6 rolls, 6 days, 600km, one misplaced drop of oil: Nikon FM on the Second City Divide

By John Fitzgerald

The plan: six days off-road. Last summer I set off with my friend Aidan to cycle the Second City Divide. This is a roughly 600km bikepacking route linking Glasgow and Manchester. The route is about 60/30% tarmac vs off-road, and covers some remote and dramatic scenery, even though it runs through wee towns in Dumfries & Galloway, Northumberland, the Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales.

This was a special trip for us, at the edge of our capability. We were riding it as part of a group finish – we had to work out our own start time, in order to finish in Manchester on a particular Sunday afternoon. With a few health issues for Aidan, we decided to play it safe and allow six and a half days. We spent a happy few weeks poring over maps and working out where to resupply and camp.


To document the trip, I decided to use a Nikon FM I’d got for my 42nd birthday. A camera roughly as old as me, with a trusty 35mm f2.8 prime. In another parallel, the Nikon FM is pretty similar to the Olympus OM10 I used to use to capture my first adventures in the hills in my late teens in Ireland. I’ve still got photo albums from those days, showing how my ability to capture an interesting landscape developed rather slowly!

Keeping it simple – but also rugged

With weight and space at a massive premium, it seemed a little indulgent to commit to film for this trip. But it felt important. I wanted a longer-lasting record of this adventure. And I wanted to take my bikepacking photography up a gear. Quite often while cycling, there’s a temptation to take quick snapshots from a phone. It can be easy to pull out a phone from a pocket and take a quick shot, sometimes without even stopping. But this can lead to pictures that don’t really convey the sense of the landscape. You end up rushing, and you miss stuff. It gives you a nice visual record, but it’s not really photography.
So I plumped for film, and a simple and hopefully reliable SLR setup.

My photographic upbringing

A brief detour into my photographic journey: I started photography in my early 20s, which just happened to be the time when digital was coming onto the scene. I cut my teeth on cameras such as the Nikon FM, Contax RTS, Nikon F90x and even an unbelievably heavy Nikon F4s. I’m old enough to remember the time that a 20-roll box of Fujicolour Press was comfortably affordable on a student income. And I did some work experience on a UK national daily in the early 2000s when about half the staff were still shooting film. Through the 2010s, I became a less and less frequent digital photographer, and ultimately a bit of a smartphone snapper.


What does a minimal film camera setup look like for bikepacking? My setup wasn’t the most minimal possible (that would be something like a Ricoh GR28 or an Olympus Mju). Since I wanted a bit of creative control and something rugged, the Nikon FM was a good choice. I went for a 35mm prime – hopefully wide enough for good ‘rider in the landscape’ shots but passable for a portrait, too. I had some finite limits on the amount of film I could carry – both costs and what I was physically able to carry. 6 rolls for 6 days seemed about right, and I decided to alternate Ilford HP5 and Fuji Superia 400 to try to get a good mixture of landscape colours and more minimal compositions. These are probably quite unexciting film choices but they’re easy to get hold of. To carry the camera and film, I got a used Lowepro Orion AW waist pack. This offered good protection but was probably a little too bulky.

What went right

What went right? In case you’re wondering about the cycling, this was hard work with some massively steep hills, but we had good weather, no punctures and made it on time. But what about the photography? I really enjoyed the experience – I definitely felt like I was image-making rather than taking snaps. And my slightly rusty full-manual skills came back nicely and I had a good hit rate. Aidan was very tolerant of the odd photographic pause and it didn’t feel that adding ‘proper’ photography added very much time to our journey. In fact, the odd scenic pause was very welcome.

What went wrong

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Because of the rugged trails, the camera had to travel in the bag rather than slung on my body. I did find that stopping the bike, getting the camera out, focusing and making settings took a wee bit of time. This meant that capturing Aidan in motion in the landscape took a bit of planning.
There was one even bigger issue though. My Nikon FM was the older model with the shutter release lock in a knurled collar round the shutter. This started to become very stiff to operate about 3 days in. In what turned out to be an unwise move, I applied a teeny tiny amount of bike oil to the shutter lock collar. The stiff shutter lock eased up and the camera seemed to keep shooting fine.


Unfortunately, when I got my scans back from A&M imaging, I realised a bit of a problem. My teeny tiny drop of oil had obviously moved around inside the camera and gummed up the shutter. Photos from the second part of the trip in bright sunshine, at shutter speeds of more than 1/125 had a nice big shutter curtain across part of the frame. Luckily for me, the weather in days 5 and 6 was overcast, so I was using ‘safe’ shutter speeds then. To put any fears at rest, once back at home in Edinburgh, my friendly local camera shop made a speedy and full repair.

