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  1. #1
    mooseontheloose's Avatar
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    Shooting Film in the Rainforest (Borneo)

    So it looks like I'll be headed to Borneo this September for a conference, and I'll be able to stay on for 2-3 weeks afterwards. I'm planning the logistics of my trip now, but I hope it will involve some time in the rainforest, especially in the Danum Valley, and possibly also the Maliau Basin and Gunung Mulu NP. I'm not a specialist in anything, but I'm hoping to get some good photos of not only the natural landscape, but of the life inside the forests as well, from orangutans and pygmy elephants to various insects and other interesting creatures. Birds are not a concern for me -- I don't mind spotting them, but I don't have the photography gear to shoot them in any meaningful way.

    I've been researching photography in rainforests online, but almost everything seems to be digitally-based. Which is understandable since you can push the ISO and still be able to handhold in many situations. But what about film? I do want to shoot black and white, and will probably use Tri-X or HP5+ (pushed) to be able to grab handheld shots, but what about colour? Provia 400x is still available here in Japan, and I could stock up on it. I'm also not ruling out negative film, but I almost never shoot with it. I'd also like to try shooting infrared (I have both HIE and Efke in the freezer) although that wouldn't be the primary focus.

    I still haven't decided what kit I'll bring with me, but I know I'll try to keep it limited since the humidity there will be quite draining. In all likelihood it will be one (or two) Nikon FE bodies, 28mm/2.8 (the widest lens I have), 50mm/1.8 (maybe) and 105mm/2.8 lenses, and my Minolta Autocord TLR, since it is significantly lighter than my Bronica kit, although I wish it had a wider lens on it. I do have a 70-200mm lens, but it's heavy and slow, which makes me think it wouldn't be a good option on this trip. The two Nikons would be for colour and B&W, and the Autocord would be primarily for B&W.

    And yes, I'll bring a tripod. And silica dry packs! And a polarizer. And ziplock bags or other raingear for me and my camera equipment. And bug spray (of course).

    As I'm not much of a nature photographer, and have little to no experience shooting in hot, tropical rainforests, so I'd really appreciate hearing from those who have shot in similar situations. I'd like to do some experimenting before my trip so any and all advice (especially concerning film use/exposure/developing and if shooting handheld is viable) would be appreciated. Similarly, any links to online resources would be great.
    Rachelle

    My favorite thing is to go where I've never been. D. Arbus

  2. #2

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    Though I don't shoot much nature past 50mm when I needed some reach my go-to weapon of choice was the Vivitar Series 1 70-210 f3.5 Kiron-made lens, on a Nikkormat FTn.

    It's a one touch push-pull zoom lens with astonishing image quality even by today's standards, they pop up here from time to time and usually go for between 50 and 75 dollars so you won't exactly break the bank to acquire a clean copy of one......I actually found mine in a pawn shop locally.

    Most of my landscape work on 135 format is shot from 20 to 35mm so I would suggest finding an ultrawide for your FE, Vivitar made an 18mm lens and I think Quantaray had a 17 that was decent. The 28 isn't bad but you will find yourself wanting to go wider when you get in the bush.
    5x7 Eastman-Kodak kit, under the knife for a bit
    4x5 Graphic View / Schneider 180 / Ektar 127
    RB67 Pro S / 50 4.5 / 90 3.8 / 180 4.5 / WLF / prism finder / polaback
    Random 35mm stuff

  3. #3
    mooseontheloose's Avatar
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    I was thinking that I might have to go wider too -- I do have a 18-35mm zoom, but it's big, heavy and slow. Although I guess if I'm using a wide-angle lens it'll be for landscapes so slowness wouldn't be a factor, since in all likelihood I'll be using a tripod. However, I'll look into wider prime lenses -- I'm going to Osaka this weekend so I'll take a look at what the camera shops have to offer.
    Rachelle

    My favorite thing is to go where I've never been. D. Arbus

  4. #4
    Jaf-Photo's Avatar
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    I'm with you on Provia 400. Should reproduce colours well and look brilliant.

    TX for B&W should be versatile enough and look great too (just look at Salgado's rainforest photos shot with Tri-X).

    I think you should also bring a tele lens, in addition to a wide and normal. You'll probably want to shoot some animals and plants from a distance?

  5. #5

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    Look up Clyde Butcher as well, though he shoots large and ultra-large format sheet film a lot of his work is shot on ultrawide lenses that work out to <28mm on 135.

    I know his weapon of choice is the Nikkor 75 SW on 4x5 which works out to something like a 22 or 24mm lens on 135.
    5x7 Eastman-Kodak kit, under the knife for a bit
    4x5 Graphic View / Schneider 180 / Ektar 127
    RB67 Pro S / 50 4.5 / 90 3.8 / 180 4.5 / WLF / prism finder / polaback
    Random 35mm stuff

  6. #6

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    I've been to Mulu NP and I would recommend you bring as little gear as you can. The humidity is truly awesome. By the end of my first afternoon there the pages of the travel guide were limp with moisture. Silica gel packs will do no good unless you bring a lot of it. Keep your gear away from direct rain and clean them daily. Dry them properly after you get home.

    The interior of a rainforest is very dark, much less light than you think. At ISO 400 it's about f4 at 1/60 at most. Bright sun will create lots of shadows in the understory with large illumination ranges and when it is overcast everything will be gloomy. A flash will be useful for close subjects.

