Black and White Film Photo Walk Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh Urban development 2023

Walking here in Phnom Penh again with my vintage Nikon FE analog film camera and a single 50mm lens was a homecoming and a photographic exercise.

Analog or digital it’s the power of the image that counts!

Over the years (2013-2020) I conducted hundreds of photo walks with international photographers.
This resulted in an incredible library full of digital color and also black and white converted images. street photography, urban architecture landscapes and what works best for me; Portraits.

Morning Ritual in Phnom Penh-Noodle Soups for breakfast
Portrait of locals in Phnom Penh 2023
Phnom Penh Rickshaw driver with a beautiful a lived-in face.

In order to find out what kind of images to shoot best with this ‘oldskool’ analog set up I made a few morning photo walks and shot a couple of rolls of film.

foods and snack seller taking a break in a dark and cool alley of Phnom Penh
fruit seller lady taking a break in a dark and cool alley of Phnom Penh

Yet that is also the reality for most photographers who visit Cambodia briefly and go on a photography walk.

There are a couple of interesting shots !

Why analog?

Well, after shooting in Cambodia for so many years only digitally I found it interesting to find out how the city of Phnom Penh would translate on black and white film. At some stage I photographed digitally with black and white images at the now demolished ‘white building’, a depilated slum like housing complex. Harsh reality and incredible contrast drenched in ‘Phnom Penh Noir’ photography.

Digital is great but it’s also feels too easy for me and too perfect!

Carry a good smartphone and you have all the tools at your disposal for making great images.A good digital camera and lens at least gives you the feeling of photography instead of capturing snapshots.

With analog photography you are likely to be more focused for a reason.

Film is relatively expensive, but way cheaper than a new digital camera. Shooting film is labor intensive, so you moderate your output and clicks to a minimum. 

Phnom Penh Rickshaw riders near market 2023
Rickshaw riders are waiting for their clients at the local market

Analog photography pushes you to be more precise, your film camera is and feels more of a tactile tool, other than an electronic device. My Nikon FE is a gem.
There is no instant gratification and option for sharing on social media.
That’s really liberating. You’re in the dark and just show the black back of your camera to people and smile.
Sure you should also bring a smartphone along for ‘those jolly moments’ to share.

Phnom Penh sugar cane market seller 2023

When I lived permanently in Phnom Penh, shooting on film was just not really feasible.
There are no films to purchase and development and scanning is not available. Yes, you can get films from Bangkok or Singapore.

So yes, it takes a bit of an investment and time, investing some money ($150) and some extra equipment, like a dedicated film scanner ($300) to set up an analog workflow.

Was it worth it?

Yes, I enjoy really handling my analog vintage Nikon FE or my workhorse F90x or a legendary Nikkormat camera.

Also the darkroom work, developing films back home feels very rewarding and a ‘zen’ like exercise for some reason.

It made me focus more on the whole process and learning the character of my film and developer combo. (Foampan 200 in 1:25 Adox Silvermax developer)

The final images results of my 7 rolls of black and white film I shot in Cambodia.
Now I study them and try to find a pattern and my personal style. One thing is sure I love the lookof the pictures, a sharp grain and intense blacks. This film (Fomapan) is made for portraits.

Monks walk the streets daily in the morning offering prayer to local merchants and collecting ‘alms’ money or rice

The thing with any kind of photography is you need a bit of distance and time to give some images the time to ripen.
Also the end result is very different in print form as on viewing them on a monitor.
As previously I will consider if there is enough in here to print a new Cambodia Photo Tours magazine from these recent results. 

Remember, the complete photo walk shoot was part of a personal learning process and trying to find out what works best and what does not. What to shoot more of and what not.
Please send me an email or call to find out if you are interested in doing a photo walk or longer photo safari in Cambodia for 2024.

What I learned:

I found that close up portraits are the best way for me to utilize the film and 50mm lens combo.

Black and white and grainy film is not right for everything. It’s about the story and the authentic ‘feel and look’ of the pictures.
Especially very challenging to work analog in a time of which digital photography has made technically incredible image quality and sharp 45 mega pixel progress.

Autofocus, image stabilization, eye detect focus, digital shutters with a 25 picture a second burst.rate, 12.500 ISO sensitivity and so on.
In contrast to a 40 year old camera and lens combo shooting on cheap black and white film. We had to rely on pure raw photography skill and dedicated film.

That ‘special look’ of 40 years ago is exactly what I got here.
Except for some modern 2023 giveaway details like the cars and face masks.Timeless pictures.

It’s all personal now and I understand better what to improve and work harder to get pictures that move me.

Friendly eyes from a local sugar cane vendor in the streets of Phnom Penh 2023.

Why a 50mm lens?

Personally I always liked a 50mm for street photography and portraits. It gives you a respectful distance to the people around to photograph.
The 50mm lens is very useful for ‘normal’ overviews and everything in between, like portraits.
It certainly is not an special effect lens like a super wide angle or tele lens.

Prior to this work with a 50mm I mainly used a 12-24 and a 24-70mm and often a 70-200mm zoom lens.
Because of the versatility and ease of use.
I still believe that for travel or street photography that lens combo on full frame is a reliable professional choice.
This time I decided to go ‘back to basics’ and constrain myself to one body (Nikon FE) and one lens only. (Zeiss Planar 50mm F1.4)  

Some after thoughts on Phnom Penh in 2023.

Most of the places I visited in Phnom Penh between 2010 and 2023 are old and worn.
Built 50 or 75 years ago. They never had a layer of fresh paint since.
The word preservation does not exist in Cambodia.
Building it, wearing it out and breaking it down for a new $$ high rise is the current norm in Cambodia.
Also the people living there have seen better times recently sue to Covid and increase of prices for food.

Phnom Penh has always had two extreme faces of the rich and the poor.
Contrast between rich and poor is now more apparent than ever, as it is all over the world.

Phnom Penh Urban development 2023
New highrise apartment buildings are looming over historical Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh Orussey Market 2023

The old Khmer traditional ways are steadily disappearing.
The streets are daily filled with hard working people living and pushing and shoving in those three story street shops and restaurants.
Cooking food and socializing in dark cool alleys and hidden spaces.

Old rickshaws with raggy people ride between brand new Lexus and Rolls Royces drive by.

Poverty and new attained wealth are in a constant battle here for the reality of existence.

The city as I photographed it is fighting to get out of the shadows of recent dark history and to keep up with the new demands and high prices of living.

Genuine friendly Cambodian locals are still smiling at you and you feel welcome.
Cambodia is a fascinating place to aim your camera at.
Surly there is always the mighty Mekong and Tonle Sap river to find peace and gaze gaze far away views.

views over the Mekong river near Phnom Penh- Cambodia

Michael Klinkhamer is offering exciting photo safari tours Cambodia in 2024. 

Including Angkor Wat and exploring Mekong river tours.

Join me next time in Cambodia!

Street photography series shot on film during a few casual photo walks in Phnom Penh-Cambodia in 10/2023.
Camera:Nikon FE Lens: Zeiss Planar 50mm
Film: Fomapan 200