Planning for a year in Asia-film or digital?

Discussion in 'Travel' started by scott_turner|2, Jul 11, 2013.

  1. Hi all-

    I'm in the process of planning for a year trip through Asia and I am hashing around the idea of shooting film instead of digital. Personally,
    film is my preference for artistic reasons, I just love the look. Anyway, here is the dilemma:

    I am primarily a digital shooter who shoots film occasionally, but I look at the work of someone like Bruce Percy or Steve McCurry and all
    I ever want to shoot is film. Travel photography should be shot on film, in my opinion and personal vision. But when I started thinking out
    the trip at the length that I am planning, I found some logistical problems with shooting film. First of all, what happens when you run out?!
    If I go the film route, it will be medium format, and the camera will be a mamiya 7. I know that for sure. But at 10 shots a roll, that's a lot of
    rolls of film to lug around through airport scanners, desert heat, etc. Is there a way to "reload" in places like China, India, Thailand, etc? I
    guess mail order is an option but I'm curious to hear about your experiences with this.

    Another issue is that I'm planning to do some "off the grid" work with like Tibetan nomads or live out in the boondocks in Thailand for a
    month at a time. And lack of electricity comes into play here. I've seen the solar panel options out there for recharging batteries and stuff,
    not too expensive either. Digital is not real well suited for this kind of thing on a longer than a week basis I feel though, as I will need to
    recharge batteries and laptops, etc. and digital cameras are bit more fragile in these environments I feel unless you're swinging a pro dslr. but I would be curious to hear your perspective on this and any solutions you all have come up with.

    Weight and size are also a problem, whether digital or film. I won't be lugging a pro dslr anywhere, I did that already through the
    mountains of Peru, and never again. It will be a 5d mkiii or a fuji rangefinder. The mamiya is large I know, but not that much heavier, and
    is still fairly unobtrusive for street shooting, although the slow apertures worry me. But the image quality!

    My last and final dilemma is editing images. I want to be able to process images while abroad, as a way to show people at home where I
    am and what I'm seeing. I've considered going the film route and adding in a Fuji x100s or something, but then I have to decided between
    two mediums all the time and I would rather just commit to one. I'm interested to see if there are any effective solutions for mailing film
    back and having it processed and scanned so that I can edit from abroad.

    I'm really just looking for thoughts on traveling long term and into off the grid environments with film (or digital I guess) from people who
    have done it and can address some of the concerns I have here. I realize that it's a personal choice, and I have no desire to discuss
    "which is better" artistically, only the logistical aspects of traveling with either in the ways mentioned. It will also depend on style of
    shooting, and that's also not something I want to discuss, or expect anyone to really be able to help me with.

    That's a lot of verbiage. Thoughts?
  2. I've done both, film and digital for periods of about 3 weeks without power, but not at the same time. Film before 2005, digital more recently. I would never mix film and digital, just too cumbersome. I have my doubts about solar power, mainly whether it delivers enough power to charge camera batteries. I would buy a few more batteries. I guess there are still a few places without a power grid but they become more scarce by the day. Consider a car charger. A place without mains power may be scarce but a place without cars would be hard to find. And even in the Himalayas (Mustang/Ladakh) there were occasional places with a mains outlet.
  3. Jos-

    Thanks for your reply. I guess that is true, power is becoming increasingly common. How did you manage your film
    inventory back when you shot film? We're you constantly traveling abroad, or was it a three week trip here and there and
    then back home?
  4. Some years back we saw a slide show, put on by someone who had explored the length of THREE Canadian rivers that feed into the northern sea. He used solar panels draped on his kayak for charging his batteries. He took a few videos as well.
  5. Mostly it was/were 4 week trips, with 2 camera bodies and a bunch of lenses. It was just a matter of recording the camera number every day and keeping track of the rolls of film, giving each a unique number and recording every roll change. I'm quite sure that I can't track all slides after all this time :)
    On the other hand digital is easier, together with GPS and geotagging. I just have to remember to set the camera's clock in time (in different time zones). Last time I forgot this, and when I did so I accidentally changed the year as well. Correcting this took almost as long as tracking slides when using film.
  6. I've traveled with both film and digital. I think if you like shooting film that much you should go for it. Get ziplock bags and x-ray bags and look up stores to buy it at in the cities you'll be in. Bring the Fuji too, it's small and you'll have the best of both worlds. Go on Amazon and get a set of two spare Wasabi brand batteries with a charger that has a car adapter for $25.
  7. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I look at the work of someone like Bruce Percy or Steve McCurry and all I ever want to shoot is film.​

    McCurry has been primarily digital since 2009. Given that most people never noticed, it seems obvious that the medium has little to do with his work. The big exception was the last roll of Kodachrome project he did, but that was a few years back. I wouldn't use someone else's work as a reason to choose what to shoot.

