Heathrow airport, Terminal 5. Kodak Ektar 100 35mm, Olympus OM-4Ti, 50mm f1.4

Travelling with a film camera: London

Read the previous chapter of this epic tale here.

So I was going to an IT conference in London and as I had gotten my film camera just a week ago, I of course wanted to take it with me. I have had a dream of taking some street photography on London streets and London Underground with a film camera since ages ago but I was certain there was going to be some problems with my plan.

If you remember cassette tapes, floppy disks, TVs, watches and lot of other technology from nineties or earlier you probably remember, all of them were susceptible to magnets. I personally remember having a slight phobia of magnets because of that. You never knew how it could mess up the electronics you have. This problem seems to have gone away nowadays — most of the electronics you carry around is not afraid of many things.

As film camera definitely falls under the category of “technology from 90s or earlier”, I was wary — so I googled: Camera itself is indeed afraid of magnets reportedly (I knew it!), but what scared me more was the fact that undeveloped film is sensitive to x-ray and as far as I knew that’s what they use to scan baggage in airports. The recommendation was to keep the film in carry-on, as they use much weaker x-ray on it, which in theory should not affect film at all. Unless you have film with ISO at least 800.

Funnily enough, I just had went to store previous day and bought two rolls of film. One of the films was Ektar 100, with very low ISO of 100. Other one was Portra 800, which has ISO value, you guessed it: 800. It is fairly expensive high ISO film which I bought to try out how it works with generally gloomy conditions of London and some shots inside.

General consensus seems to be that it only affects the film if you expose it to x-ray many times. So I was just happy I hadn’t bought more film to take with me, and decided to see what happens. I took my camera with some shots of Portra 160 still left in it and two extra rolls of very different film, packed them into my hand luggage and went through the security area hoping for the best.

View from hotel window. Kodak Portra 160. 50mm f1.4

London greeted us with a gloomy and fairly wet weather as I had expected. As it was constantly raining I did not dare to take my camera out much before I reached the hotel. The hotel room was small, hot and lacked air. There was a fan provided to aid with the lack of air conditioning, but the cable was too short to put it on a window for power ventilation. I even considered building a makeshift swamp cooler, to make the conditions slightly more bearable, but taking into account my track record with makeshift devices, I did not want to become responsible for anot… for an hotel fire.

Here we see bunch of IT people doing what we do best — Not working. Portra 800

As the main reason for my visit to to London was the conference, which I was attending. This was one of the reasons why I took some 800 ISO film with me, hoping to catch some shots inside. In hindsight, I would say 400 ISO film would have been better bet. A lot less grain, and still enough speed to capture shots with sufficient shutter speed.

Also I discovered there was a lot more pictures to be taken outside of the bland conference room walls. So I ended up shooting most of the roll of 800 ISO film in bright sunlight.

London street. Kodak Portra 800

On the second day I was running out of the Portra and I was thinking of getting some more higher ISO film. Big city, you would expect there to be plenty of camera stores but as it turned out the closest one that sold film and I could find was still 40 minutes away, time which I just couldn’t find. So in the end I ended up shooting ISO 800 film on bright daylight and ISO 100 film on a cloudy evening.

Legendary London Gray Skies. Kodak Ektar 100

When I arrived at the airport security, I tried to ask the guy there to “hand search” the film so it wouldn’t go through the x-ray scanner again, he asked me about the film speed, and went to ask his manager to verify the rules. Few moments later he returned saying: “No need, anything below ISO 1000 is safe!” So I just put the film on the conveyor with everything else and sent it through the x-ray machine.

And it seems he was right. I did examine both the scans and the negatives carefully and doesn’t seem there is anything wrong with any of them. X-ray damage generally appears as partial darkening on the negatives, similar to light leaks but at least to my eyes all the pictures look well exposed with no weird artefacts.

Weird Dalek Architecture in the middle of central London. Kodak Portra 800

When I arrived back in the airport, I had still one last shot left in the camera, there was some great light in the baggage claim area so I took a picture of my good friend and colleague who we were travelling with after the exhausting trip. She, of course does not appreciate this picture so when she finds out I uploaded it and I for some mysterious reasons go missing, you should ask her for possible whereabouts of my body.

Tallinn Airport. Kodak Ektar 100

So what did I learn?

  1. X-Ray machines in airport security do not damage film on 2 scans, not even on ISO 800 as long as you keep it in your carry-on luggage.
  2. You should bring some extra film before going out on a trip, you will never know if you can get any from local stores there.
  3. Even if they have film, they might not have the film you like. I am slightly gay for Kodak Portra and as I am not the only one, it is often out of stock in many stores.
  4. ISO 800 and ISO 100 are not the best film for shooting at the London. You are much better off with ISO 400.
  5. I was still learning manual focusing with the focus aides and often missed focus. If you can’t get great reading on the split or microprism, you can sometimes drift pretty far off. Keep an eye on rest of the focusing screen to make sure you still have focus, it is often much more helpful than the prism stuff.

All this of course didn’t stop me from taking only the film camera, some new lenses, and an epic amount of film on my next trip to Iceland.

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