Thursday, February 02, 2006

Snapshots of Tunisia

Camera formats battle it out in the Sahara

by Carla Diana

ROME, April 10, 1997 -- Africa was the last place [Image]
in the world I thought I'd be having revelations
about the pros and cons of film formats. But there I was,
enjoying my spring break with friends in front of a
campfire in the Sahara desert and thinking to myself,
"Y'know, leaderless drop-in film loading really is a
convenient feature!" I considered discussing it with our
native Tunisian guide, but he was still too fascinated
with the magic of our flashlight to pay heed to anything

With the possible exception of suburban New Jersey,
Tunisia was as far from my own culture as I had ever been
(and, incidentally, the backdrop for much of Oscar's
favorite soppy epic, "The English Patient"). Awestruck,
my fingers feverishly hit the shutter release button on
my brand new Minolta APS (Advanced Photo System) camera.
My travelling companions shared my trigger-happiness, and
we continued snapping photos of turbin-sporting locals,
mules, flamingoes, sand dunes, sunsets and oasis palm

The pinnacle of our trip was a dromedary ride into the
heart of the desert. [Got a problem with the word
"dromedary," dear readers? Get a dictionary, you wimps.
I'm not going to do all your work for you. -- Ed.] Aside
from the obvious advantage of being able to take panorama
shots of endless expanses of sand, I discovered my
favorite APS feature: drop-in loading. (Just slip in the
film cartridge and close the flap -- no dealing with the
leader, that little piece of film that sticks out of the
roll, and no messing with the inside of the camera.) I
never really had a good defense for those who quipped,
"Who cares about not having a leader on your film?
There's nothing tough about loading film, especially with
an auto-load 35 mm camera." I can now say that loading
film from atop a dromedary is no small feat, and there's
nothing more damaging to the inside of a camera than
Saharan sand.

My friend Seth was the first to complete a roll of 36
exposures using his 35mm camera. I had an APS 40-exposure
roll loaded, so I was set for a few more shots. Since his
dromedary lumbered next to mine, I watched the beast
become increasingly more ornery as its rider tried to
balance himself. While struggling with an open camera
resting on the camel's back he manipulated the new roll
with his fingers. He almost managed to latch the naked
film onto the little teeth inside the camera's cavity
when the animal decided it'd had enough of my friend's
fidgeting. It bucked, sending Seth flying in one
direction and the open camera into another. Seth's fall
was broken safely by the powdery hills, but his camera
was a mess. Scratches on the outside of the lens
abounded, and the tiny abrasive particles found their way
into nearly every moving part, both inside and out.

After a serious heart-to-heart with his camel [I *love*
this column! -- Ed.], Seth remounted and our caravan
continued. My film ran out shortly thereafter, and within
a few seconds I popped open the film-load door, dropped
in the cartridge and got set for some more
picture-taking. While the sand still managed to find its
way into some exterior crevices, my camera survived its
days in the desert, and if Seth is nice to me, he just
might be lucky enough to get copies of all those African
sunsets that his camera missed.

Long before my trip to the south, I'd been well versed in
the benefits of APS like drop-in loading, smaller camera
sizes, a sheet of thumbnail prints (similar to a contact
sheet) for ordering reprints easily, and the ability to
choose among three print shapes (normal, panoramic and in
between). Unfortunately, I was also too familiar with the
drawbacks: higher prices for film and equipment,
difficulty in finding the film in stores, and the
commitment of investing in a brand new format. Why should
someone discard the tried-and-true 35mm format for
something just being introduced? In the past I
recommended the APS system only with hesitation. I still
wouldn't tell anyone to get rid of a perfectly good 35mm
to switch to the new format -- but for the traveller in
the market for a new, automatic, easy to use camera
(like, for example, a person whose camera got totally
ruined by an episode with a camel and the Sahara desert),
an APS model will serve well.

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This column is an exclusive.


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