Over 20 years ago, just after I met my wife to be, we took a weekend trip to Bruges (in Belgium) that was so marred with unexpected (though minor) catastrophes that I turned it into a hilarious letter of woe back to my family (or so said my mother). Consider this a similar exercise, but this time narrating the sad photographic happenings over three days in Mui Wo on Lantau Island, Hong Kong.
Just for context, back in June when we decided we would not head back to Europe as we normally do every summer to see friends and family, we booked a number of short outings in various places by the sea in the Hong Kong territory. We needed the break and although these places were all within roughly an hour of where we live, we hoped for a bit of an exotic vacation feel. Then in early July the pandemic flared up in Hong Kong and most of the things we could expect to do at these places became impossible to do with beaches closed down, boat trips illegal (because more than two people on board), etc. We cancelled most of our planned trips except the last one, which was non-refundable. Three days in Silvermine Bay in Mui Wo.
As any over-enthusiastic photographer, I started planning my photo strategy way early and, accounting for shortages in film supply, I overstocked on “summer vibe” emulsions like Provia 100 and Ektar 100. I even purchased a roll of Velvia 100 even though I’ve never really managed to properly expose it. Since we were only going for three days I decided to take just my Fuji GW690iii for serious photographs, my Fuji x100F for family snapshots, and a tripod. I took 8 rolls of 120 film with me : 2 rolls of Portra 400, 2 of Provia 100F, 1 Velvia 100, 1 Ektar 100, 1 Acros 100 II, and 1 JCH400.
On the day we arrived, it was raining cats and dogs, so we stayed inside the hotel rooms. The next morning was nice and bright though, so we decided to start with a short trip to the Silvermine Waterfall. I loaded a roll of Portra 400, took a few shots on the way and finished the roll at the waterfall, handheld. Only then did I realise I’d shot the entire roll with the cap on.
The kids love waterfalls, and while there’s a sign there saying swimming is forbidden, my wife remarked that it was impossible to swim and nothing said bathing was forbidden. A technicality that the few locals we saw seemed to interpret the same way we did. I had taken my tripod and decided that serious waterfall shots called for Provia 100F with between 1/30th and 1/15th exposure times (turns out 1/15th was overexposed). I knew it was slightly risky, since the flowing water in a waterfall makes the dynamic range quite high, but I wanted punchy contrasts so what the heck. I composed my 8 6×9 shots, and once I’d finished I noticed that the roll was quite thick, much more so than usual rolls of 120 film. But I’d never shot Provia 100F before so I assumed that was a peculiarity of the film stock.
I was wrong. The entire roll had light leaks. Talking to a few people, there’s a good chance this was due to the roll not being wound tight enough, but why that happened on the Provia 100F in particular (the other roll would turn out the same) at that particular time remains a mystery. I wonder if that may be a result of the temperature differential between the air-conditioned hotel room and the super hot and humid outside air. Could the paper back of the roll have thickened as a consequence? You tell me. To be perfectly honest, none of those shots are anything to write home about. As I suspected the dynamic range was excessive even for Provia 100F, and I should have shot Ektar 100 instead to be on the safe side. Also, at close to 40mm equivalent, the GW690iii wasn’t wide enough for the scene. So perversely, the light leaks rather enhance the shots from a purely aesthetic point of view, even though that was clearly not what I was after.
I took a few more shots of the waterfall with the Acros Neopan II and we ended the afternoon on a remote (and therefore not forbidden) beach where I finished the roll. Thankfully those shots came out OK.
I slept really badly that night. In between the traipsing around in the brutal heat of that first day and a really uncomfortable hotel bed, I woke up at 5AM having definitely not slept enough, but my back was aching and I just couldn’t get back to sleep. I checked sunrise time, saw that it was scheduled for 5:57 AM and decided to make the most of it. I quietly packed my camera and tripod and headed out.
I first tried a couple of night shots, trying to capture the nascent dawn light or the reflections of the ferry pier’s artificial lights on the sea. I decided on Provia 100F pre-dawn hoping that, again, the dynamic range wouldn’t be too big. When I say I tried some night shots I should more accurately say that I attempted to try. My brain was frazzled from lack of sleep and I completely misread what my lightmeter was telling me. To be fair, the Sekonic just said E.U which I assumed meant underexposed to the point of not being able to give me a reading. I switched to the iPhone lightmeter app whose reading for 1/20th of a second and 20s is disturbingly similar. I should (of course) have gone with 20s and went with 1/20th of a second. The result is not very different from that initial Portra roll shot with the cap on.
