An Island

August 6, 2020

Looking around on social media it sometimes feels like there are so many film photographers out there.

Yet, there are still many many places where us with a passion for film are few and far between. Places where we feel a little like an island. Alone with our struggles, tackling the learning by ourselves. Having peoples eye glaze over with disinterest when we wax lyrical about medium format and metering light and tonal values and and and…

To clarify; we live in the South African countryside; no film labs around, no stores with neat rows of Kodak or Fujifilm lined up like tiny soldiers. No courier service close by or even a functional postal service.

Still, I know that I am not alone… that there are several film photographers {or other creative business owners} all around the world who may not be living at the epicentre of the film photography or the creative world. And therefore, I thought that sharing the rocks I had to roll out of my own way might help you as well.

As I really wanted to photograph film more often and particularly start photographing medium format film, I had to devise plans to remove all the obstacles I had that others may not. Firstly, to avoid having all those dreaded excuses as to why I cannot photograph film. Secondly, because photographing film filled a great creative void and I did not want to take any of that joy away with “operational issues”.

And there have been hurdles; a whole bunch of them. From film sent in to a lab in the closest large city that were returned VERY magenta, postal parcels going missing and never arriving. There have been the rand fluctuating so madly against global currencies that I would get nervous clicking the shutter, as all I could think of is how must this passion of mine is costing.
And then there were that constant feeling of “AM I ALONE??”.

So, I sat down and asked myself what I felt was the main excuses I had. Or the “problems” that I kept on using as an excuse not to do something that I so badly wanted to do regularly. Namely; photographing film. Here they are; the main logistical or technical hurdles I had. Starting at the very beginning of my film journey:

I had no medium format film camera {which I specifically wanted to master} and I did not know how to use one.

Solution: I might have done this the wrong way around but it worked for me. I firstly booked a very coveted spot to join an incredible film photography workshop in the mountains of Kazbegi… and then I really had to make a plan to get a medium format film camera!

I found a beautiful demo model Pentax645nii at a second hand dealer but with no film back or lens. Sourcing a lens online was the next step {and I just hoped and prayed that the parcel would arrive} and I was thrilled to find a film back elsewhere. The light meter I took to the workshop was a rental and the meagre pile of film I packed for the trip only arrived a few days before – but I had it all in time. I so desperately wanted to make the most of my film workshop trip that I was really motivated in finding everything I would need!

Film Development and Scanning.

Solution: This was the second obstacle I faced after returning from the workshop. I brimmed with a little confidence photographing film, using a light meter and verbalizing my creative vision. Yet, I had a bag of undeveloped 120 film which I did not want to send to a local lab. {I could not risk another magenta batch!} I scoured through labs that I have been following on social media, recommendations I received and good old Google of course. I settled on a lab in California that came highly recommended and whose style of scanning I really liked: Negative Lab. They really are a great fit for me and once you find the perfect lab for your needs, sending in film will become effortless.

Courier costs and shipping?
So I knew that couldn’t use our local postal service due to their notorious lack of service and parcels disappearing and had to find a reliable courier. I also knew that the cost to courier my film to the film lab would be rather high and that I would have to budget it into my “cost per roll”.

Solution: I chose DHL; this was after comparing the cost and services of all the courier companies who had local branches and who would ship from South Africa to the USA.

And where other photographers may send their film to the lab after each shoot or session; I batch my film rolls and send in the maximum number of rolls that the courier box I paid for allow. Yes, I have to wait a little longer for the photographs {as I sit on exposed rolls for a few weeks sometime} but as it is all personal work at the moment, the wait balances out against the cost. And once the film lab has it the film development & scanning is always very fast.

Negative Lab is also kind enough to archive my physical negatives for me and I therefore do not have to pay a return courier fee every time. When they have a large enough batch of my negatives on their side, one large parcel is sent back to me.
This is definitely something to consider when you live in a remote area and a quick chat to your lab can clarify if they have such archival facilities. My cost per roll of exposed film would have skyrocketed without this service as I would have paid courier fees twice every time.

Finding replacement film.
Now this problem might sound silly, but it is so real to me!
Yes, I know many of you can walk into one of many camera stores on your block and buy a whole pile of film or just order it online for a 1-2 day delivery, but I can’t.

Solution: Whenever we travel, I search {beforehand!} for camera stores in the largest cities we will be visiting at the time.
Recently in Denmark we visited One of Many Cameras; which is an absolute gem! We walked out with several boxes of Kodak Portra, Kodak 800 and Fuji. The next day when we stopped by again the owner had been searching his storeroom for a spare filmback for my Pentax! I came home with several boxes of film, a spare film back and a lovely second lens for the Pentax. No shipping fees, no import tax, no nerve wrecking moments of whether the parcel will actually ever make it to our home. It was all right there tucked into my hand luggage. And I plan ahead. Using Amazon and pre-paying the custom clearance fees have helped me accurately estimating what each roll of film will cost. Having more control over what photographing film cost me has given me more freedom to pursue this creative outlet.

Feeling ALONE.
This is a big one! I often felt like I am in this alone. Yes, being a film shooter himself my husband understood. But I felt like we had no one to really talk to. That so many people still wonder how on earth we make a living! {I have been asked several times what my “real” job is} and not knowing who to ask when I had either a silly or complicated film question.

Solution: The creatives that became my friends at the film workshop I attended in The Republic of Georgia; this handful of talented friends became my soundboards. A constant source of motivation and inspiration. And then there is Belle Lumiere, the magazine had played a vital role in driving me to want to shoot more film, making me feel part of a like-minded community. Reading the articles prompted me to try out new film stock and approaching my photography work with more intention.

I know there are many of you who might be living in a very small Russian town, or tucked away on a farm in rural Europe, or living in Cuba or in a woodsy cabin in North America; all film enthusiasts who feel buried underneath a mountain of logistical problems… and I hope that you will find this article helpful. I hope that you will dust off that camera, find a courier pigeon to bring you film, and click that shutter!

To all the islands out there… let’s be an archipelago and be islands together!

Article & Photography : Elaine van der Merwe-Louwrens
Workshop Host | Jacob Brooks from Brumley and Wells
Film Lab | Negative Lab, California
Styling & Paper goods | The Wells Makery
Location | Tsdo, Kazbegi
Models | Miriam & Alina from Geomodels Agency
HMUA | Yana Bendeliani
Men’s Clothing | Commun’s , Paris France

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