    I was in southeast Asia in 2001 and couldn't find much medium format film when I ran out. I doubt the situation has gotten better; it's probably much worse. If you have someone who can ship it to you if you run out, lose it, etc., then it shouldn't be a problem, but it probably isn't a good idea to expect to find it there.
  8. Also remember that short of going really fairly far back to the old classics (Nikon F and sunny-16, etc.), modern film cameras also require batteries.
    Then the film has to be kept cool, the humidity down, x-rays and gamma rays dodged. If you run out, getting new film is no breeze- even in 1973 in the back areas of Nigeria, getting film was harder than getting electricity (the lights were at least on for a few hours a day).
    It was my experience in 2004 with film, fogging, etc. that was the proximate cause of my switching to digital in the first place.
  9. Jeff-
    I only mention other photographers as inspiration, thats all. If I go with film, its not because of others. I like not being able to see my photos right away, it forces me to focus better on the scene around me. Granted digital doesn't stop one from doing that, its just a bad habit.
    I guess thats true, film is sensitive. I hadn't thought of that, as I have only traveled with it once.
  10. it


    I live in Southeast Asia. I held onto film for quite a while, but now shoot only digital. You can still find a bit of 120 film here in Bangkok, but processing is an issue.
    I think digital is the way to go for a trip like that. I am about to hit the road for a month around Cambodia and have a 5DMK2 with 3 lenses and my Lumix GF1. Great little travel kit.
  11. Life is full of choices. I would suggest that in making your choice you consider the costs of shooting film - cost of the film, cost of developing the film, costs of prints if desired or costs of scanning inorder to post process if desired. I now shoot digital exclusively and I know that I could not afford to shoot film. It is very easy to share digital photos with others. Film is much more difficult to share with others.
  12. I just shoot scapes on holiday, I like slide film so that is what I shoot, I don't shoot heaps, 3 rolls of 35mm last me a week. I only shoot at low light, I pick my times, whenI walk around I don't shoot that stuff.... also too self conscious to shoot people.
    Only you can answer what you do. For me I like the proess too so I still shoot film, I love the look of slides. I shoot less with film but I enjoy it ...
    I purchase film from USA via mailorder and export to the USA for development very $$ here. Steve McCurry, used to use Kodachrome and Ektachrome both of which are discontinued.
    Edit - to ramble. I love film cameras, they are cheap these days and if you can shoot less the d+p are not too bad. How much are digital cameras again? Haha. I have a D600 too recently a big diff from my D70 but then again I use the D600 when I need to like low light but seldom b/c I do scapes mainly for this hobby of mine. D70 is still ok. Even better are the slides :D The Mamiya is one of the costier ones ...
  13. Years ago when I was shooting film, I took a trip to New Zealand. I had 10 rolls of 36 exp Kodachrome 35mm and 20
    rolls of 120 film total of about 600 shots. I figured that would easily last the 2 week trip.

    New Zealand is so incredible, I burned through all my film in the first 4 days. That's when I found out that 120 file is rarer
    than pixie dust in rural environments.

