A Brief Fling with Film at the Vancouver Photo Marathon

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Last Sunday, I dusted off my trusty Nikon F5 film camera and several lenses, and took part in the Vancouver Photo Marathon, a 12-hour photo contest event in which participants were given 12 themes (one theme released an hour) with which to take pictures in the exact order of the themes.

Yes, this was a whopping single frame of film per theme, which added to the stress.

Tech bits:

Camera:

  • Nikon F5 – Despite its 13-year age, it still has full compatibility with my new and old AF/AF-S lenses and the very reliable and familiar 1005 area RGB metering system still used today. I hadn’t fired off film in this baby for almost three years but given that it is built to last, I popped in a new set of batteries and hoped for the best. No time to really test further.

Lenses:

  • With 400 ISO Kodak film and rain in the forecast, I brought along some fast primes, like the 28/1.4 and 85/1.4 which also got me nice depth of field control. The 105VR macro lens made the cut, and a good thing too as I used it in at least three of my theme shots.  The 17-35/2.8 (my favourite film era lens, but not so happy on digital) and 70-300VR also made the cut. Two lenses didn’t get used at all – the fisheye and the 28. I was mainly able to shoot outside in decent light despite the weather so the fast lenses didn’t become as necessary.

Flash:

  • The latest and greatest SB-900 does not work in TTL mode with the F5, setting itself to “A”, but the SB-800 does, so the SB-800 it was.

Accessories:

  • A Manfrotto monopod. A tripod would have been a better choice but mine is heavy and I didn’t have an Arca-Swiss plate for the F5
  • Point-and-shoot camera for stills and video. I mainly used my iPhone instead
  • A Joby Gorillapod for holding my digital camera or flash
  • An off-camera sync cord (SC-29)
  • Remote release
  • Backpack for the gear and a fanny pack for overflow

All in all, this was a pretty substantial load to carry along all day. Next time I might just have fun and use one or two lenses, or maybe a fully manual camera. However I was grateful for the sealed, water-resistant gear that day.

So on to the experience…

One word: GRUELLING! The “Marathon” name is well-deserved on many levels.

Physically gruelling because of my extremely heavy choice of gear. This isn’t much more than I’m normally used to lugging around, but when I’m forced to move around for 12 hours without much of a break in between, to hop up and down the Skytrain / Canada Line station stairs, and to dart in and out of the downtown core from Yaletown with a heavy backpack, it gets very tiring. Add to that mix the heavy rain that day, which had my feet and shoes soaked by about theme 2, and you have a pretty soggy, miserable time. Of course, as is the norm before a big event, I had trouble getting to sleep and had a listless night leaving me desperate for caffeine. But as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you … umm… hurt a lot.

Mentally gruelling because of the stress of getting that one frame, the frame that says it all, the frame that you start agonizing over the moment you get the hour’s theme, and the frame that you have to take full responsibility for every square millimeter of. Then in a click of the shutter, it’s all over. No going back to fix something that could be improved, no point in having any regrets. Just clear your mind and move forward to the next thing. If that’s not some sort of metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.

I did hear in my head the gentle, abusive tones of Jay Maisel as I went through the day – we’ll see if that helped my pictures or not. Maybe I was just a little low on sugar.

Highlights: Just being able to say I did it. Only other participants will likely understand the full extreme nature of the event. Being able to let go and just try new and funky ideas, like multiple exposure, without a clue as to how they would turn out. Getting a taxi driver to help me out with the last shot. Setting up a makeshift studio in an alley just out of the rain hoping nobody would wonder what I was doing. Buying props to shoot with. Winning a cool draw prize just by being present for the hourly theme draw. Having a chance to shoot film again!

Lowlights: My 17-35 lens decided to drop 2.5 feet out of my backpack onto the road, making a sickening glass crunchy sound. Amazingly there’s just a tiniest scuff on the lens barrel and rear end cap but the lens appears totally fine.

The organizing by the 12x12YVR gang was excellent, so I would definitely recommend it to anybody else to try. Would I do it again? Ask me once my body stops aching from the day! Now, I would be tempted to help out, for sure, so I can subject others to the same exquisite torture. 🙂

I hope to see the results and chat with the rest of this year’s gang at the big reveal and results announcements on October 16!