Looking back

Me, my camera, and our ride. Photo by Spencer


A lot has changed over the last quarter of a century, perhaps more so than in the previous one.

A similar trip, taken twenty five years before ours, would probably have been much the same. We’d still have been shooting on film cameras and the logistics would have been similar. Perhaps there would have been fewer chain motels and restaurants, but the essence of the trip wouldn’t have changed.

1997 was close to a tipping point. The internet was just starting to become widely available and digital photography was in its infancy. Travel was still relatively easy. In the post 9/11 world, long haul air travel became a less pleasant experience and it became increasingly important to be able to demonstrate a fixed itinerary. It’s only become harder since then. On the other hand, some of the logistics would be much simpler with things like GPS and Google Maps.

I travelled around Arizona and Utah again, on my own, in 2003. That trip was planned in detail, not least because I wanted to stay in places like the lodges at the Grand Canyon that book up fast. I was still shooting film, though, as high quality digital was still too expensive. I did take a digital compact, but it mostly stayed in my bag. It shot 2.5MP images and the quality was just about adequate in good light.

Early digital, taken in 2003 on a Casio QV-3500EX

Two years later I bought a digital bridge camera, a 5MP Panasonic DMC-FZ20. With its 12x optical zoom it would have been ideal for a road trip like ours, although it only went to a 36mm equivalent on the long end. A year later I bought my first DSLR, and left film photography behind for good.

If I was doing a similar trip now, I’d be torn on what to take. The trip was not primarily about photography, so perhaps I’d choose to travel light with a premium zoom compact. Something like the Sony RX100 line, or one of the Panasonic TZ cameras, would be ideal. Perhaps more likely, I’d take a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera with a superzoom and perhaps a fast prime for night shots. Even a smartphone would do, with the added benefit of automatically geo-tagging the images so I knew where they were taken.

Whatever I took, I’d almost certainly get results as good, if not better, than I achieved on slide film. The dynamic range, noise performance, and ability to instantly review shots, would have transformed the photos, especially in tricky lighting. I’d also have taken vastly more shots. I only shot about ten rolls of film in 1997, but the purchase and processing of even that modest amount added up. It also took up quite a lot of luggage space. A single SD card would easily have lasted the entire trip and allowed me to take thousands of pictures.

Kanab, Utah. Street scene taken in 2003

With that in mind, I can’t be too hard on my younger self for not taking enough photos, but I do regret some of my choices. Great images of the Grand Canyon are easy to find, and, while it’s always nice to have your own shots they’re never going to be as good as those by photographers who can visit it time and again in different light.

This could be almost anywhere

Some of the shots I took could also have been taken anywhere. The ones that mean the most to me now are the ones that show the street scenes, the cars, and the places we stayed in. I wish I had more shots of the small towns, diners we visited, and the general urban sprawl of motels and fast food chains. I can’t beat my younger self up too much though. My photographic interests have changed since then, and I’m much more interested in street photography than I was in those days.

So there it is, the conclusion of the 25th anniversary of my coast to coast to road trip. Five weeks, 6600 miles, ten rolls of film, 19 blog posts, and a lifetime of memories.

1. Coast to Coast
2. Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey
3. Washington DC
4. On the trail of the Lonesome Pine
5. Charleston to the Smoky Mountains
6. In the Smoky Mountains
7. Memphis Tennessee
8. Into the Great Wide Open
9. Santa Fe
10. The Rocky Mountains
11. Into Utah
12. To the Grand Canyon
13. From Rim to Rim
14. Scenery Overload
15. Viva Las Vegas
16. Palm Springs
17. The last leg
18. Then and now
19. Looking back

Previous: “Then and now”