As someone who’s spent almost all of his thirty years firmly ensconced on the East Coast, my experience with the American West boils down to old Marlboro advertising, dying of dysentery on the Oregon Trail, and late-night cable screenings of The Outlaw Josey Wales. Aside from short visits to Phoenix and Denver, I’d never experienced the Wild West. But that would soon change.
I was set to travel to Denver, Colorado, and when that leg of my journey was finished the eastward return flight would not be bringing me to my old home on the East Coast, but to my new home in Germany. I was emigrating to the country from which my family had immigrated in the 19th century (I’ve seen documents signed by my great-great-great-grandfather in which he’d renounced the King of Wurttemberg). I’d be spending my last month in the USA visiting friends and family, and exploring the west.
A lot goes through your head when you pick up your life and move to another continent. “How will the mail work? Will I have to pay two income taxes? How easy will it be to stay in touch with people?” I wondered about the answers to all of those questions, sure, but the question I worried about most was, “Where and how will I find photo gear in Germany?”
Here at home I knew my favorite places to find new gear, I knew where to send my film to get the best scans, and I knew where I liked to have prints made. I had backups for each, and backups for the backups. But this was a new frontier. A nation whose photography institutions were virtually unknown to me. I figured it might be easier to find weird new add-ons for my Russian cameras due to the closer proximity, and that was a fun thought, but everything else was a mystery.
To ensure happiness, I spent some cash before the trip and bought the gear that would help me capture this voyage through America and, I hoped, last me a number of years in my new home country. I wanted affordable, reliable gear that would work flawlessly and easily when the project demanded consistency. After a neurotically voluminous amount of research, I ordered a Nikon F100 and two more D-series lenses to accompany the 50mm f/1.8 I already owned. These were Nikon’s 24mm f/2.8 and 85mm f/1.8.
The F100 seemed to me a great combination of reliability and portability. It’s pretty near to a streamlined F5 with much less weight. Truth be told, I wanted to get the F5 but the cost savings of the F100 gave it the edge.
Nikon’s D-series lenses will never be called the brand’s sexiest glass. Developed as their early and affordable autofocus lenses, D lenses all have external and manually controlled aperture rings, which makes them especially suited to older cameras and necessary for those of us who shoot bodies without in-body aperture control. I have an N90s (that we’ve reviewed here) and it was important for the lenses I chose to work on that camera as well as on my new F100. But D lenses have value beyond the aperture rings; they tend to be smaller and lighter than newer G series lenses and their simpler construction (especially the prime lenses) makes them sharp and quick to focus. And with so many more expensive G varieties getting all the attention, older D lenses are the most affordable full-frame lenses in Nikon’s autofocus lineup.
Already owning the 50mm, I wanted a wide and a telephoto as complements. Much of what I shoot is travel and landscapes, so the 24mm is a natural choice and one with a reputation that outshines the lesser-performing 28mm (my typical focal length of choice). The 85mm, also with a great reputation, would be ideal for portrait work. All said and done, the lenses and camera body ran me close to $700 and I felt comfortable that it would cover the majority of my photographic needs.
If picking the few pieces of gear I’d use for this trip was difficult, choosing the film I’d use was much easier. Industry moves over the previous few months had put me in a mood to reward brands that are making an investment in film rather than discontinuing it, so I ordered Kodak Ektar, Portra 400, Portra 800 and Tri-X.
Along with the camera, lenses, and film I also packed an SB-24 speed light flash (knowing it would never find itself outside of the bag). I also packed my Sekonic L-308S light meter. The F100’s 10 sensor matrix meter isn’t as infallible as the F5’s 1005 element matrix meter, but miles more advanced than anything else I own. Still, some shots require the peace of mind only afforded to those who pack a dedicated light meter.
Show me any kind of trip and I’ll show you how to overpack for it.
