I suspect it’s a common dilemma, you’ve booked a holiday with your partner (and or family/friends) and there’s no doubt the destination was influenced by potential photographic opportunities. How on earth are you going to balance wanting to take lots of photos with what other people want to do?!

Well, this article isn’t about that but I believe if you start thinking about what sort of photography you would like to achieve while travelling and your intent, it’s a lot easier to get them on board with any ridiculous ideas.

To my story: a last-minute deal put us on a flight to Sri Lanka with two weeks to plan all the accommodation, transport and most importantly the camera bag! My travel photography planning really kicks only after flights are booked. Before that, there is the inevitable chicken and egg, doing mini research into places, weather conditions, daily costs, flight availability etc.

Kodak Portra 160 with Nikon FM3a, Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S
Kodak Portra 160 with Nikon FM3a, Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S

One of the reasons I enjoy travel photography is that it helps me look closer at the environment I’m in; observing, questioning and learning about different cultures. It creates opportunities and gives me confidence beyond that what I have without a camera – more specifically, gives me the drive to talk to people, wander down back streets and get up before sunrise. But then again, maybe I take photos because I do those things

The big questions

ILFORD HP5 PLUS at EI 800 with Nikon FM3a, Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S
ILFORD HP5 PLUS at EI 800 with Nikon FM3a, Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S

I like to completely overthink things, it is one of my greatest strengths (!), you would not believe how many times this post has been re-written. Inevitably this creates hurdles and almost always achieves nothing. I’m working on it.

So, how did I actually decide what to take and how many times did I re-pack the bag?

Firstly, I got all my camera equipment on the table, I don’t believe I suffer much from GAS, my equipment list is one camera for each format, six lenses across them all and some accessories (filters, loupe, DDS, cable release).

So, it’s all laying there, and I’m thinking to myself, I’ll take the Chroma.  I’ll take the bloody Chroma, YES! Imagine the 4×5 landscape shots I’ll get! And I started to justify how and why I should. And then I had a cup of tea and started to think about things differently.

It started with a map

When travelling I like to move around every few days, all my belongings in a backpack, using different kinds of transport, staying in a variety of accommodations and environments. I tend to avoid cities but love a good market.

Sri Lanka has a fairly well-trodden path, looping around the south-west of the island with Colombo as the start/end. It would take in beaches, safari, cities, small towns, mountains, tea plantations and train travel. Not bad for 2 weeks. A bit of research into this path revealed some key areas to stay, working out how long to spend in each and transport options between them.

Kodak Portra 400 using Nikon FM3a, Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S
Kodak Portra 400 using Nikon FM3a, Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S

Searching for #srilanka on IG showed a stream of bikini-clad, lifestyle photographers hanging out of trains and drinking a lassi in an infinity pool. I almost cancelled the flights.  

For all the mocking of IG influencer photography, they have a strong intent and they do it very well. I’m not the target audience but I suspect the people who are, love them.


All I needed to do was work out was what my intent was. In other words: what was I taking the photos for?I wanted images that I could darkroom print and hopefully exhibit and sell, I also had the idea of producing a zine at the back of my mind. I also knew I wanted to shoot more colour film. I’ve been dabbling more on my home turf recently and wanted to see what this different environment would bring to my colour photography.  

Finally, I also wanted to photograph fewer landscapes and more people, introducing a documentary element. 

Equipment selection

Now I had decided my rough intent and the locations/environments we would be in, the equipment and film selection was fairly easy. Were these decisions influenced on what equipment I already had? In part. I never decided to do pinhole or macro or drone or…..my subconscious had already ruled out anything I couldn’t do with the equipment I already had.

First in the bag was a digital compact, the Sony RX100 II. I know, blasphemous. But this little guy, “TravelCam”, has been everywhere with me. Generally, this is the camera my partner uses to take the ‘holiday snaps’, or as I realised on returning, 326 photos of street cats.

Back to the table of cameras.  I was able to take away equipment easily, knowing that it wasn’t appropriate. Sorry Chroma. I continued until what was left on the table looked bag size and did the first pack. It became the ultimate game of Tetris when I realised I hadn’t left any room for film, which of course would need to be transported in my hand luggage.  

After all the shifting around I ended up with a Nikon FM3a (with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S, Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S and Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S) and a Mamiya 7ii (with 50mm lens). I also squeezed in my Nikonos as apparently there were some good snorkelling opportunities. Oh and some filters, lens cleaner, a notebook, pen, white stickers + sharpie. 

