Lessons learned from 828 frames of 35mm film shot in India

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During my recent trip to India, where I had 9 full days with which to shoot, I shot 23 rolls out of the 44 I had chosen to take. I am usually frugal with my shutter, and try and make my images in as few actuations as possible. I gave myself a little more leeway in India, and as such have more than a few half hearted attempts as well as straight-up failures all of which can be taken as lessons to learn from.

I thought it would be useful to go through some of these and to see what could be improved upon in the future, as well as to acknowledge which aspects I was able to recognise and amend in the moment.


Within the first few hours of landing, I made a few silly and obvious mistakes. Shooting in Delhi, I didn’t notice that the aperture on my lens had rotated around and I was shooting at f/8 without realising. This meant my speed was around 1/15 sec and could have been easily prevented if I’d just slowed down, and checked my settings first.

It’s ironic as I usually maintain the habit of reflexively twitching the aperture to wide open wherever possible, which makes this even more of a glaring mistake. 

Later on in the trip I committed a real act of stupidity, but this one I’m inclined to blame at least half on Kodak! Late one night I loaded what I thought was T-MAX P3200, only to get back to my hotel room and find that roll of 3200 in my bag… so what was in my camera? Turns out the only difference on the packaging of T-MAX films is the number, everything else is basically the same. Without really looking further than the “T-MAX” designation I loaded it.

I’m not used to shooting anything other than T-MAX P3200, and this was actually the first roll of (what turned out to be) T-MAX 100 I’d ever shot. I was very tired at this point, which likely contributed to it, and luckily I’d only fired the first three frames, so I was able to unload the 100 and use the rest of that roll at a different time, although the first few frames were unsalvageable.

Part of me wondered why this was the first time I’d made this mistake and it didn’t take me too long to figure out. I shoot Kodak films infrequently, my go-to black and white brand is ILFORD. Something I never consciously appreciated about Ilford’s packaging is that it’s colour coded! Delta 100 Professional is blue, as is FP4 PLUS. HP5 PLUS and Delta 400 Professional are green, and Delta 3200 Professional is purple. There is no chance of me making the mistake of loading one speed film and believing it to be another.

I think this anecdote is genuinely the last straw I needed to contribute to my decision to give up on Kodak and to shoot on ILFORD black and white films exclusively for the rest of my life. I was always unsure as to why I shot both at times, I think I felt a bit of pressure to at least try them, but at this point, I just want to commit to one method and stick with it.


There were a few accidental clicks of the shutter at the wrong time, resulting in badly framed, or out of focus shots. Again, my exhaustion throughout the trip contributed to this. The worst was when I expected the shutter lock to be on my FM2, and nervously tapping the shutter button resulted in a dutch angle.

Again, treating my gear a little less cavalierly would prevent these kinds of issues.

I think it’s usually better to be over-prepared than under (especially with rolls of film). However, I try and travel as light as possible, ideally with one backpack containing everything I’ll need both in terms of personal effects and photographic tools. The only “spec” that matters to me is focal length, and after a while of deliberation I ended up with a fifty mil lens for each of my systems, Leica and Nikon, as well as a 90mm f/4 prime for the Leica and 70-210 f/4 for the Nikon.

I expected there to be an even balance in terms of usage of all of these but what ended up happening was I barely touched the 50’s and spent the majority of my time at 90mm or 210mm.

Two of the few images made in black and white on a 50mm lens. Analogue gear is as fast as its user. Pushed film means speed requirements are down to the steadiness of the user, and what they’ll tolerate in terms of grain. I don’t use autofocus, so my cameras focus as fast as I can make them. Specific uses like portraits, landscapes and so on depend on the users preference, and any focal length can be applied to most situations.

I guess the lesson here is to understand how you see. I know I see in, and prefer to shoot in longer lengths than most people, but somehow I persuaded myself that the 50mm lenses would see more use. Aside from a few portraits, the majority of which happened in one roll of slide film, I could have done without those lenses. Next time I will take only one, and save myself that weight, even as marginal as it was.

Artificial limitations can be one of the best ways to create, and I feel if I had been more confident in taking fewer lenses I would have spent less time deliberating in the moment and more time just shooting. I actually think my workflow for this trip really started to come together when I switched to 70-210 on my Nikon, where I’d previously been using the 50 on it, with 90 on my M6. It was at this point that things sort of clicked in my head and I managed to get into a good flow state after that. Those longer lengths gave an edge to my compositions, and brought them in line with what little expectations I had allowed myself to have for this trip.

One of the lessons I learned fairly early on, but it took me nearly the entire trip to really reconcile the implications. The fact is that I can’t ever take all of the photographs I see the potential for. In India this sensation is magnified to an extent, as there really is the ability to make a photograph out of everything you see.