    My recommendation would be to stick with digital, bring a solar charger, lots of memory cards
  14. The challenge is that at this point you don't know what you don't know. You're going some place you've never been (I think) and you could stumble over something that you want to spend a month documenting, or experimenting with light on, or whatever. Film is wonderful as a medium but could restrict from that kind of thing in a remote place.
  15. You have to do what makes you happy. But I could not see shooting film for a trip like this. As you've noted, it means carrying dozens of rolls and having uncertain chances of being able to get more if you run out. You have the issue of exposure to heat for prolonged periods of time out in the boonies. And while a couple of x-ray scans might not be an issue it sounds like you've talking about multiple trips through airports and they are cumulative. you won't be able to see what you've got or do any editing until you get back. If you were talking a big pro DSLR vs a Leica I could see the difference in size and weight, but medium format doesn't help you over digital in that respect. As for electrical power, haven't been there but I agree with others that you should be able to find enough power often enough for long enough. Finally, not to argue film vs digital, but I think pictures are entirely about their content, not what kind of camera they're shot with.
  16. Where exactly are you going that is without electricity, I'm just curious?
  17. A Mamiya 7 for one year on the road. Do you have a plan for a backup film camera if the one you have decides to 'give up' half-way through your trip?
    You will have to decide on digital or film, several large memory cards take 'not much area' in your travel pack. A few dozen rolls of 120 film will not carry as well.
  18. In 2001 I hauled a film camera through Nepal for two months. My film bag weighed more than a pound, maybe two pounds. I'd love to redo that trip with a DSLR sometime.
    Now, you're considering a MF film camera and a pocket-sized digital camera. How about the other way around: a DSLR as your main camera, plus a small 35 mm rangefinder?
    digital cameras are bit more fragile in these environments
    No they are not. I have hauled a drebel through the jungles of central america for months at a time, se asia in the hot season, couple of months, plus countless other trips, and I have never had a problem. However I have had roll after roll of film get scratched by grit in my camera.
    edit to add: don't edit digital pics on the go - do it later. That'll save weight and need for power.
  19. Thanks for the feedback everyone. David-that's a good point. If I stumble on something I want to document, it could be
    hard to do on film. Since that really is the point of this trip, it might be best to do digitally.

    And it's true, pictures are ultimately about the content. But the type of camera/lens will have an impact on the aesthetic
    qualities of the photograph, which is very important to me. I think it is probably best to stick with what I know best.

    Thanks for your help anyone. If you have any recommendations for things to see in Asia feel free to suggest! I've been to
    China multiple times, but not anywhere else in Asia. Thanks again!
  20. Asia could be very similar, but also very different. It depends on what you want, it's vast...I type as I sit on a "toilet" in "Inlay Lake"...
    btw Myanmar is changing fast, I'd swing by before too long...
  21. 've been to China multiple times, but not anywhere else in Asia.​
    Yeah, your perception of "boondocks in Thailand..." is just a (false) perception. And where in China have you been? Easy or difficult parts of China? It makes a big difference, say, if you're talking of Shanghai, than, say, Guizhou...
  22. I lived in Chongqing for a summer, spent time in Xining and a number of other western China cities. And I speak some
    Mandarin. I'm not looking to be a tourist, I have no problem roughing it, and yes, I've used a squat toilet. I don't think my
    perception is unrealistic, I've spent time there, and not as a tourist.
  23. Scott, what I meant was your Thailand perception, I've been all over and there is electricity everywhere. And Chongqing is a modern city...not really all that difficult. As I said, it depends on what you are looking for. If you like "roughing it," I'd *not* choose Thailand. Thailand for the most part, is easier than China. In fact, Thailand is probably the easiest country of all Asia to foreigners. That said, Thailand is great value and the main reason why there are many expats there...
    "Roughing it" (to me) brings to mind...Mongolia, rural parts of Cambodia, India and far western China and the 'Stanses.
    Easier, less hectic, less people and more chill: Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal
  24. My apologies. Thailand was a bad example. I don't have specific plans in Thailand, just want to be prepared. Thanks for
    your input!
  25. No problem, Scott. Another vital bit is to plan your route with climate in consideration. It has a much larger impact in Asia than, say, the US. There is less AC, more walking and reliance on public transportation. For instance, I can only walking around for 90 mins at a time in this Myanmar summer heat/humidity...
  26. As it's been described, charging battery will require some sort of reliable source, whether using mains, car or solar. Sometimes several batteries will keep you long you don't shoot too much....till you can recharge them. All relative...and digital will likely be easier to deal with.
    That said, the reality of film access may be an issue. Unless you have a space where you can obtain more film on reg basis (reliably)....whether you can purchase and/or have it delivered or someone send it to you directly. Additional difficulties will arise from storing film in cool and in non-humid bla bla bla. Also, you may have to look under rocks to find some reliable labs in the area.....tho not necessarily in the same country where you'll be. Do some serious search/inquiry in Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Phillippines, China, etc. In particular, you need a lab that will work with you. If your concern is seeing what you have shot, you might be able to arrange to have them scan (however level you desire...and cost) your images and slap them on the you can access them from any internet cafe in the world. Also, you might be able to trim some of the obscene mail costs and have the lab hold your processed film till you give them the OK to send all the negatives/pos to a stable address (in US or wherever) you return from this journey.