Labelling each canister the same as in the notebook
Labelling each canister the same as in the notebook

What film to take was one of the hardest decisions to make and was influenced by the number of days travelling, key locations and researched subjects. As a quick guide, I assumed I would shoot about 1x35mm and 1×120 roll a day.

So, that’s 14x35mm and 14×120. Too much? Too Little?

I split it about 75% B&W and 25% Colour with film speeds between ISO 100 and 400, knowing I could push/pull if needed. Then I squeezed in as much extra film as possible on top of that after everything else was in. 

Weighing it all up

In total, my day bag weighed in at a mighty 9kg, now this is acceptable for me, I knew it was borderline on my frustration levels IF I had to carry it all around for one day. Oh, and I put my tripod in the hold, wrapped up in all my clothes.

ILFORD FP4 PLUS, Nikon FM3a
ILFORD FP4 PLUS, Nikon FM3a

My main (big) backpack with everything else weighed 9kg. Yep, the camera gear weighed the same as everything I needed. And I’d packed 2 towels. The flight hand luggage limit was 7kg. I was going to keep my fingers crossed. 

In fact, the only place they checked the weight was departing Birmingham, where at the check-in desk the staff kindly allowed the weight to be spread between mine and my partners hand luggage. Phew.

Daily planning, organisation and note-keeping

On arrival, I took the tripod from out of my hold baggage, slotted into the straps on my day bag, took the film out of my day bag and put it in the tripod bag in my main backpack.

This would become my film storage, all shot film would be kept in a separate bag within my main backpack.

Tripod bag used for film storage
Tripod bag used for film storage

On a daily/trip basis I took out the required film and selected the equipment, sometimes I even left the bag at the accommodation and went out with just a camera in hand a couple of spare rolls in my pocket.  Utter bliss.

Every film used was given an ID, starting at #1 on page one of the notebook, before loading the film I noted the date, ID, film type, push/pull the appropriate page.

For 35mm film I wrote the ID and push/pull on the canister before loading and also on the plastic case, for medium format, I wrote the relevant details on the same card slip slotted into my camera and on the roll after being shot. I would then put a tick next to the ID in my notebook after it was finished and placed in the ‘shot film’ storage.

Film logging
Film logging

Going with the flow

Now, I’m sure you’ve seen the Steve McCurry picture of the stilt fishermen?  This was one of those, might as well while I’m there type pictures. The closer we got to the region where the fishermen are the more it became apparent that things are a little different now. That photo was taken in 1995. Locals and other travellers telling us that the fishermen wait on the shore for tourists and are then paid to pose on the stilts.

I have no problem with this, apparently they fish less this way after the tsunami and it’s a way for them to earn some money. However, paying to take someone’s photograph directly personally goes against my “documentary intent”.  Instead, I went surfing (badly) and took some photos of waves as I wanted to use the Nikonos at least once!

Opportunity, waste and recycling

Carrying my gear was a pain at times, carrying my 7kg bag around in the heat, clunkily climbing in and out of tuk-tuks,  hitting my partner with my tripod (accidentally).  Sometimes I didn’t even take any photos but looking back I don’t remember it being that bad.  Memory can be a funny thing.

I always took a camera out though and recommend you do the same if you’re travelling. Now, I dare I say that my camera could just be a mobile phone, but it was my intent was to have film photos that I could hand print in the darkroom. Hence, at the very least, I always took out the Nikon and the 28-70mm f/2.8 beast.

Also, unless you’ve got interchangeable backs or multiple camera bodies, at some point you’ll end up with the “wrong” film in your camera. At sunset, I loaded some ILFORD HP5 PLUS, into my FM3A, which I decided to push to EI 1600. We went out and wandered the streets, I think I took 2 shots before exhaustion took us back to the accommodation and before I realised it, it was the next day, bright sunshine and colour calling.

In this case, I wound the film back enough to protect the shots but left the leader out and noted this in my notebook. I then reused this roll at a later date (at 1600) by firing off the first 3 frames (just to be sure) with the lens cap on.

In other cases, where I was halfway through a roll when needing to change, I lost half the roll. It was either that or take 18 shots eating breakfast. 

What a surprise, I ended up shooting my last roll of 35mm on the final day. Funny how it works out like that??! I reckon if I had taken half the amount of film it would have been the same.