The first test of my new gear would come in Colorado and Utah, where a friend and I enjoyed a five-day road trip across four national parks and a seemingly endless number of ecosystems. We’d travel through blizzards in the Rocky Mountains, red rock canyons, deserts, and more. It would be the perfect opportunity to test the theory that these three lenses and camera body would be all I need in the years to come.
Our first stop was Canyonlands National Park in Utah. To get there we used Interstate 70 through the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, where the terrain changed from mountain blizzards to canyons and rolling hills before leveling out into the brown and grey flatlands of rocky western Colorado. I started through the first roll of Portra 400 along the way, enjoying how much more comfortable and smooth the F100 was compared with my N90s. Focusing was quick and quiet, and I was quickly falling in love with my first 24mm lens.
Two things my East Coast life didn’t prepare me for were mountains as big as the Rockies, and highways that never turn. The former triggered a mild sense of claustrophobia, as the collasal vertical walls of the inter-mountain passes seemed to close in on all sides. After passing Grand Junction, the I-70 decides to stop making turns, and shoots into Utah as the landscape turns to a burnt orange. The obvious reaction is to see how fast our rental car can go, which in turn accentuates the insane vastness surrounding us. There are no trees, no hills, and virtually no other cars. Instead, just lots of flat dirt and occasional brush; a powerful reminder of the vastness of America.
Turning south at Crescent Junction, we were finally on local roads pointing toward Canyonlands. Situated near Moab and the more famous Arches National Park, Canyonlands is an expansive wilderness of rock shaped over thousands of years by wind and water. For as far as the eye can see are hundreds of canyons, arches, buttes, and spires with two massive depressions created by the Green and Colorado rivers as main attractions.
At 527-square-miles, Canyonlands is massive. Broken into three different districts, we found an unassuming sign modestly informing that it was but a mere 52 miles to the neighboring district. Arriving a few hours before sunset was a lucky stroke; we drove through the park astounded by the magnificent views afforded at every turn. In any direction there were dozens of miles of red rock canyons accentuated by snow covered mountains in the distance.
We staked out a good place to see the sunset as I finished my roll of Portra 400. If I’d been smart, I’d have packed a tripod and used Ektar to capture the reds of the sun hitting the rock. Instead, I loaded Portra 800.
In both travel and photography, I find where the crowds are and go somewhere else. So when our sunset spot overlooking the Green River became crowded, we set off along the edge of the cliffs until we could safely go no farther. Alternating between all three lenses, I closed the apertures as much as I could and hoped for the best. I’ve always found sunsets a challenge, and this was no exception.
The photos I made did not do the Canyonlands’ sunset justice. Viewing it live from the cliffs was incredible; no photo can truly capture its grandeur (at least, not the ones I made). An abundance of reds and oranges painted the canyons and buttes. The sky blazed. The silence was near total, the only sound the wind as it lifted the wings and bodies of passing birds.
Portra 800 may not have been the best choice for those sunsets, but being able to shoot handheld meant I had more time to sit back and enjoy the view.
The next morning I realized how fortuitous it had been to save the roll of Ektar. Arches National Park is only a thirty-minute drive from Canyonlands, but when we pulled in the next morning it felt much further than that. If Canyonlands is defined by holes in the ground, then Arches is the precise opposite. The park has more than 2,000 towering stone arches, including Delicate Arch, which is on Utah’s license plate and is arguably the most famous natural arch in the world.
With its red sandstone obelisks, this is a place where Ektar thrives. The film’s red base saturated the already vivid rocks as they popped against the clear blue sky.
Unsure of what destinations and weather to expect as we traveled back into Colorado, we stuck around until the roll of Ektar was finished. Ektar and Portra 800 are both great films, but they both lack the versatility of Portra 400. If I were to pack my gear over again, I would have included the N90s just to keep it loaded with the less versatile films.
Our destination that night was Telluride, Colorado. Famous for skiing and its film festival, Telluride has a distinctive mining town feel. If corporate ski resorts aren’t your thing, Telluride offers a much more authentic vibe. Unfortunately for us the season had ended a week earlier and the town was almost completely abandoned. Wishing I’d brought some of Kodak’s new P3200 and unwilling to blow my roll of Tri-X, we decided to find a local bar and see how many of the world’s problems we could solve over how many bottles of Coors (we drank lots, and solved none).
