Leica Photography In The Tropics — Then and Now

This is a camera geeking post!

After introduction in mid 1920’s, Leica photography became synonym for more agile and reactive way of taking photographs. It made possible to use a camera in situations and locations that hadn’t been considered with earlier equipment. Bit like iPhone of its day, Leica camera defined a before-and-after point in photographic world. Lets travel back to 1937 and take Leica into a jungle! Quotes bellow are from book The Leica Manual, Willard D. Morgan, 1937.

Kilimanjaro national park, Tanzania.

“Several years of photographic work under difficult tropical conditions … a 600-mile trek across the Central African Highlands in the middle of the rainy season . . . 400 miles by dugout canoe in the humid swamplands of southern New Guinea . . , and the highly variable conditions encountered in the uplands of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, have satisfied me of the singular advantages of the Leica camera, and the Leica method in general, for hot-country work.

One virtue which the Leica possesses is: It is the only camera I know of that when in use is sufficiently sealed to guard the film inside from moisture. Practically no humidity, I find, penetrates the closed camera. If the film has been cared for properly before and after use satisfactory results are certain. Nothing can happen to it while it is in use.”

Infrared photos taken with Leica M8. Victoria Falls at Zambian-Zimbabwean border. Iguazu Falls at Brazilian-Argentinean border.

“My own methods of caring for film under tropical conditions methods which have proven completely successful are these.

I purchase all the film I need before leaving home. Even the less durable grades of super-speed pan will, I know from experience, last at least a year, if one takes care. And, so far as the tropics are concerned, I distrust the mails.

Some travelers order film to be sent out to them at various stages of their voyaging. The idea seems reasonable. Fresh film, straight from the factory, it should be fine. It is, unless it happens on the way to have had a long trip through tropical waters in the mail room of an average steamer. I have been in those mail rooms. They are usually amidships near the engines; near the equator their normal temperature is often well above 120(F). And somewhere, in the midst of it, someone’s film is simmering. For the same reason I allow no cases containing film to be taken to the baggage room. They stay with me in the cabin.”

Irrawaddy, main waterway of Burma.

“Film should be carried in a steel African uniform box. Boxes made in England for use in Africa and well worth the high price one pays for them boxes guaranteed airtight and watertight. I have one which is large enough to hold, except for the cameras themselves, all of a rather extensive photographic equipment. It is roughly the size of an ordinary suitcase. And one should improve it in one particular which the makers overlooked. African uniform boxes are painted black when one gets them. Mine is now painted with a white enamel. When, as it often is, the box is being carried in the sunlight on the top of an African’s head or a South Sea Islander’s shoulders, the difference in the interior temperatures between a black box and a white one is decidedly perceptible. And very important.”

Leica Manual — A Manual For The Amateur And Professional Covering The Entire Field Of Leica Photography by Willard D. Morgan; Henry M. Lester. Source.

Mayan temple complex in Tikal, in the sea of Guatemalan jungle.

Khmer temples in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Taj Mahal, India.

50 years later, African uniform boxes and steamers had largely disappeared. But world of photography was still analog. Gunter Osterloh, Leica M Advanced Photo School gives few tips about problem fungus can cause to photographic equipment. Quote:

“Long visits to areas with a hot and humid climate expose the entire photographic outfit to the risk of fungus growth. Film, lenses, leather cases, all of them can be damaged by fungus. The more frequently we expose cameras, lenses, and accessories to fresh air, the lower the risk of fungus formation. Fungus growth is much more likely to occur when the equipment is not used very often.

Film react even more sensitively to a hot and humid tropical climate than cameras and lenses. Problems result from the absorption of humidity by the film, causing it to swell and to stick to the inside of its cartridge, for example, or to the take-up spool of the camera. The emulsion may then be torn from its support during the winding or rewinding operation, destroying any pictures that may have been taken on it. Bits of emulsion that remain behind (mostly in the vicinity of the pressure plate) will foster the growth of fungus.”

Leica M Advanced Photo School, latest edition is on Amazon.

