI Toolkit (contains features like frames, vignettes and lens effects)
  • RNI Films 4 BW (Black and white films)
  • RNI Films 4 Instant (obviously, instant films like Polaroid) 
  • RNI Films 4 Negative (negative color films/ films developed with C-41 chemicals)
  • RNI Films 4 Slide (color slide films / films with development in other chemical combos)
  • RNI Films 4 Vintage (a selection of films that aren't produced anymore)

Ok, so I haven't come close to shooting a 10% of the films offered in these presets, so I stuck to presets for films I have used - Kodak, Ilford, Fuji, etc. As noted previously, my beloved Adox Silvermax is missing from the preset list.

Test 1: Finland Window

I took this photograph on my Leica SL Type 601 in Finland a few weeks ago, and the colors and textures are a good subject to explore the various film presets with. We'll start with the original image as I edited it, then go through a list of presets. Read the subtitles for each to get the film preset name, and click on the files to see an enlarged version.

My original file - edited without any RNI presets

Color Negative Film Presets

Kodak Ektar Preset

Kodak Portra Preset

I don't shoot much color negative film, but when I do, it's either Kodak Ektar or Portra, so those are the presets I can fairly judge. Before applying either preset I thought about the films, what I know about how they render colors, and formed my expectation for how the preset would look, then clicked the button. For the Kodak Ektar, the resulting image is pretty true to my expectation - colors are bright and vibrant with strong black tones. The Portra, however, was not what I expected. In my experience, Portra renders nice pinks and red hues, which is why it's popular for portraiture. But the reds and pinks in the wood became muted and the black looks wimpy. 

If I am judging these presets based on my experiences actually shooting these films, then the Portra comes up a bit short, while the Ektar meets expectations.

Black and White Film Presets

The true test is black and white film. I shoot a LOT of black and white film, specifically Ilford Delta 100, HP-4 and Adox Silvermax. Since Adox wasn't a choice, I experimented with Kodak T-Max, a popular film, but one I don't shoot as often.

Ilford Delta 100

Ilford FP-4 Preset

Kodak T-Max Preset

From my experience, these three presets are fairly true to expected performance, particularly the Delta 100 and HP-4 presets. I have shot hundreds of rolls of each film, and the preset looks pretty true to the tonal composition, contrast, and detail of those films. The T-Max preset is maybe a little heavy in contrast, but I have only shot a handful of T-Max rolls, so I am not the expert on that film.

Other Presets (Slide & Effects)

As previously mentioned, the RNI film presets pack includes some slide and vintage films, plus some effects. I have only shot one roll of slide film before, and it was such an epic disaster to develop that I quickly gave up and retreated to the safety of C-41 color negative film for those times I want color. 

Here's our starting image, again from the Leica SL Type 601. This is Esa, a Finnish man who leads dogsled teams.

Esa, our dogsled guide. Original image from the Leica SL Type 601

I first played with the Fuji Velvia preset, which is the only slide film I'm remotely familiar with. But as mentioned, my experiment developing it at home resulted in a lot of green film, so the RNI preset was sure to be better!

Fuji Velvia 50 preset

Sure enough, nice pop in the colors and beautiful saturation. This is what Velvia is famous for, and the preset delivered. Next I took the same image and played with some of the effects filters. There are a billion effects, from vignettes, contrast, etc.... but I went for "Vintage Lens 4."

Velvia + Vintage Lens 4 Preset

Apparently "Vintage Lens" means reduce sharpness and add a vignette? Because, as far as I can tell, that's what this effect did.

Choices Galore

RNI All Films 4 is full of film preset choices - so many choices that I couldn't possibly begin to represent an opinion on all of them without a heavy amount of BS'ing involved. And I was overwhelmed with choices before opening the camera profiles, at which point I ran for cover. If you want an endless selection of choices, this is your software, but I'd have to start deleting some of the presents I don't like to de-clutter my workspace.

The Problem....

On the surface, RNI All Films 4 offers a lot of presets in their package, which is good considering it's moderately pricey software at $122 US Dollars. But thats the problem. There is other software with film presets (albeit not as many choices) that you can download for free. So you have to be pretty dedicated to wanting almost every film emulsion known to man to shell out the money, and I suspect many folks won't know the difference. If you've never shot film, would you know the difference between the dozens of black and white film emulsions available? Doubtful. 