    As for lenses, the range you own is perfectly adequate. If you can find a good zoom in the medium wide range it will be very useful, perhaps something like a 28-70mm. I would not bring the 70-200. There is a lot of walking involved and you do not want to exhaust yourself carrying gear for there is a lot of good stuff to see. You can only hope to capture so much on film. The Bornean landscape is truly amazing and you probably do not want to spend all your time photographing.

  7. #7
    mooseontheloose's Avatar
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    Thanks for the suggestions guys! For some reason I forgot about Salgado, and Butcher's work is fantastic. Although I can't imagine lugging the gear he uses!

    limsoonchung - that's really useful to know. The humidity in Japan can get pretty bad in summer as well, in fact where I used to live it was really unbearable. I'm hoping that that will help me a bit once in Borneo. In reality, I'd like nothing more than to carry something really light like a Holga, but that's not going to happen. The good (or bad) thing is I won't be doing any long trek or difficult hikes, so I won't be going to places like the Pinnacles in Mulu NP and Mt Kinabalu, which means I can maybe(?) carry a little extra gear if needed. I wouldn't mind getting a mid-range zoom, but I can't afford a fast one, and as you said, the light will be low in the rainforest. I'd rather to stick to primes if I can.

    I guess one (handheld) option would be to keep the colour film for places where there's a little more light (the edge of the rainforest, cruising down the river) and just use B&W for the interior, and do some experimenting before I go with pushed film and developing techniques and see what I like.
    Rachelle

    My favorite thing is to go where I've never been. D. Arbus

  8. #8
    Poisson Du Jour's Avatar
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    While I have no experience shooting in Borneo's rainforests, I have many years' experience shooting in cool temperate (wet and cold!) rainforests that are common near where I live in the coastal hinterland areas. I do not know if you have access to rainforests nearby where you live: there really is no substitute for getting into one and getting good old fashioned experience — before you go into something bigger.

    In all but open areas where there is abundant bright light (unlikely), a tripod will be essential and will likely be in use all the time. You will need to be very, very quick and alert to photograph the wildlife (you might consider going with a guide for safety and orientation).

    Besides ISO flexibility, I don't see any advantage in digital over film in rainforests : a tripod will still be necessary and absolutely essential for exposures of several seconds. Forget about the pin-sharp hand-held images reproduced online: truth be told, they have very likely never been enlarged to wall-filling sizes that will show the folly of hand-held shooting in low light — blur, and there are plenty examples of that if only people would be more careful with their shooting.

    Film is a personal thing and based on your own experience. I really am not sure that black and white will do any rainforest scene justice: it strikes me as bland and unserviceable given the depth and breadth of colour you will encounter. Provia 400X is a reasonable choice but no guarantee of getting off a tripod, but so too are the gold standard Velvias which, while reducing your Tv values to several seconds to a minute, will deliver the very best results in terms of greens, yellows and reds. A polariser will be an excellent accessory, cutting out spectrals and enhancing the depth of hue, but it must be compensated correctly or it will completely flatten (underexpose) the scene. Rainforests by their very nature are very dark and enclosed and need strong points of focal interest, not wide sweeping views of a canvas of emerald green verdure where the viewer is lost seeking out one specific place to 'land' of interest. Sometimes I have needed a head torch while navigating on a bright sunny day and on overcast winter days it is so dark that your companions leading the way should be wearing fluoro vests to make them more visible! Consider travelling with the bare minimum equipment (e.g. two cameras only) that will get the job done: as you have noted, the humidity will be terrible and the more equipment you have to haul about the worse the effect will be on you — literally saturated from head to toe and exhausted. And I don't think Borneo's rainforests are flat! You will also need to carry your own water where the quality of wild water cannot be guaranteed (even in Borneo!).
    “The photographer must determine how he wants the finished print to look before he exposes the negative.
    Before releasing the shutter, he must seek 'the flame of recognition,' a sense that the picture would reveal
    the greater mystery of things...more clearly than the eyes see."
    ~Edward Weston, 1922.

  9. #9

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    Last year I went to Nepal and went to Chitwan in June. Very hot and very humid. Just to put thing into perspective, I'm very fit and go to gym at minimum 3 days a week, I used to do powerlifting and I'm pretty strong. The gear I packed was hassy with 2 lenses (60 and 150) and 3 backs. Pentax MX with 3 lenses. Lots of film. 3 litres of water. I left my DSLR in hotel to save weight.

    After 4 hours in rainforest I wished I brought less gear and more water. ISO 400 wasn't fast enough to shoot the Blad in rainforest. Barely fast enough to shoot the pentax, but I didn't do it, since movement would be blurred.

    In retrospect I should have brought Hasselblad with 1 lens and tripod. 1 or 2 backs. ISO 100 film. For small critters I would have gone DSLR with one lens, but then I don't shoot any critters so that's fine. I only ended up taking few photos in more wide open grassy areas.

    Rhino by Jarek Miszkinis, on Flickr

  10. #10
    mooseontheloose's Avatar
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    Gary, Jarek, thanks.

    I'm definitely not fit and strong but I am used to travelling with a fairly large pack (Bronica SQAi + 2 lenses and 2 backs, plus Nikon FE or F100 + 2 or 3 lenses, plus Holga or pinhole, plus film, tripod, and accessories), mostly in hot humid countries in Asia. That being said, I definitely want to reduce that as much as possible for Borneo. Japan does have temperate rainforest, I guess I never think of it that way, other than the far southern prefectures (just looked it up!). I'm going to make a plan to spend some time on the weekends (at least once a month) hiking and photographing the forests to see what I can get. I really want to find an effective way to shoot black and white in the forest.
    Rachelle

    My favorite thing is to go where I've never been. D. Arbus

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