by Alex VanTuyl
In 2012, I backpacked through France, Spain, The Balkans, and Morocco from May until mid-September. In all that time, I took around 150 pictures, all on 35mm film, with a 1977 Minolta SRT-202, a camera that weighs about 3 pounds, has no built-in flash, no automatic anything, and often didn’t even have a lens cap. This anachronistic piece of machinery is built like a tank, and has taken pictures on 5 continents, first with my Mom in the 1980s in Australia and Thailand, then with me. Although I chose this camera primarily for economic reasons (any money spent on gear for the trip would come out of my beer and travel budget later), I came to appreciate the artistic benefits of analog travel documentation as my trip wore on.
I’ll get this out of the way early: Film is inherently beautiful. Depending on how you calculate, it takes anywhere from 25-87 megapixels to store the amount of information contained in a frame of 35mm film. Instagram filters are cool because they replicate the way film looks. Vintage cameras (I prefer the 1970s for durability and manual controls) are beautiful themselves, covered in numbers, knobs, etched metal, thick plastic, and speaking a minimalist, onomatopoeic language of clicks, buzzes, whirs and snaps. They also look much better in front of your face than an iPad or digital point-n-shoot. I noticed early on that my old camera had a tendency to pique strangers' curiosity. As they amused themselves looking through the viewfinder, adjusting focus on my coffee cup and face, and clicking through the aperture ring, talk would naturally turn to home, family, traveling, and I would make a new friend on the road.
When I was in Europe, especially in the more popular stops on the “backpacker trail,” I was constantly frustrated by tourists who spent significant amounts of their time looking at great achievements of civilization on pixelated screens held between their face and said achievement. For travel, especially big adventures, life-changing, perspective-shifting, culture-shock adventures (and what other kind of travel is there?), the process of documenting with film is most beautiful in its unobtrusiveness. You look through the viewfinder, focus, wind, and shoot. With a little practice, this takes 3 seconds tops. After you shoot, you put the camera down and return to the moment you’re supposed to be experiencing. There is no distraction of looking at your picture and trying to decide if it’s “good enough,” or worse, the temptation to take another 40 pictures of the same thing to get the “perfect shot.” I found myself photographing moods, moments, and triggers for nostalgia rather than documenting landmarks. The last sunset of Ramadan in Sarajevo and travel companions leaning out the window of a Serbian train. Your timing will get better without the ability to delete photos, or to know if they turned out, or to take multiples. Trust your memory. You can train yourself to only shoot when you need to, and spend more time experiencing somewhere new.
Getting into analog photography is relatively cheap. If you can’t find an old Minolta in your parents’ closet, the SRT-202’s list value is around $125, but they go as low as $35 on Ebay, and who knows what Craigslist will find you. A roll of film is anywhere from $3-$6 for 36 exposures, and processing around $7-$10 for developing and scans (not prints, which are made from digital scans and take up space). So for a camera and 6 rolls of film developed (216 photos), you’re going to spend in the neighborhood of $215. Also, older cameras, like old mobile phones, are tough. Without a case, and often without a lens cap (though not recommended), my camera survived 6 months stuffed in a tiny backpack and bouncing at my hip unscathed.
I also rarely worried about my camera getting stolen. It would be an emotional, but not financial, travesty, and the silver lining is an excuse to bring home a bizarre Russian or German replacement from the flea market. On the crime topic, a couple pound block of metal swinging from my wrist always made me feel a little safer walking through strange streets at night.
Picking up a roll of film in a foreign country is a surreal, unforgettable experience, like any interaction with someone who shares a common interest in an uncommon language. Holding the strip of negatives in your hands, as a tangible record of your own existence in the midst of unfamiliarity, is a shot of adrenaline: at once exciting, reassuring. Pictures just two weeks old could be from a hemisphere away, and you have no choice but to accept their beauty, surprises, and incompleteness. It gives fate, luck, or God (call it what you will) an even stronger influence on your memory. Believe it or not, this is relieving.
Photo labs are still ubiquitous, and handing over a roll of film is universally understood. Get your negatives scanned to a CD (which is CD in every language), and then use an internet cafe or hostel computer to upload them straight to facebook or flickr. Throw the negatives into your notebook or an envelope in your bag. They lie flat and don't take up a lot of space. No editing software necessary, because the photos are beautiful already. Batches of 36 won't take long to upload or sort through. You won't have to pack a charger or a converter. In the case of my Minolta and many cameras of its vintage, the battery only powers the light meter, and you can still take decent pictures without one. Bring a spare and you'll be safe for two years.
Even if you haven't bought a plane ticket yet, I recommend getting into analog photography sooner, rather than later. Practicing at home to get familiar with the camera, developing your own preference for film speed and lighting, and knowing what subject matter you're attracted to will be priceless when traveling. Waiting for negatives after the roll has been shot, then experiencing a beautiful flood of colors and memories all at once is a satisfaction not unlike travel itself. Don't be surprised if you get addicted and fly to the other side of the world just to take a couple of pictures.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Forrest VanTuyl's family sailed from Seattle to the Sea of Cortez when he was 3. Sitting still has been problematic ever since. At 24 years old, he's spent time on 4 continents and will be very disappointed if he hasn't had a drink in South America, Antarctica, and Australia by the time he's 27. He's taken aback at the alliteration in the name of every Southern Hemisphere continent. He's trying to pay the bills playing music. It isn't working yet, but you can change that by clicking the link below.