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!
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