    Furthermore, I'd test the lab that you choose....making sure the processing is of consistent quality. You may have to repeat this can also test (using same shot/s) other labs....weeding out the mediocre ones. As to edits, I'd wait till you get back and you can quality scan those frames that work best for you.
    Oh, one more thing, if you (by a chance) could have fresh film forwarded to someone within the area where you'll be....that would be one workaround.
    In any case, you have some hurdles, but you may be able to resolve them. Good luck.
  27. Hi Scot, sounds like a great trip.

    I haven't traveled for extended periods of time but did take a Hasselblad with film and a small digital camera on a trip to Mongolia. Always requesting that my film be hand-checked, I had trouble only at the Genghis Khan International Airport in Ulaan Bataar, a very small airport with aggressive agents, where they finally agreed to hand-check it after much arguing. None of my film was fogged.

    Both cameras saw a lot of use. When I didn't have time to set up the Hasselblad on tripod, the small digital camera came in handy. However, charging it was a problem, particularly in the Gobi Desert where the electricity often went out without warning.

    I didn't try to do any editing on the trip. And since I don't shoot a large number of photos, I came back with unused film and space on my card for more digital pictures. It was useful to have both cameras.

    Good luck and let us know what you decide. --Sally
  28. Scott, your trip sounds serious and I am thinking this is not a dedicated photo trip? I would suggest shooting digital for convenience. Make sure you have enough spare batteries and memory cards, so you won't be caught short. You may want to have a backup camera and a few external drives to store and backup the images you shot. Don't put the backup drives all in one place. Have fun!
  29. it


    My favourite places to shoot in Asia are Cambodia and Bangladesh.
  30. Thanks for your responses! As for the purpose of the trip, I'm not really sure. Call it a quarter life crisis? Maybe taking a
    shot at photographing full time? Portfolio building trip? A pilgrimage? It's probably all of those things rolled up into one. I
    do have photography aspirations I guess, but just getting to travel and photograph is more important. And to be exposed
    to cultures and people I would never otherwise have the opportunity to interact with. Those kind of experiences have
    shaped me immensely already, and I expect this trip to do the same.

    Sally- thanks for the perspective! How long was the trip? I'm really leaning towards digital at this point, out of
    convenience, although being able to let go of the images after their shot until I can get them processed is still a huge draw
    for me.

    Ian- I've heard a lot of good things about Bangladesh. Any specific recommendations around times of year, places, etc?
  31. Ian- By the way, I had a look at your website. Your work is excellent. Really like the India portfolio and Bangladesh
  32. Having lived in SE Asia (Cambodia) for 10 years and traveled extensively round the region. I cant speak for mainland China; but i have traveled extensively in Myanmar,Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Malaysia. Al have well developed electricity supplies.
    The worst places for electricity are some of the more remote villages in Cambodia, where local generators and batteries with a/c converters are used. I have never run out of power for cameras here or anywhere else. The Australian outback was the worst; but by having plenty of spare batteries one could last for a couple of weeks with 3-4 batteries; if you ration yourself to 200 shots per day. Try doing that with film!
    If you are using cars, its easy to buy a small d/c ac converter which can be used for laptop or camera battery charger.
    An essential would be a lightweight Laptop like a macbook air or small Windows PC and a portable Hard drive for backups. Internet access to send JPG files to Dropbox or similar will give you another backup in case your gear is lost for any reason.
    If you need any specific advice photo or otherwise on SE Asia please let me know.
  33. Dave-

    Thanks for the info on SE Asia, I will definitely be spending some time there, but hoping to spend a lot of time in India and
    China. I'm planning to bring a laptop, most likely what you said, and a couple of hard drives.

