Shooting Bhutan on Film

If taking pictures old school on a roll of film is a way to slow things down, is there a better place to shoot than Bhutan, a nation partly rooted in a different era and yet also far ahead on the learning curve? Story and photographs by Christopher Kucway

Apr 21, 2020

In my viewfinder, I was all set for a photo course in majestic Bhutan. Then via long-distance, Michael Turek, the New York City-based photographer who leads an upcoming trip there, dropped a Himalayan-sized bomb on me. “Oh, the thing is,” he said, “you have to do this on film.”

Pausing, I told him the only film camera I still own is a medium-format Mamiya 7II, a wonderful piece of 6×7 technical simplicity—and one that I hadn’t touched in a decade.

“That’s perfect,” Michael exclaimed, not knowing the limits of my aging eyes. I was intimidated. “Great, you should be,” he said, “but you need to have fun with this, too.” He explained why film is the perfect choice for Bhutan; how it’s more intentional; how limiting parameters helps you become more creative; why flaws and imperfections should enter the equation. With that, he sent me off to Bhutan, waiting to review my photos upon my return.

Truth be told, I could see how pixel-perfect digital photographs can get monotonous. Still, I wasn’t convinced that an intentionally blurry or undersaturated shot holds any merit. Until, that is, I picked up my camera again and encountered some high-altitude wisdom served with a side dish of momos and chili paste.

Advance to day two in Bhutan. After seeing me shoot with both digital and film cameras, my guide for the week, Sonam, a woman who is equal parts unparalleled wisdom and non-stop hilarity, told me she had it figured out. The digital camera, she said, is very Western in temperment, aiming for perfection, the risk being that the resulting photos conform to a certain sameness. But, my Mamiya— with its 120mm spool of film, manual demands and the sheer fact of not knowing if a photograph has turned out for at least a week—made her refer to my film camera by a new name: Only Buddha Knows.

Especially after receiving Michael’s comments and critiques, which captions my following photos, I can say that Sonam was, as always, spot on.

Punakha Dzong
“Ah, you found my favorite part of Punakha Dzong. It reminds me of some of Giorgio de Chirico’s slightly surreal paintings of Roman architecture with long shadows, illogical perspective and lonely figures in the distance. I would expose for the direct sunlight to give the image more contrast and drama, and deepen the shadows. “
Portra 160 film/43mm lens/ 1/250 second/f4 aperture.
Punakha Valley
“What fantastic atmosphere, enhanced by a wonderful range of earthy tones and blue-purple clouds and mist. I’m glad you chose the longer lens for this—it helps to simplify and isolate the most dramatic lines in the landscape.”
Portra 160/80mm/ 1/125/f8.
Punakha Valley bridge
“Even though his eyes are closed, I’m glad this is included. He looks the vision of pure happiness, a lovely moment.”
Portra 160/80mm/ 1/30/f4.
A monk at Punakha Dzong
“This illustrates my point of not overthinking photos. The motion blur makes this image work, even if it wasn’t intentional, you’ve made an evocative photo that is full of feeling. It’s all about seeing something, taking a photo without overthinking, and moving on.”
Portra 160/80mm/ 1/30/f4.
At Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang nunnery
“I think this is a miss. I don’t have a sense of what the subject is. I’m not against quiet, ambiguous images, but this lacks sufficient compositional hierarchy. It’s difficult for the eye to move around the frame in a pleasing way. “
Portra 160/80mm/ 1/125/f8.
The King’s birthday celebrations
“There’s no key moment here, no faces are visible and where the men are looking is too far away to register. I’d have tried to get much closer and lower, making an edge-to-edge composition with repeated patterns from the round shields.”
Ektar 100/43mm/ 1/125/f11.
A snowy route to Tiger’s Nest
“Oh, wow, this makes me so jealous. I’ve never been to Bhutan in the snow. This is a fairly orthodox landscape photo, but clichés exist for a reason, and when it works well, there’s nothing wrong with that. The colors, mist, meandering path are all very appealing.”
Portra 400/80mm/ 1/125/f8.
Tiger’s Nest trail
“This is shot with the 35mm panoramic mask, which I’ve not used, but it’s stunning. This comes off very well.”
Ektar 100/80mm/ 1/30/f4 panorama.

Michael Turek (michaelturek.com) will lead an nine-day photo journey with Como (comohotels.com) in Bhutan this October.

Shooting Bhutan on Film

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