When I snagged my first big photo assignment with a major magazine, National Geographic Adventure, I traveled to a remote mountain range called the Arrigetch Peaks north of the Arctic circle in Alaska.
It was the most remote I had ever been. Just getting there required a flight to Fairbanks, 250 miles of dirt road, a rattling bush flight in an overloaded prop plane for another couple of hundred miles, and then two long days of trail-less hiking. If anyone on our team got seriously hurt or sick, our best hope was to radio a passing plane with the VHF. A plane happened to fly overhead once every few days.
For the next 18 days we climbed unclimbed mountains and ridges, blissfully tramped across the tundra and glaciers, wandered between sweeping ridges of granite, and watched in awe as the northern lights rippled across the night sky. I was photographing the adventure of a lifetime.
At least I was hoping that I was.
See, I dropped one of my cameras three feet onto rock while changing a lens on the first day of the trip. As a backup I had an untested borrowed camera. Nearly sick with anxiety, I did the only thing I could do and threw the whole project to fate, splitting the assignment between the two cameras.
Once home, all of my future aspirations as a photographer were contained in several sweaty ziplock bags of film. In my mind I could clearly see each of the exposures on the 100 rolls within those bags. But an unknown crack in the camera could have leaked light. A shutter could easily be broken.
With an odd mix of dread and excitement for a future out of my hands—a feeling I learned to embrace shooting film—I carefully packaged the neatly numbered rolls and sent them off via FedEx to be developed in National Geographic’s photo lab.
Months later the editor emailed the final layout. I had nailed the opening double truck spread. The expedition had been a success. We had climbed new spectacular routes. I met my future wife on the expedition, and I’ve had the great fortune to continue to shoot for the magazine as well as other big magazines and newspapers since that assignment.
That was a mere eight years ago, Photography has changed radically since then. My filing cabinets have been replaced with hard drives. My light boxes exchanged for monitors and software. Metadata now provides us with loads of hidden information we could never before keep track of, including even GPS coordinates.
Travel photography has become less uncertain, and it has become a much more technical adventure than it has ever been.
In the coming months, I’ll be writing on World Hum about travel photography in the digital age. I’ll discuss the new opportunities, techniques, debates and issues that we face today as photographers in this rapidly shrinking world. And I’ll tell some travel stories along the way.
Film still holds a special place in this digital world. To me, film represents some of the adventure all travelers thrive on. The pungent smell of a roll of fresh film out of its canister still brings that knot of anxiety and excitement to my stomach.
To share some of that excitement, I am giving a film camera and some of my film away, and making an uncertain adventure out of it worthy of film. If you want to know where it is, you are going to need to dig deep into those technical and creative skills required of today’s photographers. And you’ll need to read between the letters and bytes in this piece.
Please be sure to share any of the adventures you have seeking it out in the comments below.