My own experience echoes Osterloh. When living in Thailand I foolishly left my equipment into a closed bag for few months. After finally taken out, outer lens elements were already growing fungus, but it hadn’t penetrated inside yet. Watch out especially with expensive gear such as Leica’s!

Golden Triangle seen from Thai side, at the confluence of the Ruak River and the Mekong River. The location is border tripoint of Thailand (behind), Laos (right) and Burma (left).

Lets go forward 30 years to 2017. World has largely shifted from analog to digital (film is also experiencing a resurgence like vinyl records and tube radios). Photo can be shared instantly and without costs across the globe. Democratization of photography has progressed also further. Where there was perhaps one Mr. Morgan to hundred thousand who didn’t own any camera, and one Mr. Osterloh to ten thousand the same. Today, thanks to phone cameras, figures are opposite.

What else to consider today, if heading somewhere warm and humid? Past several years I’ve been lugging my Leica and other cameras into tropical countries in Africa, South Asia and America. Couple points to take into account:

– Obviously our dependency on electronics has become a norm. Batteries for the camera and other equipment, and needed accessories (chargers, adapters) all add weight to the backpack. Same goes with storage and backups. Connectivity with the rest of the world. Editing and sharing work on the go.

– Electronic dry boxes are nowadays affordable and a cheap insurance against the fungal growth. The device contains a small cooler, which removes moisture from the air by condensing it out. Consider them if you live in tropics for longer periods of time. Silica gel bags are alternative for those who have to change location frequently.

Sunset at Vinales, Cuba and Vang Vieng, Laos.

– Digital sensor is more vulnerable to dust than film. Sooner or later spots start to appear on your photos even if you are careful when and where changing lenses. For a long trip, sensor cleaning solution is must have backup, least for me.

– Developing countries often have shoddy power grids. Leaving a gadget plugged in for long periods risk it to power spikes that can fry delicate electronics. Cameras that can share same batteries reduce need for constant charging. Wall chargers disconnect the device from direct connection with grid.

Then and now, many things are different but some similarities also do exist. Leica’s still a specialist tool and costs a fortune!

Further reading: Article by The New Yorker from 2007.


Kilimanjaro Climb Diary

Diary from camps along the route to highest mountain of Africa.

Sept 18 2010 — After a ~6 hour bumpy drive from Nairobi, crossed Kenyan-Tanzanian border and arrived to Arusha, the other of the two Kilimanjaro tourist towns on the foot of the great mountain (other one being Moshi). Am a bit surprised this Mac still can be used. Road was very bumpy, our bags jumping on the back of shuttle buss, but gadgets still seem to work. While road was bad, views were interesting. Never seen African savanna before. Tomorrow begins my 5 day climb to Kilimanjaro, tallest mountain of whole continent. @ Arusha, Tanzania

Sept 19 2010 — Came at morning from Arusha and started climbing Machame route which am told is second hardest of few ways to top. Haven’t been climbing for ages, but was surprised how well I managed, perhaps tomorrow morning moods are not that bright, muscles will be paining a bit. Hope brought enough clothes with me, as temp here in 3000 meters is already close to 0 now at night. Most of todays climb was in the rainforest, but first camp is just where forest ends. Track was well maintained, should be doable also in rain season. @ Machame gate to Machame hut

Sept 20 2010 — Nights up here are really freezing, which probably is not surprise for anyone but me! (not enough clothes). Second day climbing wise was tougher than first but still manageable. Duration was only 5h today, and we started early so is plenty time once camp was reached. Muscles feel like nothing special has happened. Second camp is much more open than previous, there is more space to fit tents, but winds are stronger. Had a problem getting sleeping previous night, hope this is better. @ Machame hut to Shira hut

