Finnish sauna tradition is strong and living heritage. It was in fact added to Unesco’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity a few months ago. Smoke sauna is the most traditional form of sauna. Though it is considered by many to be the finest kind it is clear why they are somewhat rare these days: warming it up takes half a day and it requires constant monitoring as there’s always a risk of burning the whole building to the ground.

Also, they don’t have chimneys so there’s lots of thick smoke involved in the heating process! And then there’s the carbon monoxide, which is a deadly gas. It’s very unlikely to get killed by it while heating up a sauna, but it can make you feel unwell if you’re careless.

But the atmosphere! That’s something very special. Coal-black walls, dim lighting from lanterns outside the window and total silence make it a raw and delicate experience at the same time. When me and my wife bought an old cottage with an almost-as-old smoke sauna next to it, I challenged myself to catch that atmosphere on the surface of the film. I think film photography and warming up a smoke sauna have something in common. When you see the negative it’s too late to alter the development — when you step into the warmed-up smoke sauna it’s impossible to get it warmer. Good results require patience, dedication and experience.

I’ve been shooting the sauna with many cameras, but for this article, I chose five frames that I took with my Mamiya RB67. It has been my main camera for many years and I’ve really grown to like it. I used the Mamiya Sekor-C 90mm f/3.8 lens and loaded the camera with Fomapan 200 Creative. The RB67 isn’t a very fast camera to use, but the sauna hasn’t moved for over a hundred years, so there’s no hurry. For me the most important thing in shooting this kind of place is time. There must be lots of it.

One could of course rush in, shoot away, get out and produce some very nice pictures, but for me experiencing the place and shooting it slowly are important parts of the process. Walking around with a handheld meter while the camera sits sturdily on the tripod or even in the camera bag is a way of perceiving the space. And I really enjoy it.

I think RB67 suits that way of photography. It’s intuitive but laborious in a good way. It encourages you to look and think and rewards you with beautiful results! Its big and bright viewfinder helps composing and focusing the picture in dim circumstances.

Foma films have a steep reciprocity curve and Fomapan 200 isn’t an exception. It’s not the best film for black-walled buildings in natural light, but it works quite well if there’s not too much contrast — at least if you’re not in a hurry.

Sometimes needed exposure is very lengthy. These pictures were shot with quite short times, but I also shot some thirty minute exposures with Toyo 45. I developed this film in Xtol stock for nine minutes.

~ Martti

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About the author

Avatar - Martti Korhonen

Martti Korhonen

A guy who likes film photography. I’m writing my doctoral thesis on the phenomenology of traditional Finnish log houses and have always been fascinated by places with special atmospheres. I shoot mostly with Mamiya RB67 and Toyo 45a, but also with older...


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  1. These are great. Perfect example of what we can achieve with b&w film.

  2. Hello Martti, i really like to go to the sauna, here in Germany but also at a friends place in Estonia where they also use wood to heat the sauna up. when i was there i had the wish to put that feeling in pictures but had no idea how to do it.
    Your documentary photos show that it really works out wonderful if one uses black and white film and concentrates on the details. besides that i also like to use Fomapan film, an often underrated emulsion which brings back the classical analog grain. You did a wonderful job!
    best wishes from Germany, Hans-Peter

  3. hej, never saw the parallels, but you certainly brought them forward.
    great photos, that brought back long forgotten memories. Kiitos