Until recently, the last time I shot an entire roll of film was on a Canon EOS 5, sometime in the mid-2000s. Last month, I put a roll of black-and-white film through my mother’s old Olympus Trip 35, and the results sparked some strong emotions.
I have vague memories of my the Olympus Trip 35 from my childhood. I think it came with the family on a trip to Weston-super-Mare, a classic British seaside resort, around 1984, when I was barely old enough to tie my shoelaces. Technology moved on, and since the end of the 1980s, it has remained in my parents’ attic.
The global pandemic has meant very few visits back to my family home, but in November, I finally returned — this time with an empty car — to free my parents from the junk that has accumulated in their attic as a result of my various moves between countries. I’d been longing to see if their old Olympus Trip still worked and, like so many other photographers, remind myself of what it’s like to shoot without the flexibility and carefree instantaneity of digital.
Unsure of the Trip’s potential, I ordered some of the cheapest film available, and with winter approaching, faster film made more sense. I received two rolls of Fomapan 400 and watched a YouTube video showing how to load the Trip to ensure that I wasn’t being an idiot.
The Olympus Trip 35 is an interesting camera. It’s a bit more than a point-and-shoot, as it features an aperture ring, and focusing requires you to guess the distance to your subject before selecting "uncomfortably close," "not quite so close," "that's a bit farther back now," and "really quite far away." These vague distances are indicated by various symbols of people and mountains, though there are feet and inches on the underside of the lens if you feel like cheating. There’s no control over the shutter speed, and the camera will choose automatically between 1/40th and 1/200th of a second so if you decide to stray from Automatic and set your aperture, you’ll need a very good eye or a light meter. ISO 400 proved to be a good choice, and while a few of the negatives have worked the scanning process quite hard, I didn’t lose a single frame to poor exposure.
Perhaps the world doesn’t need another article on the joys of shooting on film, but regardless: the medium makes you more thoughtful and more considered in your approach, if simply through the knowledge that frames are finite and each one costs you money. There’s the knowledge that every push of the shutter results in a chemical process and a physical image: this shifts your appreciation of how a photograph exists, making it a tangible thing that doesn’t live solely as a series of digits. To a degree, it’s also a connection to a historic process, of pioneers playing with silver chloride and mercury vapor, and the mechanization of the image — a leap not dissimilar to the arrival of the printed word — that transformed how we shape and perceive the world around us.
If you’re anything like me, over the last 20 months, the global pandemic may have occasionally led your brain to some dark corners. I’ve been fortunate, and I count my blessings, but the reduced travel and sense of isolation from friends and family have prompted a few morbid moments.One image that stands out from my first roll on the Trip is this view across this field of sheep on the outskirts of Brighton, the sea on the horizon. It’s a poorly exposed shot and a relatively underwhelming scene but it cuts me to the core. I took this while waiting for a taxi, having just walked a mile to a more convenient pick-up point to try to avoid a queue of traffic, on my way to the funeral of a close friend that had died suddenly from heart failure. I probably wouldn’t have taken this photo — even as a snap on my phone — if not for the Trip in my pocket. Having this photograph on film makes it feel more like something. I don’t know what that something is, exactly — a strange mixture of emotions — but I feel it more intensely. Knowing that there’s a small strip of plastic that holds this image, that keeps a piece of that day, perhaps makes me invest in this memory deeper than I would have otherwise.
The portrait of my father — the second frame on this roll of 36 images — does something similar. I couldn’t say to my father: “hey, Dad, let me take a shot because I'm increasingly aware that you won’t be here forever and I want a photo of you.” The newly loaded Trip was an excuse to capture my father as I think of him: in his favorite chair, reading a book, sipping a cup of tea. The only things missing are his cat and one of his many mandolins. The eyes are a touch soft (focus is by guesswork, remember), but I don’t care. They say that gear won’t make you a photographer, but in this case, the gear was the reason for creating one of the most meaningful images I’ve ever captured.
At some point, I’ll probably treat myself to a more serious film camera — I’d love a Nikon FM2 or maybe a Contax 139 — but right now, there’s a house to renovate and plenty of other things to spend my money on. Cameras are cheap but film is expensive and, frustratingly, becoming more so. For now, the Trip will be reserved for random, novel, or meaningful moments — such as my wife holding our new kitten, shortly after trimming off a section of her claw with an angle grinder, or a trip to a bird sanctuary with my nephews — moments that feel like they deserve the magic offered by silver halide. And if that magic comes only from within me, what does it matter?