In London, I am desensitised to an extent to the everyday aspects, whereas a traveler may see some magical moments in that mundanity. I work hard to make what I can out of the mundane but would prefer to focus on the surreal. In India, I found that I was tempted by every corner, every character, and every interaction. Within literally ten minutes of arriving and being driven from the airport to NDLS, I saw what must have been a dozen potential images which would have taken me weeks to achieve in London. Over the rest of my trip, I missed far more than these and was kicking myself each and every time.

I had to really concentrate my internal monologue into reassuring myself rather than punishing these misses. I have to accept that I have to be highly discretionary and to give my attention to the truly standout moments, wherever I find myself. It took a few days before I was partially desensitised to the absolute newness India was showing me, and I was able to find some more subtle details which made the work closer to my style and less postcard-y.

I also encouraged myself to shoot things I’d normally avoid. This meant portraits of the stray dogs around Varanasi, as well as the other animal wildlife I encountered. I’m normally very people-centred in my images but the animals were so characterful that I found some of them to be worth making the image. Of course, they aren’t as good as my usual work, but it was an interesting exercise, and definitely gave me some ideas for things to look out for in the future.

Finding balance was important, and despite feeling tired and stressed throughout my time in India, I feel that I did manage to find the same headspace as I’m used to working with in London. The kind of pressure I choose to put myself under works for me, but it may not for everyone. Photography is many things to me, and it can change over time, but one constant for a while has been its meditative quality. To exist in a space, watch that space change around me, and react to it is a very good way for me to cope with things.

I don’t do “holidays” and find myself always working. I find it difficult to relax in any meaningful way, but when I have my camera in my hand I have a purpose and can apply myself to that purpose. It is the dedication of my ego to my goal, and this allows any stress or anxiety to simply become part of my workflow. I still found the time to enjoy the little things, like my first ice-cold coke on the third day, which really helped my sugar levels but also gave me a five-minute window where it had my full attention. Taking this kind of time is important, even if the intensity of non-stop photography means the same thing to you as it does to me.

The final “lesson” from this trip which I think is valuable is to try and use the first block of time to just shoot anything and everything, before finding your groove. By allocating and allowing this freedom you can ease into things much better. One of the reasons I shot so much Fomapan during this trip was that I felt more comfortable using this cheaper film to really free my mind from that extra worry about wasting more “valuable” frames. This paid off, and many of the best images ended up on those Foma rolls. 

Paraphrasing my own blog entry about this trip: the more I shot the more comfortable I became. The more comfortable I became the closer I felt I could get; the closer I got the better the image turned out. The more character and energy I was able to capture, the better interactions and moments overall.


Thanks for taking the time to read this! If you want to see more of my work please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.


~ Simon

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6 thoughts on “Lessons learned from 828 frames of 35mm film shot in India”

  1. Simon, sounds like you had a full on photo trip. I really enjoyed reading about your trip and in particular the honesty; the good bad and the ugly!

    I particularly appreciate your comments with regard to finding your groove and the time this can take to get there. I am always amazed that some trips this happens straight away and others it can seem like days before I feel I’ve captured anything I would consider worthwhile. So many factors impact on this, the location, weather, expectations, company, personal well-being etc etc. It’s not just the gear!

    Reply
  2. Thanks for this post. Very thought provoking,

    I’ve finally got myself to acceapt I’ll only ever shoot HP5+ and use one film camera with one lens 90% of the time. Mainly because I’m weak but also because I hate having to decide ‘in the field’ which lens would work best.

    For those rare occassions, mostly when my family insists, I do have my smartphone for colour pics.

    “Over the rest of my trip, I missed far more than these and was kicking myself each and every time.”

    I still torture myself over the number of images I miss but I find on each and every occassion, that it passes with time. After that, I’m left with the images that I did capture.

    Once again, thank you for your thoughts.

    Reply
  3. To be honest for something like this I would have elimanated all the variables and just shot with one B&W film eg a 400 asa film like T Max400.This would have elminated the errors you spoke about .Keep it simple and you can’t go wrong.Its also best to read and understand light and not rely on the cameras light meter – shooting at 1/15th sec via the light meter should have sent alarm bells ringing if you normally shoot wide open.Its interesting when you use a hand meter how much you notice light and how in most situations it doesn’t change .Thats a lot of frames in 9 days almost digital like – I hope you have something worthwhile to show for it

    Reply
    • I agree – and will definitely be using fewer options in the future. However I will still be shooting at different speeds, and rely on a meter as I don’ have the capacity or experience to constantly adjust my opinion of a light reading based on what I last loaded in a camera. I think I’m happy with a few images but I don’t have anything substantial overall. Next time I’ll have hopefully learned from my mistakes!

      Reply
  4. Simon, you’re a great writer and photographer, I’m always looking forward to reading your articles. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Reply

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