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Thread: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

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  1. #1

    Join Date
    Nov 2019

    Question Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    This summer I'm working on a ranch in New Mexico. The job has a fairly generous off-days policy so I'm planning on backpacking around and bringing my 4x5. I have sundry questions as to how to get all the logistics to work out.

    I'm hoping to take the train, so scanners shouldn't be an issue. If I have to fly I have some lead bags I can keep the film in/I can ask for hand-check.

    I only have so many film holders and I don't really want to backpack with any more holders than I need to (for weight and bulk reasons). I assume I'll shoot more than 34 frames in 3 months so I need some way of loading+unloading film. Changing bags should work fine, no?

    I like to shoot films in the range of asa100, and keeping film exposed but undeveloped for 3 months will risk some latent image loss, correct? That means I'll have to develop as I go.
    Has anyone developed in trays in a changing bag? Is this even close to feasible? I could use daylight tanks but they're an added cost and I wouldn't be able to develop as much at a time. Also, will 20 or 30 minutes in trays be too long for film to be out, even in a changing bag? a.k.a. are changing bags actually light-tight, or will I see some fogging? How much does the brand of changing bag matter? Could I use two bags nested inside each other?

    Also, this is the Rockies in the summer. Nighttime 20s and daytime 80s wouldn't be very surprising. Is that enough of a range to totally jack my film? Humidity shouldn't be an issue, it's typically around 3-10%. Anyway I'm going to store the film in drybags in case of rain.

    Tripods: I have a carbon tripod I use with my digital that's light but maybe not sturdy enough. I've heard of people converting survey tripods into LF tripods, so I might do that. However, if finances work out ok I'll have one of those Intrepid cameras by this summer. Would a 'normal' tripod be sturdy enough for an Intrepid camera, or does the size+wind-catching ability of a 4x5 always necessitate a super-sturdy tripod?

    Chemistry: I doubt I'll be out long enough that I'll run out of loaded film and need to develop by a mountain stream but I figure I should at least think about it. Can developer by pre-diluted, or will that mess it up? I'll be using Rodinal if that matters.

    That's all I can think of at the moment. I realize I'm asking like a ton and a half. Feel free to take a deep breath and close the tab :p


  2. #2
    Big Negs Rock!
    Join Date
    Mar 2000

    Re: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    I stay in motels and usually load/unload film in a closet (bathroom) at night. I wouldn't worry about image loss, & if you are, give the film an added density of 1/3 stop.
    Mark Woods

    Large Format B&W
    Cinematography Mentor at the American Film Institute
    Past President of the Pasadena Society of Artists
    Director of Photography
    Pasadena, CA

  3. #3
    Drew Wiley
    Join Date
    Sep 2008
    SF Bay area, CA

    Re: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    I wouldn't worry about sheet film latent image problems in just 3 months. Developing in a changing tent just sounds like a real good way to ruin the tent and get fresh film contaminated. Even changing film in them requires some forethought to keep them dust free. Down to the 20's at night? I didn't know the Rockies were in Florida. Sub-freezing is more a concern to meter batteries not working the next morning. Keep a spare in a pocket on in the sleeping bag. No need for fancy drybags. Carry a few spare 4-mil garbage can liners. Your spare clothing and sleeping bag should always be kept waterproofed. You won't take many pictures if you freeze to death first due to wet provisions. Even dayhiking warrants a dry jacket and rain parka or poncho along. I don't know what you mean by a "normal" tripod. The worst investment you can make is an underweight tripod with a center column and ballhead. It's called wobbly. Test yours with a comparable view camera actually on it before taking it into the mountains to see if it's rigid enough. Factor in gust of wind, etc. Advertised weight rating don't tell you much of anything. Get real boots and a decent tent if out for overnighters or extended trips. Glorified tennis shoes aren't of any value in even a light snowfall. Sounds like a fun opportunity, but don't underestimate the skill fine dust has getting into gear and onto film.

  4. #4
    David Schaller
    Join Date
    Mar 2002
    Williamstown, MA

    Re: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    I would also choose a Crown Graphic rather than the Intrepid. And I bet you can find a dark corner where you can load holders at night. Bring trays with you.

  5. #5

    Join Date
    Nov 2019

    Re: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    The Crown graphic is nearly 5 times as heavy, and doesn't offer as many movements. If I need to settle for a graphic I will but I think the Intrepid is a better option.

    The other reason I'd like to develop while on the ranch if possible is simply for the insurance. Keeping undeveloped film for months would freak me out I think. Lots of risk of accidental wetting, exposure, etc. A developed negative is (relatively) stable. I might be able to find a dark__room to develop film in, but I'm not betting on it.
    If I can't find a dark__room would it be better to develop in daylight tanks or to wait and develop when I get home?

  6. #6

    Join Date
    Jan 2019

    Re: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    Don't develop on the go, 3 months will be fine, particularly for B&W. Bring film and a 4x5 tent to load the holders. You can do it even in your car.
    In my experience you don't need a really sturdy tripod for the Intrepid unless you're trying to use a heavy lens like a Fuji 400m T or something like that.
    When I can't afford bringing my Gytzo series 3 I bring a Mefoto Globetrotter (carbon), it does fine provided you know the limitations and don't expose it to strong winds or stuff like that.
    Rodinal doesn't last long once mixed with water. But if you run out of film, what you do is you open your tent in your car, unload the holders and load new film. Stay organized as it's bad to mix exposed and unexposed film.
    Just go out and shoot. You'll soon see what works for you and what needs more fine tuning.