Which brings me to the next question - who is the target audience? Surely someone who shoots film regularly will just shoot film and bypass the filters. So I am assuming that RNI intends this for a digital photographer who wants to give their images the film look and feel without actually shooting film. But again, so many choices - are there that many Nikon-Shooting-Joe's who know enough about film to appreciate all the film presets?

RNI has a solution for this - which is the Lite version of the software. For $59, you get a smaller subset of the film set, which I expect will appeal to most photographers. If you are enough of a film die-hard to know the difference between HP-4 and HP-5, then you probably shoot them, and don't need a preset.

Sidebar: This Isn't Film Photography

I need to detour away from the RNI product for a second to explain that film photography isn't this simple. I don't just load some film into my camera, snap away and voila. There are two other chemical processes after I take the photograph that determine the look of the final product - development and enlargement. I won't attempt to expand upon this too much, but let me start by explaining that Ansel Adams wrote three very long and detailed books about this process.

To click a preset button in Lightroom - no matter where that preset came from - is disingenuous to film photography. A film photographer goes through three different chemical process to produce a print - it's not just a button click. I can make a film that is light on contrast have more contrast in the final print by changing how I enlarge the negative. I can lighten or darken a negative by extending development by a matter of seconds or changing the water temperature. 

If you want to make film photographs, buy a film camera and learn about film photography. Using presets won't give you the same experience, and your hands won't smell like fixer!

RNI Mobile Apps

RNI also offers a suite of mobile apps for applying these sorts of presets to images and then sharing them on Instagram, etc. To be honest, this is probably the most interesting application of these presets for me personally - I don't use one click filters for most of my photography, but I will use a quick filter if I'm sharing some cutesy selfie on my personal Facebook page. 

I was not given a trial of the RNI mobile apps to review, but based on the photos and videos on their website and Facebook page, I think RNI has built a nice platform for Instagram'ers to modify and share their iPhone images.  

In Summary

The good:

  • Lots of presets to choose from
  • All major film emulsions represented, including a nice selection of vintage films
  • Easy installation
  • One-click use. Easy for any Lightroom newbie to use

The bad:

  • The full suite is pricey, particularly given some of the free choices on the market
  • Adox Silvermax is missing
  • The number of choices can be overwhelming to someone not familiar with film photography

Would I Buy It? Would I Recommend It?

Personally, I would not buy RNI All Films, though that doesn't have anything to do with the product RNI offers. I already shoot film, and if I want the look of film, I'd just grab a roll and go. Some of the features, like the vintage lens presets, are a bit gimmicky too. Not to sound like an elitist, but I shoot Leica cameras - I spend a lot of money to have my images look good and don't have any intention of introducing flaws to a photograph on purpose. 

Would I recommend it? Hum. Depends. I probably would tell someone looking at the RNI films software to start with one of their cheaper and smaller scale products to see if they like the presets before diving into the deep end with preset mania. Had I used the pro version before becoming familiar with film photography, I think I would have been very intimidated by the number of choices. If you don't know much about film photography, start with one of the Lite versions and upgrade later if you like it. RNI lets you upgrade at a discount, and that's where I'd start. 

If film photography does interest you, then also consider spending $50 on a cheap film camera and a roll of film. You'll learn something and have a ton of fun - more fun than you'll have clicking preset buttons in Lightroom!

Have you used any of the RNI products, like their mobile apps? What was your experience? Leave me a comment!

Quick Shot: 12 Hours Apart

Photographers love to shoot sunrise and sunset (this should come as no surprise), so I will often do Internet searches of good locations for these events prior to traveling. And such was the case with my recent trip to the Lake District in England.

Although I've been to the Lake District three times, and some of my favorite sunset images were made in the lake district, I wanted to find new locations so as to not 'repeat' photographs I've already made. The web is a great resource - it can help me scout a location for a good foreground and orientation relative to the sun. 

I can guarantee that if you search for sunset and sunrise images in the Lake District, the location for these images won't return in the search results (unless you are seeing this post!). I found this location miles down a small single track road on the edge of some farmland in the southern part of the Lake District! The orientation of the lone tree, with the distinct kink in the truck, and with the orientation to the sun was perfect for my purposes..... and best of all, it was walking distance from my accommodations and discovered accidentally!