The only haze the next morning was in my head. The sun was out in force for what would be the longest day of our trip. By noon we’d arrived at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a mouthful of a national park that is home to one of the most insane gorges imaginable. First written about as late as the 1870s, the canyon is so steep, narrow, and deep that little sunlight ever finds the bottom.
Unlike Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, which were formed by glaciers and erosion, Black Canyon was formed by the fast-moving Gunnison River. In the forty-eight miles of Black Canyon, the river loses more elevation than the Mississippi River loses along its entire two-thousand-plus mile journey from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
We drove the length of the park and marveled at the landscape’s severity. Everywhere else we’d visited seemed born from a painter’s brush, but this area had all the artistry of a knife wound. Climbing out beyond the trail and scrambling from rock cliff to cliff, I eventually turned around to find that I wasn’t entirely sure where I was or how to get back. The gorgeous view (ie. hellscape) was made even better by an intense wind, providing the fun possibility that I could fall 1,500 feet to my death.
Unfortunately, the excitement of standing on those rocks wasn’t matched by the images I’d taken some risk to make. Because of its geography, the canyon is difficult to photograph, made even worse by being there at high noon and with lighter-contrast Portra to capture the browns and grays throughout the park. Looking at them now, they feel more like proof that “you had to be there to get it.”
While my photos were less than stellar, we were able to buy some outstanding images from Farnsworth Scenic, whose studio sits near the entrance to the park.
From Gunnison we moved east on Route 50 through the Curecanti National Recreation Area where the Gunnison River is as wide as a lake. Then we entered Gunnison National Forest and saw snow again as we moved through the Rockies. Near Poncha Springs we decided to make the trip even longer with a detour to Great Sand Dunes National Park, home to the tallest sand dunes in North America.
The drive to the dunes was worth the trip alone. Heading south on Route 285 we were in a massive valley bordered by the Rocky and Sangre de Cristo mountains, with views so good I had to repeatedly pull over and fail at capturing its beauty. Turning onto Route 17 the road straightened out to go through an area that had to have been the inspiration for Sandy Shores in Grand Theft Auto 5. The only thing more difficult than spotting vegetation here is finding a gas station.
We arrived at Sand Dunes after closing, which was a huge bummer for someone that actually owns and loves his National Parks Passport. The upside is that we had the park to ourselves and could marvel at the biggest chunk of sand I’ll likely ever see. I had used what was left of my color film back on Route 285, but still had a roll of Tri-X left. I was glad I didn’t waste it in Telluride.
The sun was setting and I had to get through my roll quickly. Desperate for one more image but out of film, I pulled out my Blackberry Priv (20MB camera!) and snapped the final image of the trip — a hilariously 2018 ending to an otherwise analog journey.
Driving the three hours back to Denver gave me plenty of time to reflect on my gear. I can’t imagine any SLR lenses better suited to travel photography than Nikon’s D-series lenses. The compact size and low weight meant I could put one in my pocket when I didn’t want to carry my bag. I used the 24mm about eighty percent of the time, but I was making almost entirely landscapes. Lens performance was outstanding across the board. With a few unavoidable exceptions, the D series lenses and Kodak film delivered images with good contrast and color. Ektar shined the brightest, but Portra 800 delivered interesting sunset shots and Portra 400 remains the most reliable color film I’ve used.
Much like the lenses, the F100 was an absolute joy. It felt great to carry for an extended time and didn’t have trouble with any of the light that was thrown at it. Most importantly, the gear got out of my way and let me focus on important things like composition. Not only is that generally useful for improving my photography, but it also gave me more time to take in the sights. And on a trip like this one, a trip that brought with it the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen in person, that ability to work effortlessly while staying out of the way was the most important thing.