Is 35mm any good for nature and landscape?

I enjoy hiking and the outdoors tremendously, but I struggle greatly in trying to make good photography out of it, especially on 35mm film. 35mm isn’t known for being the best option for landscape, but because I’m a stubborn optimist, who can’t take a hint, I’ve been keeping at it none the less. I’m sure I can make it work eventually, but I haven’t quite found the recipe that would match with my vision.

I just returned from my latest trip to Finnish Lapland. Lapland isn’t exactly near where I live. Getting there requires a nice 12–15 hour car drive, which is pretty much the only transportation option when traveling with dog(s). It is a rare occasion to visit Lapland and I really wish I could go more often. I usually have the chance to go maybe once or twice a year.

My lapponian herder Pilkki and a skier on top of the fell Kiilopää. Leica M6, Voigtländer 35mm f1.4, Ilford Pan F.

Getting payback from last trips disaster

As you may remember, my previous trip went horribly wrong and ended up in an emergency helicopter ride to the hospital. Needles to say, back then I didn’t quite manage to capture as many photos as I would’ve liked to. It was deeply disappointing, but now I finally had my revenge. 

35mm film and landscape is actually a surprisingly difficult equation. Larger formats (or digital cameras) are preferred conventionally and I totally understand why. Everyone has their own preferences of course, but I honestly don’t enjoy grainy look on nature and landscape photography, unless it’s something really specific or purposefully dark in atmosphere.

Adventure vibes. Leica M6, Voigtländer 35mm f1.4, Ilford Pan F.

Good results with Ilford Pan F+

Normally I love film grain more than anything else, but for nature themes, I go with the finest grain possible.

Previously I’ve tried kodak Tri-x 400 on a hiking trip, which was a complete fail. In every other conditions, it is my favourite film stock, but the same look didn’t translate into nature themes too well. I’ve also tried Kodak T-max 400, which is much less grainy, but that was a slight mis-match as well. This time I chose Ilford Pan F, which is the smoothest film I’ve ever used. It has a signature look that actually was, at least so far, the best match for nature photography in 35mm. Not perfect, but very promising. From previous experience, I was expecting even less grain, but I suppose these conditions bring out what ever grain there is. Grain is always more detectable on solid tone surfaces with less textures and tonal gradients. Snowy plains and clear skies are just like that.

I’m also wondering what effect the cold temperatures might have on the emulsion. I know that Pan F should be developed as soon as possible, because the emulsion doesn’t preserve the latent image well. These were all developed within few days after shooting, so I don’t suspect that has anything to do with it.

If I’d own a medium format camera, I’d probably consider of taking it instead of my 35mm camera. They tend to be heavy and bulky. Too heavy and bulky to carry on a rucksack for many days. My rucksack can take up to 68l of gear. Every inch counts and stuffing a Rolleicord in it doesn’t make sense. My Leica M6 with a tiny 35mm Voigtländer lens on the other hand is much more packable and much more bearable thing to carry around in wilderness on a multi day trip. It is simply just a good travel camera, even though quite heavy for it’s size. I value that aspect so much that I’ve been insisting on making 35mm nature photography to work. This trip was a major improvement, but I think I’m still very far away from getting the results I really want.

If I ever win the lottery, I’d be interested in trying Fuji GF670 medium format camera, which is a modern folder. I reckon it would pack down to a reasonable size and would be a really good film camera for hiking. But of course it has to be rare and expensive, so it’ll have to wait. Until then, I’ll keep figuring out whether you could seriously use 35mm film for this kind of photography. One thing where 35mm really fails in landscape is resolution. I’d like to stress that this is a personal opinion, but I think landscape loves resolution and high definition. Grit and grain is for something else. My vision of nature and landscape photography involves around high fidelity.

Pilkki in his natural element. Leica M6, Voigtländer 35mm f1.4, Ilford Pan F.

Where are the subjects?

Subjects were of course hard to find on this trip too. One of the biggest challenges in nature photography, in my opinion, is how to find a subject that isn’t easily replicated. I still remember my first trip to Lapland. Back then I carried an unnecessarily heavy Nikon DSLR and a zoom lens, that was a beast in size. First of all it took too much space from my rucksack and was too big and heavy to carry comfortably. If that wasn’t enough, my friend took exactly the same images with his smart phone. We shot the same landscapes that were pretty equal in image quality. Leica on the other hand travels nicely around the neck and it’s therefore ready for the subject finally emerges.

My plan was to choose the subjects and scenes carefully and just have the camera at hand when the proper subject emerged. I of course wanted to avoid the most generic landscape shots. The idea was to use the landscape only as a setting for the actual subject. That way the landscape isn’t just a simple subject that anyone could copy. I borrowed this idea from my street photography routine, and in some sense, this style of outdoors photography isn’t any different from street photography. The setting and context is just different. I wasn’t too interested in taking pictures of a pretty view, but rather to document the experience. No matter how beautiful the landscape is, there still needs to be a decisive moment and a strong subject. I did take few quick and simple landscape shots too, like one above.

Simple landscape view. Leica M6, Voigtländer 35mm f1.4, Ilford Pan F.

Mechanical camera is a good choice for arctic conditions

This was my first time in Lapland during the winter time, with a film camera. Leica M6 is a mechanical camera that was a bullet proof choice for these conditions. I didn’t bother to put the camera back to my rucksack or camera bag most of the time. Typically I just carried it around my neck. The temperatures were everything between -1 and -10. The winds were pretty high on snowy fells. The Leica didn’t have any problem of surviving those conditions. No worries of batteries failing or the camera jamming. Meanwhile my iPhone crashed two times, while I was trying to record video clips. It’s hilarious to think that an almost 40-years old camera can take hard winter weather without an effort and a relatively new cellphone dies after being exposed to the elements for couple of minutes. This is one of the reasons I like the idea of using a film Leica as a hiking camera. No need to carry extra batteries, chargers, power banks and no worries if the weather gets a bit rough. I took eight rolls of film with me, which was a complete over kill. I ended up shooting two, but even eight rolls was a light carry. Very dependable, minimal and bullet proof kit.

Even though this was a really nice trip, I’m definitely continuing with the experiments. I’m planning to go for my traditional autumn hike later this year and will probably take the same set-up with me again. I still suck at landscape and nature photography, but this trip was definitely a step in the right direction. I’m looking forward to the next adventures!