The weirdly good news is that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. It turns out that not only did this roll of Provia 100F suffer from the same light leak issue as the previous one, the condensation created by taking a camera that had stayed all night in an air-conditioned environment into a hot and humid environment fogged all of the shots anyway. Also, after dramatically underexposing the first half of the roll I seem to have badly overexposed in the misguided attempt to get 1s exposures.
But I didn’t notice. In my defense it was on the dark side still. The dawn turned out to be not very spectacular but there were nice colours in the clouds. When I noticed the Water Buffaloes settling on the shore, I realised they created a really cool foreground to those subtle dawn colours and I put the roll of Ektar 100 in the camera. I took my time composing, and I was pretty convinced I had at least one good shot on that roll. But it turns out condensation fogs your lense for a long time when there’s no direct sunlight to evaporate it. This one is perhaps the shot that frustrated me the most. I genuinely think it would have been a great shot, perhaps the only one on the entire trip. Oh well…
By that time of course I knew nothing of all this. I headed back to the hotel, and dozed off while the family was waking up. They decided to go rent some canoes while I caught up on my missed sleep. That afternoon, we went back to the waterfall. That first day while we were on our way I’d noticed a really impressive Banyan tree and thought the roots would make an interesting black and white shot. I put some JCH400 in the camera and let the family get ahead while I looked for the right composition. Turned out it was late afternoon already, not a ton of light and I didn’t have my tripod with me. I played around with various compositions that could accommodate really shallow depth of field… and that’s when I saw the lens was fogged, as was the viewfinder. This time, having actually noticed it, I waited for about 10 minutes before giving up on that shot and moving on. By the time I got the waterfall, the fogging had finally gone, and I took a few shots there. I went back to the banyan tree the next morning for a morning shot, and this time, knowing that there would be fogging I actually let the camera on the tripod in direct sunlight for about 10 minutes to clear the lens and viewfinder.
Again, this roll came out mostly OK although one of the last images on the roll was severely pockmarked which again I suspect is due to brutal temperature differences sticking the emulsion to the paper (or something like that).
That was our last morning in Mui Wo. We rented some canoes again, so no cameras on board, but on the ferry back to Central, I shot both the Velvia 100 and the Provia 400, because what the heck. These would turn out to be the only colour rolls of the entire trip that came out as intended. Not the most spectacular of photos by any means, but at least it means the trip was not entirely wasted on me. And I got some nice black and white shots, which reassured me a lot.
I obviously can’t attribute this spectacular run of failures just to bad luck : I forgot to take my cap off at times, I messed up my exposures, I was clearly responsible for at least part of the issues. But there was bad luck as well. And just to drive that point home, remember I also packed an x100F for family snapshots? I took a few shots of the beach while I was waiting for the family canoes to head back to shore. Here’s one of them:
Notice those three ugly spots on the bottom right of the frame ? They weren’t there the day before. I only noticed when I headed back home. I believe that was also a result of condensation in the camera that morning, but affecting the sensor this time. I need to check now if this is like massive dust spots on the sensor or if it has gone away over time. But don’t tell me I was lucky…
Unpredictability is in the nature of film photography, so I’m taking this rather philosophically. I now know where the opportunities are for good shots in Mui Wo, so when the heat isn’t quite as brutal (maybe in September or October) I’ll head back there for a day and revisit some of the locations that resulted in those missed shots. I’m not sure I’ll be able to shoot the buffaloes at dawn again, but hey… Anyway, as zen philosophers say, the value is in the journey, so here are a few lessons and take aways from this string of failures:
LESSON #1 : REMEMBER TO TAKE THE DAMN CAP OFF !!!
LESSON #2 : IN HOT AND HUMID CLIMATE, WAIT 30MN OR MORE BEFORE SHOOTING IF YOUR CAMERA WAS STORED IN AN AIR CONDITIONED ROOM
LESSON #3 : IN HOT CLIMATE, STORING YOUR FILM IN A COLD ENVIRONMENT RISKS RUINING THE FILM ONCE YOU SHOOT IT
Anyway, I hope you found this entertaining, if not informative. And I hope you’ll check out my photography (@benfelten on Instagram) if only to see that occasionally I do pull off some successful shots.