Now as you look at these images, you should know two things: 1) they were made 12 hours apart - one at sunset and one at sunrise and 2) they were made on film, and there is no editing. Okay, there is a little bit of editing - I had to scan them and remove dust spots that show up in scanning, but the colors are legit. The other thing to appreciate is how big one of these photos is...... you may recall once using 35mm film and how those negatives are roughly the size of a postage stamp. For fun, here's a photo of me holding one of these negatives next to a dollar bill...... :-)

I made two images using my large format Ebony RSW45 large format film camera, adapted with a Shen Hao 6x19 panorama film back. Film is Kodak Portra 160.

Sunset...... 7:30pm

Sunrise...... 7:30am

Quick Shot: The Dreaming Tree

I seek inspiration for photographs from all sorts of places - including from music. When I'm not taking pictures, you'll often find me playing around with one of my guitars, though I am certainly a better photographer than musician! 

Anyway, one of the songs that really resonates with me is by Dave Matthews Band, and is called "Dreaming Tree." Like many of Dave's songs, the lyrics tell a story, though there is some interpretation left to the audience to find their own meaning. For me, the song tells the story of growing up - coming to realize that the childhood dreams and ambitions we have need to be replaced with new realities (we can't all grow up to be astronauts!) 

I like the idea of a dreaming tree. A place where, as an adult, I can still go and drift away in fond memory of the dreams I once had. There is a somberness to the dreaming tree - it's not the reality tree - but its a place of pleasantry and warmth. When I came across this tree with my film camera, I thought of the song and the dreaming tree. Here was this beautiful tree - imperfect though it might be - that I could sit under and drift into my dreams.

Photograph with the Ebony 4x5 RSW45 large format film camera

Insanely Huge Film

I have shot a lot of film, and I consistently prefer large film sizes and the resulting large negatives over the smaller (35mm) formats. There's something awesome about holding huge negatives and seeing your images come to life in such large formats.....

Until I got the Ebony RSW45 film camera, I wasn't able to use any custom film backs for large format cameras, but the Ebony allows for the addition of an accessory from Shen Hao that allows for the capture of 6x17 panorama images. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, that's okay too..... just enjoy the photos!

Anyway, I've been doing some local test shooting and development of demo rolls to ensure I know how to use the equipment before taking it on location. While these photos practically come out of my back yard, the aspect ratio and insanely huge size of them makes them a real treat for the eyes. So today I'm presenting some insanely huge film..... if you are interested in the way I shot these, stay tuned for an eventual review and discussion of how I make these images. And yes, this is all one long piece of film - no fancy Photoshop tricks here!

Click on any photo for a full size preview!

"What's That?" 10 Things Every Large Format Photographer Should Know....

"What's that?"

It's the question I get every time I pull out my large format film cameras in public. The cameras are like nude exhibitionists in the world of cell phone cameras - their presence is awkward and uncomfortable.

Equally uncomfortable is the relative lack of information about shooting large format film cameras. Outside of a few forums and selected websites, there is very little about their use, or tips for new large format photographers. So today I'm embarking on a quest to share ten tips - things I wish I knew when I started large format photography several years ago.

  1. You do not need a camera with every movement known to mankind. 
    I screwed this one up. I started with a Zone VI camera, which is a great machine, but it has too many movements, many of which are really only useful to architectural photographers. As a landscape photographer, I really only needed two or three movements, which is one of the major reasons I 'downgraded' with my second large format camera to a Ebony RSW45 camera. That camera only has focus, front rise, and front tilt, but that's really all I need. Fewer movements = less to screw around with, less weight, and easier to learn.
     
  2. You really do need a good light meter. Preferably a spot meter. Oh, and you should know how to work the thing too.
    I purchased a nice light meter when I started large format photography, but I was a bit overwhelmed with its functions, so I cheated for several months by metering with my Nikon D800. With a good meter (and the knowledge on how to use it) you really can fine tune the images and unlock some of the creative potential of things like the Zone System. Understand the relationship between your light meter, neutral / middle grey, and Zone V. If that knowledge isn't second nature to you, then read up until you fully comprehend it. You'll be a better photographer for it!
     
  3. You'll probably become obsessed, and will eventually "need" to buy more film cameras.
    I started backward with large format, then moved to smaller formats. Large format and the big negatives are addicting. It's photographers crack. Be prepared to lust for more - your venture into large format may be the undoing of your bank account!
     
