Photo projects usually are planned, researched and given approval to. This one just kind of fell into my lap after a single day of shooting on a bunch of expired film on a whim at the Daytona 500.
I dug the results of that shoot, but what I really enjoyed was the process of getting back to making photography—especially sports photography—tangible. On top of that, the process of switching back to a mindset of thinking, waiting, and constructing a frame rather than motor-driving at 12 fps at sports was refreshing and just plain fun. After some conversations with my awesome editor Nate at the Players’ Tribune and a few friends (thanks Sol!) I have a project in the works.
My goal now—albeit a pretty lofty one—is to spend the next year trying to shoot every major sport’s biggest game with expired film. I’ve been buying lots of film off eBay, friends have been sending it to me (hint), and now I’ve accumulated rolls in varying speeds and ages (all the way back to the 60’s) to go after this thing.
I don’t care if I make money off of it, for me this is a challenge, a way to recharge my thinking and to be honest just to have fun carrying around three clanky Nikon F series cameras around my neck.
The Kentucky Derby was on my photo bucket list just like the 500. I’m not Bill Frakes, so I didn’t have 40 DSLRs mounted across the track nailing every sweet photo spot. There is so much work that goes into putting up that many remotes and institutional knowledge he has shooting this race for how many decades it has been, that I can’t compete. Hell, I’ve never even been to this race so for me it was navigating my way around, hitting up photogs for info as to where to be and when, and then taking that plan and throwing it out the proverbial window because it’s damn near impossible to cover the Derby on foot by yourself with a camera—especially when sweet light and ladies in sun dresses and huge hats are distracting you at every corner.
I failed miserably at covering the actual race. It is 2 minutes of crazy surrounded by 12 hours of a scene you won’t forget. I defaulted to the later and just did my thing stalking color and making eye candy as light changed and bud lights were downed.
The actual race? I picked a spot on turn one that would produce an image and so did a lot of people—I instantly regretted it. I wish I had gone to the roof, but I was there and and the post time snuck up on me.
Here’s where I failed by not having enough film to cover a plane crash (what my photo teachers always said) in my bag. I had 40 rolls. I shot 39 of them before the race. The last roll? The oldest; the fastest; completely cooked. I shot my lot as the horses passed, which I can only assume was a great frame. What I got back was a clear, Pepto Bismol pink roll with hardly any info on it besides light leaks and some crazy whack grain.
The photo is below – be forewarned it sucks. I also had an FM I just bought produce a few rolls completely out of focus which is frustrating—I lost about 6 rolls of cool photos there. Not even newspaper-sharp… and if you’ve worked in newspapers you know what that means.
Ok, so what did I learn? Shooting film is tough, and I already knew that. I was raised on it. Processed it myself at home. Learned on it in school. Going back to it now, it still is incredibly tough. Although it’s these challenges and changes to my daily workflow that I feel are needed. Failure breeds success. There’s probably a horse pun in there I’m not getting right now, but there you have it.
The other thing I’m learning is that having a personal project like this is amazingly rewarding and self-fulfilling, even if it never sees the light of day. It’s something I haven’t had in six years of being freelance now. I just shoot what people ask me to, and now I’m just approaching this as if no one is looking and having some fun turning some eyes on the sidelines and photo work rooms.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shouted at “Film?!” That’s followed up with one of two statements:
That’s awesome, I’m glad someone’s still shooting it!
You’re freaking crazy.
About the author: Chip Litherland is a photographer and self-diagnosed color addict based in Sarasota, Florida. He has spent over 12 years in photojournalism and commercial photography, and his award-winning photos can regularly be seen in publications such as The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN the Magazine, and USA TODAY. You can find more of his work on his website and on Instagram. This article was also published here.