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Today, we’re featuring a travel essay from film photographer Robert Guanci. Robert traveled to Saint Lucia for his honeymoon and captured the beautiful scenery on 35mm film. Scroll below to read his story and view the images.
Like many readers, I lug around a camera wherever I go, always looking to capture candid moments and interesting scenes in my daily travels. With that in mind, when my wife and I embarked on our honeymoon on the small Caribbean island of Saint Lucia earlier this summer, I immediately reached for my camera and a bag of film!
Traveling with Film
As a quick note before diving deeper into our trip, having never traveled with film before, I made sure to do my research regarding airport scanners and potential pitfalls. There are dozens of articles and YouTube videos out there discussing this topic, so I would encourage anyone interested in traveling by air to check those out and be prepared. Knowing that airport scanners can potentially damage film, I arrived at the airport prepared to 1) speak with security personnel and request an inspection by hand, thereby bypassing the scanners completely, and/or 2) invest in a lead lined film bag to protect my film in the event a hand inspection was not available.
We travelled directly from JFK airport in New York. You will notice in many major airports, JFK included, there are actually signs near the scanners alerting travelers that film with ISOs below 800 can actually go through the scanner safely. That may be the case, but I would still ask for a hand inspection, which I did, and the courteous people at JFK did provide.
However, on our way home leaving from Saint Lucia, security really did not understand what I was asking for, so I took the gamble and ran my film through the scanner in the lead bag. I am not too knowledgeable as to the technical aspects of the scanners that the airport used, but all the photos in this article are from that trip, and I did not notice any damage. You tell me?
Moral of the story, be kind and respectful, but be prepared for security’s overall lack of knowledge regarding the safety of your film.
Sights & Scenes
As this trip was a honeymoon, naturally a majority of our stay was dedicated to much needed rest and relaxation, and of course, romance! That being said, we smartly signed up for various excursions throughout the island, invaluable experiences as we were able to enjoy the culture and people, as well as the scenery much more than simply what we experienced at our resort.
To those unfamiliar with Saint Lucia, it is truly a wonderful and awe-inspiring place, specifically highlighted by the incomparable Piton Mountains, tropical environment and beautiful Caribbean beaches. Many travelers say Saint Lucia is reminiscent of Hawaii, having never been I can’t truly attest to that, though I can understand the similarities in tropical environment and landscape.
On to the photos – I took along two cameras, my Nikon FA equipped with a Voigtlander 40mm f2 Ultron and my Canon P rangefinder with a 50mm f2.8 Chiyoko Super Rokkor (pre-Minolta). The Nikon was dedicated to color film while the Canon was strictly for black and white photos.
While I am predominantly a black and white street shooter, opting for the contrast and grain of traditional gritty black and white film stocks, knowing that I was travelling to a place with so much color, I wanted to capture all the brightness and tropical flair the island had to offer. The twin Kodak stocks excelled in that regard. A majority of these photographs are like any travel photos, intended to capture the sights and scenes and memorialize our trip. Favorites include the majestic Piton mountains and landscapes.
Professional vs. Consumer Film Stocks
Much has been written about the pastel colors of Porta 400, while that is all certainly true, UltraMax is no slouch either. In fact, as someone who does their own home film development and scanning, (b&w developed and scanned at home, while color lab developed, though still scanned at home), difference in film stock, particularly color film stock, becomes so miniscule to that point it’s unnoticeable. This trip was truly an eye opener in that regard as I have never had the occasion to scan and process so much color film all at once.
To be clear about my workflow, my color film was developed by the wonderful people at Unique Photo in Fairfield, NJ. I then scanned the negatives myself with an Epson V550 and used Negative Lab Pro within Lightroom to do the conversions. I rated both films at El 200 and mostly shot with sunny 16 and/or light meter app on my phone.
After scanning both Portra and UltraMax side by side, I realized that with color film, it’s all what you make of it in the scanning and editing process. Sure Porta could be pastel, but it could also be super saturated depending on “scanner setting” used, Noritsu vs. Frontier, etc. Likewise, in certain instances, UltraMax had colors just as beautiful, if not rivaling Porta. In particular, the sunset scene captured on our late afternoon cruise was taken with UltraMax, and it’s one of my favorites of the trip.
In my experience, the appeal of Portra over UltraMax, or any other “consumer” color stock comes down to latitude, sharpness and grain. Portra being a professional film stock naturally is super sharp and fine grain, particularly for a 400 speed film.
That being said, there are special idiosyncrasies you get from “consumer” film, in particular in scenes where the grain and sharpness can’t hold up in the lighting conditions, but because of those imperfections, the line between photograph and painting is blurred. For me, that is the magic of film over digital photography. Sure, one could probably accomplish the same or similar with a DSLR, but the happenstance and “accident” which occurs with film truly encapsulates my love for the medium – forcing oneself to surrender to the variables of the universe that could occur, and being in the moment.
Black and White
Before getting too carried away with color film, as an avid Hp5 shooter I had to expose at least one roll of black and white film. Like my color shots, I rated these shots at El 200, but also developed at 200. Hp5 combined with my solution of choice, Kodak HC 110, is a winning combination and mainstay in my work.
I customarily shoot Hp5 anywhere between El 200 – 1600, depending on the lighting situation. In my opinion, developing Hp5 at box speed (400) just doesn’t do this illustrious film justice, it can be downright ugly. For me, in broad daylight, I get better results pulling this film to El 200 where I can achieve similar results, if not greater shadow detail and finer grain; contrast is controlled when scanning. In contrast to the shots taken in color, (pun intended), these photos look as if taken out of a memory or dream.
Spending our honeymoon in Saint Lucia was a once in a lifetime experience, and a getaway I would recommend to anyone. You would be hard pressed to find more beautiful and serene landscapes, not to mention more kind-hearted and generous people. If I had one regret it would be not having my camera along for our ATV excursion when we pulled up to a black sand beach! Truly a wonder of the world. To my readers, keep shooting and don’t be afraid to travel with film!
Thank you so much, Robert! You can find more of Robert’s work on his website and Instagram.