  4. There is a right and a wrong way to setup, focus, and use the movements on the camera. 
    How do you setup, frame, focus, and compose your image? There is a correct way to do it. The simple version: determine your shot and compose it mentally before you start. It's a pain to move the camera and tripod around once it's setup, so it's better to have the image in mind first, then place the camera. Setup the tripod and place the camera on top. Open the lens (without film in the back) wide and give a rough focus. Then use the movements to fine tune the composition. Re-focus for final image. Meter and set the lens aperture. Insert the film slide, make an exposure, and remove. 
     
  5. The best place to practice shooting large format is at home.
    You can read endless babble about how to use the large format camera online, but the best place to learn is through use. You don't have a fancy home studio? Get a nice piece of fabric or canvas, put it in front of a window with some nice natural light, and put a flower or other object on it. Make an exposure. I have learned far more from a methodical and painstaking image creating process at home than I ever learned in the field. A $5 investment to buy some flowers to photograph will pay dividends for your learning.
     
  6. You should at least understand the concepts of the Zone System, even if you don't use it.
    For a long time, I misunderstood the Zone System as a way of just metering light without a light meter. And I had a light meter, so I didn't need the Zone System? The Zone System was invented by Ansel Adams as a way of controlling the exposures he got. Do you want that foreground to be a rich dark grey? Did you want that flower to be soft and light? You need to understand the concepts of the Zone System in order to know how to do that, because your light meter is lying to you!
     
  7. Take detailed notes while you are learning - that will become your 'metadata'.
    It was a 40 second exposure? Right? Maybe? As much as you think you can memorize the shutter and aperture combinations until you develop the film and review it, you're wrong. Large format photography isn't fast, so take the extra 20 seconds to jot down a few notes about the image so you can review them afterward and critique what went well, and what needs improvement.
     
  8. It's easy (and cheap) to develop your own film. It's hard (and expensive) to find someone to develop it for you.
    I started large format film development in Washington, DC. It's a small city, very few people have heard of it. Obama lives there. Yet there is only one place in all of DC that will develop 4x5 film - and its like $6 a sheet. I was super nervous to develop my own black and white film, but can proudly say I have never screwed up a roll in development. So read some information about developing at home, buy some chemicals, and give it a whirl. You'll save time, and (more importantly) have even more creative control over the final image results.
     
  9. You want a copy of that negative digitally to share with friends? Plan to spend some bucks on a scanner and software.
    Oh yeah, you don't have a darkroom to enlarge your negative? Scanners for 4x5 film aren't cheap, and while you can pay companies to do it for you, that's not cheap either. I invested about $600 in a scanner that could accept large format negatives, and it really isn't close to top-of-the line. Negatives are only so much fun if you can't appreciate them in all their glory!
     
  10. You should carry 10,000 business cards whenever you have that camera out, because people will want to see the images.
    See the start of this post. Everyone in public will be intrigued by your camera, and there is no better time to promote your website and photography than when you have a crowd of onlookers. Hand out cards, sell prints, and be happy!

What tips would you have for a new large format photographer? Leave 'em in the comments!

Quick Shot: The Nothing Camera

Have you ever taken a picture with a camera that doesn't have a lens, shutter button, or any buttons? Have you ever taken a picture by sticking film in a wooden box and hoping to get lucky? 

I can now answer yes to those questions. I can now say I have made a photograph with a nothing camera.

The nothing camera is often called a 'pinhole camera' because that best describe the lens, or lack thereof. The nothing camera is so simple and basic that the operating instructions are summed up with 'pray'. The nothing camera has no ISO, zoom, focus, or megapixels. You don't know what the camera may or may not be seeing. You guess the exposure. And if you guess right, you'll be rewarded with one of the most unique looking images.

I encourage you to click this image and view it full screen. Marvel at how not sharp it is. Marvel at how imperfect it is. Marvel at that vignetting. Take it all in folks, because it came from a wooden box. For all the time I spend obsessing over sharpness and lens distortion with my expensive Leica lenses, it's refreshing to shoot with a wooden box - a camera that couldn't be further from the technical perfection of all my other photographic machines. 

I'll be talking more about the nothing camera and my experience using it in an upcoming post, but today I am starting by sharing an image from the nothing camera. This is a place called Durdle Door along England's Jurassic Coast - it's a popular photography spot. Of course, most photographers there are carrying a little bit more than a wooden box with a piece of film in it......

8 Tulips & The Importance of Playing

If you are a photographer, or even someone who fancies the occasional creative expression, then you know the challenge associated with the lack of creative juices. Authors call it "writers block," but all creative people are subject to this period when they can't seem to generate some new work. Which is why I advocate playing!