  7. #7

    Join Date
    Dec 2000
    Tonopah, Nevada, USA

    Re: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    I wouldn't try to develop on the go. I think I have a few empty 4X5 film boxes around the place. One smart thing to do is label empty boxes, reg dev. +1 dev. -1 dev. etc, and download your films into the labeled boxes so it's not such a crap shoot in the darkroom later on. OTOH if you want to get feedback on how your stuff is doing in the new environment a JOBO 2500 series daylight tank might be the way to go in the mostly light.

    One thing to be aware of in the high country where it's dry is the light can be incredibly harsh. 5 or 6 stops between dark-ish shadows and sunlit areas is common. If those shots are important it may be worth taking along a diffuse disc to pre-expose some of the worst cases which only effects your zones 1 and 2. It can raise those dark shadows up to z2 and z3 for you in the harsh light. If you don't have one, the little tub in the Pillsbury cinamon rolls that the sugarry goo comes in can work well for 58mm and smaller filter rings. Slide it on, calculate a zone 1 exposure and pre-expose. Then shoot normal. Your zone 1's will move up to 2 and your zone 2's will move up to 3. Nothing else gets exposed enough at zone 1 times to matter.

  8. #8

    Join Date
    Apr 2012
    southeast Idaho, Teton Valley

    Re: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    Some suggestions:

    Ask if there is a room that could be made dark enough to load film, at least. This will be much easier at night, before the moon is up, assuming they don't have bright outdoor lights (many farm- or ranch-steads have such lights). Much less chance for dust on the film with a room than with a changing bag. You can also load film into a day-light tank too. Check on the film capacity and open-tray storage time for your developer. A tank may be more convenient and allow a similar developing rate as trays with a given mix of chemical (stock, 1:1, replenishment, etc.). Trays in changing bags sounds miserable. So does processing film by a mountain stream.

    In case you haven't already, ask the ranch manager/owner if it is okay to use chemicals for processing film. Some may not want it around. You can always mail out the film for processing, at least the priority images, and do the rest at home.

    The black plastic bags that Ilford printing paper comes in makes great light-tight, water proof bags to store film holders in (don't put them in direct sunlight for too long though, they get hot). I have lots of these and will send several of them to you if you like. Use a rubber band to close them, or a small piece of tape. They're good for three or four holders per bag.

    Your temperature range is reasonable for the southern Rockies in summer, although 20's is unusually low for summer. New Mexico is often within the monsoonal flow in mid- to late-summer, so lots of thunderstorms, and higher humidity and warm nights when cloudy. A lithium meter battery will be fine at any temperatures you'll encounter. Even an alkaline one should be fine -- it's just not going to be that cold. A Gossen Pilot, a very small selenium-cell meter, works well for backcountry situations, if you can find a working one. Mine still works fine after over 50 years of use.

    My view on tripods is that heavy ones are not worth it when backpacking. Just be extra careful when the dark cloth is on, as it catches the wind very easily and can blow over big tripods too. When it is windy, trees etc. wave around and will be unsharp, even if your camera is bolted to bedrock. In slight wispy breezes or still air, many tripods will do, but yours may be too small. What 4 by 5 do you have now, and what tripod do you use with it?

    Once you get there, you'll likely be focused on trip logistics, so keeping the camera situation as simple as possible will allow you more time for photography and enjoying nature.

  9. #9

    Join Date
    Nov 2019

    Re: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    I'll see about finding a dark_room. Worst comes to worst I'll change in a bag or whatever but I'd really rather not.

    I don't yet have that many empty film boxes because I'm fairly new to 4x5 but I have lots of printing paper bags. I should be able to make some triple-nested boxes with a little ingenuity and some leftover shipping boxes. xacto knives and rubber cement here I come!!

    At the ranch last year we had monsoons from mid July to mid August. Hard rainstorm at 2pm every day for an hour or two, then the sun would pop out. I think we only had a few times when it rained overnight. I already have lots of methods for keeping my gear dry from all my backpacking, so wet film shouldn't be an issue.

    Currently I have a 'brand 17' camera, and I've found next to no information on it. Apparently it was used by the airforce and it's called 17 because the rails extend to 17", however the bellows are old and dry enough I'd be wary of such a large extension. I use a totally off-brand knockoff tripod that I think was based on the mefoto tripods, just guessing by the look of it. It's sturdy-ish but I need another tripod anyway in case I want to be shooting digital and film simultaneously. I don't know if I could buy a tripod that would equal a modified survey tripod at the same price. Survey tripods are on the region of 8 or 10 pounds for $40 or $50. My backpacker's heart screams at the thought of a single item being 8 pounds, but my cheapskate's heart screams at the thought of spending hundreds of dollars on a piece of photo equipment that's not a camera or glass. Thoughts?

  10. #10

    Re: Me, my inexperienced butt, and the backcountry

    That sounds like a great adventure, but without knowing your personal/professional investment in the eventual output, I'm not sure you wouldn't be better off pulling off the 4x5 sheet film approach and instead buying a couple of Horseman roll film backs. Not to rehearse the old 120 vs. 4x5 debate, but I think there's a lot to be said for the "avoiding disaster" approach, even it means a marginal compromise in IQ somewhere down the line. Personally--unless you need to use really wide or really long lenses--I'd be looking at a sturdy Horseman "technical" 4x5 like the FA or HD and maybe the equivalent of a "2-series" Gitzo (e.g. Induro, Feisol, etc.). If you're rolling with a typical three lens kit, that probably means an extra 1000-1500 cu in taken up in your pack, and a weight a little shy of 20 pounds.

    At any rate, good luck with whatever choice you make!

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