For the finished product, I got a couple of digitally-printed books of my top 40 or so images. In a move that will frustrate some of the purists, I included a handful of phone photos to cover the sunny days when I’d banjaxed my FM shutter. Aidan and I were very pleased with the result – I’d made a tangible record of a really wonderful trip. FM FTW!

Thanks for reading. Find me on Twitter and Instagram.

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About The Author

By John Fitzgerald
Based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Cycling up hills and down dales. Shooting with a Nikon FM.
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Comments

Chris on 6 rolls, 6 days, 600km, one misplaced drop of oil: Nikon FM on the Second City Divide

Comment posted: 07/01/2024

Hi John, What a beautiful article thank you! I love the photos, you really nailed the compositions. Read this with a coffee in my hand and you’ve inspired me to get out and make something today. Chris
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Gary on 6 rolls, 6 days, 600km, one misplaced drop of oil: Nikon FM on the Second City Divide

Comment posted: 05/01/2024

Good shots and good travel story. Thank you for posting this. I found your color shots a bit more engaging than the B&Ws, and color would be my choice for landscapes like this.
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shawn granton on 6 rolls, 6 days, 600km, one misplaced drop of oil: Nikon FM on the Second City Divide

Comment posted: 05/01/2024

Great post, John! Like you, since I've gotten back into film I'm figuring out how to incorporate into bike touring/bikepacking. I agree with what you say about film cam vs. phone camera. With film, I find that I stay in the moment. With a phone camera, there's always the temptation to post it to Instagram/flickr/etc. RIGHT NOW, and that can lead to distraction--do you really need to "check your feed" while in the middle of immense scenery? As for the question of how to carry cameras, earlier in 2023, I picked up a Large Point 'n' Shooter Stem Bag, made by Road Runner bags in Los Angeles. It was advertised to hold a Canon AE-1 with a 35mm lens, and my Minolta XD5 with a 50 or 45mm lens or my Olympus OM-1n with 50mm lens fits fine. (So will my Canonet QL17 G-III). There's an optional "lid" for it, and I found it adequate weather protection, though I haven't tested it in a storm. You don't get as much spontaneity as you would with a camera strapped 'round shoulder, but you also worry less about it, too. I typically will carry a "big" camera like this, and augment it with something small, like an Olympus XA. That way I can have one with color film and one with black and white. Is there a place online where I can see all of the photos from the trip? And nice Carradice saddlebag!
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Dr John Fontana on 6 rolls, 6 days, 600km, one misplaced drop of oil: Nikon FM on the Second City Divide

Comment posted: 04/01/2024

Great scenery and I love the mono shots especially. Looks like you had some tough terrain, though!
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Bill Brown on 6 rolls, 6 days, 600km, one misplaced drop of oil: Nikon FM on the Second City Divide

Comment posted: 04/01/2024

John, A beautiful photo set. Nice compositions and beautiful, clean images. Let the purists haggle over inconsequential minutiae. These shots are for you and Aidan and you two are the ones who did all the work. There will always be detractors. Sorry for the misplaced oil but glad you took a few snaps with your phone also. It was adventurers like you and Aidan that inspired me to do long distance motorcycle touring back in the 1970's. I doff my helmet to all the riders with the strength and determination to pedal their way through the landscape. I took the easy way out. My camera and film in those days were Canon ftb_QL and Kodachrome. The ftb is still in my kit so you should have many years with your Nikon FM. Thanks for posting.
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mike on 6 rolls, 6 days, 600km, one misplaced drop of oil: Nikon FM on the Second City Divide

Comment posted: 04/01/2024

A Nikon FM and an off road bike. My kind of trip. Very cool
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Jukka Reimola on 6 rolls, 6 days, 600km, one misplaced drop of oil: Nikon FM on the Second City Divide

Comment posted: 04/01/2024

Hi John! Great looking trip, great looking cycles (and a Carradice!), great camera and most importantly, considering this site, great pictures! I usually take my Olympus OM2n, with a 35mm f/2.8 Zuiko, on my cycle trips. 35mm is just so very convenient all-around glass. (BTW, I ride a Surly Cross-Check, it´s also great...)
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Simon on 6 rolls, 6 days, 600km, one misplaced drop of oil: Nikon FM on the Second City Divide

Comment posted: 04/01/2024

Instead of oil lighter fluid is usually the best thing to use in these cases.
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