Every so often, I go to the Cambridge market and select some flowers for sale from one of the merchants. I often pick Tulips - they are cheap and do lots of interesting things as they open. I'll bring those flowers home and then take some different photographs of the flowers, playing with different things to get the creative juices flowing. There is rarely a goal - just to play.

This weekend I got dozen tulips and decided to play with the macro setup on the Hasselblad 503CX. I loaded up a roll of black and white film and shot 12 images of tulips in various poses. After developing and scanning, I saved 8; a few of my experiments didn't work so well! But I played around with the camera and lighting, I played with exposures, I played with focus, and I played with contrast. And the result is that I got 8 fun photographs. 

If you stumble into a "writers block" - or even if you just want to prevent it through pre-emptive therapy, then I recommend taking the camera out to play. No goals, no expectations, see what comes across the lens. You might end up with 8 fun tulip photographs!

Side Note:

Curious about the fancy setup I used to get these photographs? I caution you..... it's not fancy. The canvas background you see behind the flowers is actually the back of a pillow case. It's laying on the floor in front of a big glass door and the lighting is all natural sunlight. The camera is mounted on a tripod and triggered manually. No flashes. No wiz bang light setup. Sunshine + pillow case + film. Playing, remember?

Quick Shots: From the Streets of London

Few things bring me the same pleasure and thrill of opening a fresh roll of 35mm film and exploring a city with the aim of making 36 photographs. While it's almost impossible for me to produce 36 "keepers" with any one roll, that's the goal, and I find that I have more keepers from any one roll of film than a similar 36 digital images. 

All of the images included here were shot on one roll in one day of walking around London with my Leica M7 and a 35mm Summarit lens. Apparently I had a thing for feet that day ;-)

Ghosts

Football

Hang

Tophats

A local

Leaning

Doorway

Ride Along

Selfie

Slacks

Crossing

Lookup

Quick Shot: Where Film & Digital Meet

Every so often I get this crazy whim to try something really bizarre.... this weekend it was to merge some film and digital exposures together....

The first image ("Queen") was taken with my Hasselblad using Fujifilm Cameras medium format film as the background. The overlay is a chalk painting from Trafalgar Square that I photographed using my Leica Camera SL and f/0.95 Noctilux. The second image ("London Southbank") uses the same cameras, but the film was a double exposure, making the resulting image a triple exposure photograph.

Of course there is no reasonable way to merge the film and digital images "in camera" - so I developed them all and merged them using Adobe Photoshop. The result is a little crazy and a little fun!

Which do you like better?

The Queen

London Southbank

Quick Shot: I Know This Scene?

Every time I develop a roll of film, I rediscover my love of film. If I had taken this photograph with a digital camera, I probably would have deleted the photo. But with film, there is so much contrast. Such strong blacks. The long shadows catch my eyes. I'm lost..... my eyes can't decide what is happening, but I know this scene. It's familiar, but different. I KNOW this scene?

This is the heart of street photography. This is me capturing an ordinary moment and making it different..... putting a spin on commonality and challenging what you think makes for a great photograph. It's not straight. It's not colorful. It breaks EVERY rule of photography, but I love it.

Shot on the Leica M7 + 50mm Summilux with Adox Silvermax film.

Quick Shot: Lost in Paris

"Lost in Paris" - this was an interesting double exposure on film. I was trying to merge some of the architecture and landmarks of Paris into a single image and was hoping to do so without any people in it. I stood ready to fire the shutter on one of the images for several minutes in the rain, but people kept walking into the frame. So I waited. Eventually, a little girl walked into the scene and leaned up along the glass of the Lourve pyramids. I fired instantly.... the girl was exactly the subject I needed!

The resulting photograph is perfect - here's all this Paris architecture, with a little girl looking lost in it all.

Quick Shot: Pyramids

The glass pyramids outside the Lourve in Paris are considered highly photogenic..... although virtually everyone I saw was taking a selfie that involved them pretending to pinch the pyramid, hold it on their palm, or touch the tip of it with their index finger. You could conduct an interesting study on the people who all pose for virtually the same picture.......

Anyway, I wasn't interested in the selfies - I had some film that was itching for exposure! So here are two negatives of the Lourve pyramids that I made on Ilford Delta 100 film using my Hasselblad 503CX. 


Quick Shot: Locks of Love

I have been busy traveling and collecting frequent flyer miles, but that doesn't mean I have neglected my photography! Quite the contrary! I have been editing hundreds of images and developing almost ten rolls of film from recent jaunts through Denver, Atlanta, London and Paris. 