    Do you have any contacts for guides locally you would recommend?
  34. I mainly shoot film. Most 35 mm, sometimes 120. I never take 20 rols of film with me for a 1 week trip. Maybe I would take 200 rols for a 1 year trip. Not such a big weight but to be counted on top of the weight for the camera and the lenses.
    A year ago, I went on a 3 week trip to Iceland. It was a tour by 4x4 across the country, camping and on occasion a hut. I used a Nikon P7000 and an Olympus E300. Both camera's with an extra battery. In total that was 4 battery loads, more than 300 foto's each, almost 1500 foto's. Enough for me. I tried to safe battery power and on occasion, we could charge the battery in a hut. I never ran out of power. I took apx 1000 pictures in total, I printed max 100 of them. The rest was OK but not good enough to visualise my trip. The main reason I used digital equipment was for the colour printing. I print at home and try to make quality prints on selected paper.
    The trip was bad for the equipment and a one year trip would have damaged my Nikon for shore. I took the Nikon for the limited weight, in combination with te extra wide angle it is a fantastic camera.
    The Olympus was just for the fun of using an older camera. It proved to be super reliable and gave me some nice shots.
    If I would go to Iceland again, I would take a film camera as well. Maybe one 35 mm film a day. Combined film B&W printing with digital colour printing. But I would take better equipment with me than I did last time.
    Maybe a digital solution isn't that bad for a one year trip. Battery power is not such an issue.
    But stick to trusted quality equipment.
  35. You could "reload" by posting yourself packages of film to a mail point? I did that on one trip. The problem with film is not so much airport scanners, unless you have very high ISO film, but keeping it cool in very hot climates.
    On one trip I went through 70 rolls of 120 in a week but most of that was due to bracketing exposures before digital came along. You could get around that by using a grey card reading which is easy to do on a Mamiya rangefinder. However, they tend to meter off to one side of the frame. My 7 always was more accurate when I selected the lower right side as the spot meter so to speak.
    Good luck with your trip, post lots of images for everyone to see when it is over.
  36. Electricity w/ Tibetan Nomads......

    I would go digital. I traveled in remote regions in the world for 15 years, using film. But will never go back to film. You would be surprised, I have seen quite a few nomads in Tibet and Mongolia who have solar chargers connected to car batteries/ w inverters to power their radios, TV's and to charge their cell phones.
    When I was cycling in the Himalayas in Eastern Tibet and Ladakh 10 years ago, it was rare that I went for long stretch w/o electricity. West Tibet or the Nothern Chang Tang are more remote, and may be an exception, but it is really sunny, so a solar charge should be fine. You may want to bring a light bulb adapter that has a 220V plug adapter to plug your charger into. At least in 2004, there were many Ladakhi homes that had one or two light bulbs in their house, but no tap for electricity, but that was 10 years ago.

    The space/money you save by not bringing 100 rolls of film, and processing charges you can use for extra batteries and rugged hardrives, and increasing your travel budget. Also, I have 1000's of 35mm slides that I have been dragging my feet to scan. Plus you never have to worry about high vs low ISO Films. It is also alot easier to do HDR, and Panoramas as well. In addition, I can review my work as I go, to make sure I get a balanced photographic view of the trip.

    Also, one unexpected advantage of going digital I found was that when I meet a person that I would like to shoot a portrait of, I usually ask and I am often rejected at first. Then I show the person some playback images from my DLSR or P&S that I took of other people, and suddenly they want their photo taken.

    The second unexpected advantage is being able to playback your digital images to use as another form of communication to break the language barrier. Families, especially the nomads will love to see the digital images, and it will help you tell your travel story to them, and show them parts of the world they will never see.

    Also, I always need down time on the road, editing photos it is good way to take a break.
    I would be happy to discuss my travels offline. also feel free to look at my website Also I would be interested if you can tell me which photos are Kodachrome and which are digital.
  37. Don-

    Thanks for the reply. I've decided on digital at this point. Appreciate the thoughts on traveling and recharging batteries, I
    will take a look for those items you mentioned.

    Also, took a look at some of the images on your site. I'm guessing a bunch of your Tibet photos are on Kodachrome? I will
    definitely be in touch about travel offline!


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