Sept 21 2010 — Its 2.30pm and am sitting in my tent after days climb. First time for whole trip that I’ve actually done something! Length wise, both time and distance, climb was similar to day before, but route was mix of up and down hills and crossing magnificent volcanic valleys. Descending was real pain for knees, 0.5-1 meter jumps all the time, grip of cliffs can easily slip. Anyway, it went fine without incident, but my back pack felt heavier today than ever before. Nature is simply beautiful and worth all the trouble, though better fit would make trip more enjoyable. Looking at fantastic volcano moulded valleys, cliff walls and towers makes sometimes feel dizzy and risk of losing balance. @ Shira hut to Barranco hut

Sept 22 2010 — Today was most exhausting day so far, 8hrs of rising and descending hills surrounding the mountain top. We finally reached Barafu hut from where we start climb to top, at midnight! Muscles are protesting, but guess one more day is fine. Kilimanjaro, even from this camp at 4600 meters looks majestic and remote, impossible to reach just in time planned, so lets see how it goes. Views from this camp are stunning best so far! Tomorrow after reaching peak, we have last camp, oh I miss it already! 🙂 @ Barranco hut to Barafu hut

Sept 23 2010 — Kilimanjaro is conquered! Reached Uhuru peak of 5985 meters when sun was rising (~6am), after exhausting climb in a dim moon light. Wind and temp at the top were merciless! Climb would have been tough for anyone, but scenery was breathtaking: gigantic ice glaciers, valleys and Kilimanjaro volcanic rock formations, curved horizon with cloud mattress reaching somewhere very far! Other mountains peaking through from cloud floor, and this all painted in orange, red and yellow colors of rising sun! During climb some people could not handle the exhaustion, both physical and mental, and had to turn down. Some were progressing only leaning to helping shoulder of their spouses or friends, progressing slowly and eyes closed. Never done such climb before, worst was feel of sleepiness and dizzy head, from lack of oxygen so that balance senses get numb and can mistaken. Visual errors, bit like being drunk. All I could do was to take smaller steps, and breath high pace like when running. It seemed to work, so remaining was physical load and cold temperature. After reaching the top and awing the scenes, we descended halfway to Mweka hut for last camp. Trees are already growing on these heights. It will be nice to have shower and shave tomorrow after 5-days 🙂 @ Barafu hut to Mweka hut

Sept 24 2010 — Back from Kilimanjaro, and am staying one night in Mochi. Tomorrow bus to Dar es Salaam starts its way at 7am, but been now used to very early wake ups in mountain. Due to cold it simply was not possible sleep very late. Returning from mountain didn’t have any surprises, legs are still like on fire from peak climb night. To look back a bit and what would I do different before storming into mountain: 1. Travel agent. I used Kenyan one. Moshi or Arusha have many local tour operators to choose from. These two towns run mainly around climbing tourism and there are plenty of hotel accommodation available. Choosing Kenyan company just brought unnecessary middlemen to take their share. 2. Gear wise I was equipped some kind of hybrid, a bit there but not enough. My boots, jacket and clothes were ok during day time. But at higher, and night time was just too cold. Light sleeping bag was easy to carry, but don’t keep warm bellow 0 Celsius. Didn’t have proper backpack with hooks, side pockets etc. Followed jealously tourists who had come specifically for Kilimanjaro holiday, with all possible extra toys such as distance meters and binoculars with them. 3. Tips. Porters (person carrying items for tourists at Kilimanjaro national park, like sherpa’s Nepal) are paid very low by local travel companies, and tips have special meaning for them. I had surprise last day when my tips were protested, and had to go for ATM for some more.

A final comment. Yesterday in Mweka hut one porter died due to heart attack probably resulting from carrying heavy loads on high altitudes, for days or weeks on a row. Man was 6 years younger than me, only 28. Its the darker side of Kilimanjaro tourism, work of a slave like local porters call it themselves. Kilimanjaro is natural park, without roads for vehicles or even donkeys. All is carried by people. And so they carry things like sun stools and beer to all the camps for tourists, and get paid few dollars a day for this crazy job. And like the poor guy yesterday, some die when body just cannot take it anymore. Saw when the man was rushed away in pars, but at that time didn’t knew yet what had happened… @ Moshi, Tanzania