The East African Savannah on medium format film: Twice the weight for black and white? Any time.

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I hate travelling light. Truth be told, I always surprise myself with the amount of gear I consider necessary on a trip. That’s better. You see, I always have a perfectly good explanation for every piece of gear I carry. As you might expect, this is largely focused on being prepared for any situation, thousands of miles from home, should such a photo opportunity arrive.

I need to memorize this sentence because as soon as my wife sees the amount of stuff I plan to take, she will give me the disapproving look, that means “Really? You’re planning on carrying all that for the next X weeks?”


Medium format photo gear does not fit in a fanny pack. It adds another backpack and there is NO WAY I’ll check it as hold baggage. It will be checked as carry-on, like the other backpack that carries cameras and lenses for birds. After seeing how luggage is handled in a few airports around the world, I’m amazed that even clothing survives a trip. I’ve seen luggage that makes you want to question the airline if it wouldn’t be better to land before unloading.

I was really looking forward to photographing wildlife in Tanzania with medium format on black and white film, so, on top of an already heavy pack with big lenses for wildlife, I took a Pentax 67II with 45mm, 135mm Macro, 200mm and 300mm lenses, and a Rolleiflex 3.5 as a back-up. I learned the need for a back-up on a previous trip while I still had a Pentax 645, which, like anything that relies on batteries to work, decided to go on strike in the middle of nowhere. Had I not taken a back-up camera, I would have returned with one roll of film.

I had also decided on that previous trip that I wouldn’t risk exposed negatives to be ruined by X-Rays or curious customs officers, so I brought along film developing chemistry, a daylight tank, black plastic and negative sleeves with me. I sat in a different bathroom every night — which I light-proofed with black plastic — and developing the catch of the day. If I ruined or missed something, I could always try to return to the spot and photograph a similar scene. That said, it’s worth remembering that can only be done if you rent a car, don’t have a fixed schedule AND your wife/family have a sense of humor.

I did, we didn’t and they do.

Although I consider the Pentax 67II the ideal medium format camera for wildlife photography, the sound of the mirror slap during exposure will scare most mammals and send small birds into immediate cardiac arrest. I use the camera’s mirror lock-up for every tripod-mounted image but handheld this is something to be dealt with.

Mirror lock-up may reduce camera shake but still makes a loud mechanical noise when the mirror slaps back down. Photographing elephants that are close to an open vehicle should be avoided. They DON’T like the noise. It might sound too much like Spanish royalty or New York dentists on vacation.


Africa’s vast expanses have a strange light that I initially found difficult to reproduce in my prints. On one hand, today’s limited paper offering makes it harder finding a stock that reproduces the light and mood of a scene. On the other hand, after many years of using one film and one developer, most of my negatives print within a similar exposure range.

I use dodging and burning for aesthetic reasons, mainly to balance a print or accentuate details, but I try to make most of the image during exposure and get the scene’s contrast during development. With these negatives, I had to run many tests until I found a basic combination of paper, developer and exposure, to produce images that felt the way I remembered the scene.

The One-Film-One-developer mantra has a big advantage: all the information is in the negative. It might take some time until you’re satisfied with the prints, but you’ll get there. Still, I made the mistake of taking some film I had never used, and learned a valuable lesson: never take film you have never used, unless, instead of photos you want to bring back a valuable lesson.

The film was ILFORD’s SFX, which, although not a true infrared film, can produce beautiful and sharp images with a strong Wood effect. Not specified in the SFX 200 Technical Data Sheet (PDF link) is its sensitivity to X-Rays. I figured I could take a few rolls, develop the least interesting one as a test and extrapolate development time for the rest of the material. The only comfort, after having ruined all the rolls was that they were probably already ruined by the time I loaded them into the camera. I managed to save just two or three frames.

From about 400 negatives the images I enjoy the most are those showing the scale of the land. The American tropics, where I have spent most of my time photographing, are dark, humid and contrasting. The topography is, more often than not, so rugged that you see the sun until it breaks over the mountains at 11:00 in the morning. The Serengeti plains are lit before the sun comes up.

Several of my favorite images are also printed in a panoramic format, as this shows more how the visual real estate is distributed there.

There is also the family factor to be taken into account. The time it takes to set up a camera for landscape photography and expose several frames is reasonable. However, sitting in a blind waiting to photograph wildlife is not considered quality family time. That is also an aspect to evaluate when putting together gear for such a trip.

Many wildlife images did not make the cut for a very simple reason. They were taken in both color and black and white. Speaking personally, my black and white images are often a dull copy of the former when shooting both at the same time. The black and white images I like most are those seen or conceived initially in monochrome. The rest of the negatives will undergo the Halloween bonfire edition.


Looking back at the material, most of the black and white prints that made it from negative to framed print were taken on days that yielded from poor to no images in color. I find it very difficult to make satisfactory photos in both media at the same time. Usually when I’ve attempted it, both results are quite poor. I have found the best solution is to get up, look at the day, and decide: it’s going to be a great day for __ and stick with it.

Looking back at the trip, the equipment I took and the images I brought back, it will always be worth carrying the extra gear. The pleasure of getting into the darkroom and reconstructing the moments, from test strip to test prints to final copies can’t be compared with digital editing. Once I have the basic print recipe and I start adjusting the print values, the moment of the exposure becomes very vivid again.

I try to print only those negatives that deserve to hang on the wall. A good friend of mine once told me how to tell a good photo. He said:

“Imagine this photo is hanging in front of you, at the place you spend most of your time. Something like your office desk. Would you still enjoy looking at it after ten years? That’s how you know it is a good photo.”

I always remember that comment when I pick a negative for printing. And if it ends up hanging on one of the walls, I know it was worth carrying another backpack for it.

Most of the images you see here were printed on ILFORD Galerie FB at grades 2 (8”x10”) or 3 (11”x 14”), and Selenium toned (10:1) just to neutralize their greenish tone. The contrast of the final prints was adjusted developing in Selectol-Soft and Dektol.

Thanks very much for reading,

~ Peter


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8 thoughts on “The East African Savannah on medium format film: Twice the weight for black and white? Any time.”

  1. These are amazing. They make me wish I had brought film with me when I went to Kenya. Will definitely take some on my next trip. Thanks for sharing these!

    Reply
  2. Peter! Brilliant photos! They certainly justify the many kilos of gear that you brought, and indeed, may have carried for short distances. I assume that you travelled by Land Rover or equivalent?

    I travel on foot. I carry a 1950s Zeiss folder (mirrorless!) that fits in my hip pocket, has negligible value, and produces excellent 6×6 negatives that offer fine enlargement to 11×14. However, it would prevent me from photographing frame filling wildlife in the interest of self preservation.

    Reply
    • Thank you ZVONMIR ! Yes, I travelled by Land Rover for over 6,000 km on these trips. I understand the argument of self-preservation perfectly. I saw a sign in Zimbabwe “Cyclists not allowed inside park, unless they can pedal faster than our lions”. Theodore Roosevelt had a photographer on his safaris that took 5″x7″ portraits of wildlife, but instead of having to run, he had someone with a large gun standing by. I prefer carrying a telephoto.

      Reply
    • Thank you ! I find that I can react “shooting from the hip” to images in color. In Black & White I have to think how the scene translates to light and shadow. When I shoot from the hip in B&W, I usually shoot my foot

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