I have to give credit to my friend for this image - we were in Paris and he suggested a photograph of this couple I hadn't seen cuddling in the corner. I had just taken an image of the forever locks on the fence nearby, so decided to make it a double exposure before advancing the roll. Kudos to him for finding the couple, because I LOVE the resulting image.

Shot with Hasselblad 503CX on Ilford Delta 100 Pro film.

Carry Film in Your Underwear: The Danger of Flying with Film

For the remaining die hards like me who still shoot with film, flying can be more stressful than it should be. Flying introduces the possibility that our film will be x-rayed and destroyed by airport security. For the most part, I’ve been very lucky, but my luck ran out returning from a trip to Swedish Lapland.

Long story short: the plumbing in our house burst before Christmas and caused me to evacuate the contents of my studio to protect them from water. For almost 6 weeks, my photo studio has been spread across the kitchen, living room, hallways, and part of the upstairs. Although I usually use a lead lined film bag when flying, in the chaos of this forced relocation, I couldn’t located the bag, so I tossed the film into a ziplock and asked for a hand inspection at the airport.

Security officers in the United Kingdom and Stockholm were friendly and happy to hand inspect and swap the film with the explosive residue inspection tools. As a result, I arrived in Sweden with all my film safe and not zapped by an x-ray machine. I was carrying two rolls of Adox Silvermax (ISO 100), two rolls of Ilford HP-5 (ISO 400) and two rolls of Ilford Delta 3200 (ISO 3200) film. My concern was really with the high ISO films, which I would need in the limited sunlight of northern Sweden, so with my film un-zapped, I felt confident that I was going to be safe and sound and shot away.

Unfortunately, my confidence was misplaced. After shooting several rolls in my Leica M7, it was time to fly the exposed, but not developed, film home. At the Lulea, Sweden airport (which is very small and not at all busy), I politely asked if they could hand inspect the film because the x-ray machine could damage it.

No. 

After some back and forth, I was given several reasons why my film could not be hand inspected. These border on absolutely absurd:

“Because the explosive swab machine needs to be able to swab the inside and outside of the film capsule”

Obviously, this is absurd. The film capsule cannot be opened as that would expose the film to light. But even more nutty is that the explosive residue detection is extremely good. They often swab the palm of people’s hands to see if they have been in contact with explosives and the machine can detect these traces even after a hand washing. There is absolutely no way I could pack the inside of a film capsule with explosives and have the machine NOT detect it. Please. Swap the film, determine it isn’t a mini bomb, and let me proceed on my way.

“Because you don’t have a letter from the Sweden Government that explicitly states you, Kristen Meister, may have film hand inspected and not x-ray inspected” (this came from their supervisor). 

What? First, there is no mention of requiring such a letter on the Swedish airport security website. The Stockholm airport website recommends hand carrying film, and makes no mention of such requirements. But according to the airport security supervisor in Lulea, unless I have a letter from the Government of Sweden, thou shall not have film hand inspected. Do I need to have the Pope bless this letter too?

I remained exceptionally polite during this exchange and even pulled up TSA and UK regulations that stipulate film can be hand inspected. The security officer conceded that if the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries with very strict airport security, allow for hand inspection, that they should as well, but “his supervisor said no.” He also recognized that the Stockholm airport recommends hand inspection and all Swedish airport security should be the same, but shrugged a helpless “tough shit” response.

After pleading my case, it was clear that I had no option and that I was just going to have to hope their x-ray scanner was set to “light toast” vs “full crisp.” And in a case of full circle irony, the Swedish airport security in Stockholm, which is a busy international airport, was more than happy to hand inspect the film. The security agent even joked that all the appointments for film inspection had been filled for the day, but laughed and inspected it without any further pleading. Thank you to her! 

So what have I learned? Sadly, it might be easier to smuggle film in my underwear than to have it inspected by hand (joking!) Next time I’ll travel with low ISO films only so that if I do meet an absurd security policy, I have less risk of having the film damaged. And maybe I’ll start to print and carry copies of Swedish regulations regarding hand inspection of camera film.


Update: upon developing, it was determined that the x-ray machine was set to "medium toast" - there is some slight damage to the ISO 3200 film, but the other two rolls look good. Still, I'm pretty irked and will continue to recommend the underwear smuggling method of flying with film! ;-)