Airport X-ray scanners

Not once did I ask for hand scanning. My films went through 6 x-ray scanners in total, one being a rather mean looking beast entering into Colombo airport. I find airport security a horrible experience at the best of times, take your shoes off, leave your watch on, body scan. I’m not going to make this situation worse by actually opening a conversation with the staff. Now, I didn’t have any 3200 ISO film but experienced zero problems.  And this tallies with a 3-month trip a few years back where my film went through over 30 scanners without issue.

Just don’t put it in the hold (apparently).

Safe landing

Back at home, I laid out the film ready to develop, trying to see what could be batched together and making sure everything was logged correctly!

The big surprise to me on returning was how few B&W medium format shots I took. Most 120 was colour and 35mm was clearly my go-to. Now having had the chance to look through the images, the lesson I’ve learnt is that I should have used it more. There are some 35mm images that I could, and should, have taken medium format. Oh well.  

The yield - Kodak Portra 400, Mamiya 7ii
The yield – Kodak Portra 400, Mamiya 7ii

I think this comes down to the 28-70 lens, I used this a lot, although the 80-200mm lens was used more than expected – not just on safari. I only used the Nikonos once so I guess that was a waste, but you never know, if more water-based activities had happened it would have been essential.

And that’s it! A week of solid developing and scanning left me with over 1000 images and after a first pass, 500 flagged as ‘usable/interesting’ – not a bad hit ratio! If you’re interested in the final set of selected images, they are over on my website

My big regret was not having some 120 film cases and (maybe 35mm ones), I was always worried about them when my main backpack was being thrown about on tuk-tuks and trains.

As of 25th April 2019 Sri Lanka is on an ‘essential travel only’ list from the UK Foreign Office after the Easter Sunday bombings. Obviously, I would recommend following this advice and looking for the latest information from your local government bodies.

However long it takes to recover from this horrific incident I wouldn’t hesitate to return.

Sri Lanka is a wonderful country, made especially so by the people there. Tourism is a vital part of their economy and I’m sure in the future they would greatly appreciate your support in visiting.

Thanks for reading,

~ John

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11 COMMENTS

  1. I often travel with film, and sometimes x-rays are unavoidable (roll in the camera, eg.). But I also find that the vast majority of x-ray operators will happily hand search the film by taking a swab. In the last three years I think only one officer gave any resistance, but they still did it by hand in the end. More often that not I end up in a good-natured conversation with the security officer about how you don’t see much film anymore these days.

    The point is that if you are going to be travelling through multiple X-rays, it makes sense to avoid them where you can, and hopefully keep the total number down. Pack the film in a clear bag just like your liquids and hand it over. The worst thing that will happen is that they will say ‘no’.

    Maybe even have a dummy roll of 3200 to help your odds of success?

  2. Great story! And it’s good to know about your personal experience with x-ray machines. I’ve always been worried about it, and at airports always ask for hand inspection. I have been denied, though, and have had issues with my negatives. But that could be due to other issues (like heat maybe), and I’ve never been able to isolate the variables. Plus, at train stations, malls, etc, where you might encounter them, however, I don’t even bother to aka. For my next trip, I’ll worry less about all that, so I can worry about other, more important things!

  3. An enjoyable article…thanks for the insightful process of equipment choice, film selection, et al. Good pics; my favorite is the tree full of the primates – reminds me of politicians, but that’s unfair to the creatures in the tree.
    I always want to know what people pack & how they deal with security. I used to ‘hump’ heavy camera bags until an accident caused chronic back damage. I’ve pared down to a camera/one lens and film: I allow 2×36 exp. per day.
    Whenever possible, I travel w/XP-2 and have it processed by a lab ‘in country.’ Here in the US, you have the right to hand inspection of film. I allow extra time so as not to stress the security agents at the screening gates. When I pass through security overseas, I ask for special consideration using the excuse of damage due to multiple passes of film through scanners located at museums and other checkpoints. So, if processing on the fly is not available, then I smile, act politely, and engage the officials. What does not work is rudeness, shouting, demanding to see supervisors and generally being the ugly American…Brit…German, etc. More flies with honey…

    • Hahaha. Not in the UK at the moment, the tree would be empty. 🙂
      On longer trips I have had film processed on location too, unfortunately I once had a couple of rolls massively scratched from a random lab and it’s put me off completely.

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