I’m off taking a real vacation in the only place possible: one without wifi. While I lock away my computer and play on the beach for two days, I asked my dear friend and Peru travel buddy Zoe Norvell to fill in for me.

At this point in my life: I can’t be bothered with taking pictures. I sometimes find it distracting to be behind a lens, which is why when I got ready for my trip to Peru I only brought along my iPhone and my Polaroid camera.

Traveling with a Polaroid

Did it help to know that I would be traveling with someone who has a really nice camera, takes way better photos than me, and is meticulous about documentation? YES. It definitely did. I felt no pressure to force myself to take scrupulous photos because I knew I’d be stealing all of Alex’s eventually. And did I mention I selfishly gave her a GoPro for her birthday?  “Here, best friend, take videos of our trip together so I can remember it always…mmkay thanks. Oh and Happy Birthday.”

A Polaroid camera is great because it slows you down and forces you to be selective… except for when you’re not and you wake up one morning and realize the amount of Polaroid shots you ended up with equals the number of alcoholic shots you ingested the night before.

What was it like to take the trip of a lifetime with nothing but a Polaroid? Here’s the low-down on my camera choice.

Price: The camera itself is cheap at less than $100, far less than a decent digital point and shoot would run. It is the film that is expensive, especially compared to essentially “free” iPhone snaps. My film costs about 60 cents per image, or $11-$13 for a pack of 20, which is why you’ve got to choose your moments carefully.

Inca Trail by PolaroidExposure time: Instead of feeling pulled out of the moment, I think the camera creates an experience that becomes part of the moment as you wait about 30 seconds for the little white rectangle to change. On the Inca trail, I took a lot of Polaroids and would eagerly wait to see the tiny image emerge, often alongside a fellow hiker.

The Inca Trail by Polaroid

But of course, in a more hectic scene, I’d stuff them into my back pocket and try to keep up with the crowd.

Lake Titicaca by Polaroid

Settings: My Fuji camera model has 6-ish settings: Flash or no-flash, Landscape or Auto, Light or Dark.  The problem with the “L” and “D” is I can never remember if its ‘choose L if you want to overexpose with more light’ or ‘choose L if the scene is very well lit already.’  Sometimes you have to experiment.

Polaroid Experiment

Handing it over: Getting other people to take a photo for you is risky. That’s 60 cents you’re trusting them with! You know that warning “Objects are closer than they appear?” Well, it’s the opposite.  Objects are farther than they appear! So the photographer needs to scoot in closer to the subject than they think.  I always tell people when I hand my camera over: don’t be afraid to come in close!  Or while in Peru, “mas cerca por favor!”

Peru by Polaroid

Candids vs Action: The great thing about instant film is that you are rarely going to re-take a picture if it comes out wrong.  First of all, you don’t know how it looks for 30 whole seconds! Maybe the sun was too bright, or maybe that paragliding Zoe already landed… But the beautiful thing is: “Oh well.

Peru by Polaroid

Polaroids lend themselves to fleeting moments, and its okay if the picture isn’t perfect. So when it comes to candids vs action shots, I think save the candid dinner-table shot for your iPhone, and let the Polaroid capture those moments when you don’t have time to say “Ok. 1… 2… 3.”

On my last night in Arequipa, as Alex has already mentioned, we were having quite a bit of fun and as a result—I got a little photo happy.  But these pictures are some of my favorites!

Arequipa by PolaroidOne of my favorite things about the instant film is that you can give these out as gifts.  This was especially important in Peru, a country where the locals are often viewed as part of the scenery.  Alex already mentioned in previous posts how she sometimes felt uncomfortable taking photos of the local people (unless it was their livelihood!), and how we were even shooed away a couple times. Contrarily, I had one really great experience with my camera on the Inca Trail. On our first day, as we were taking a long break, a young girl came up the path with a large colorful sack.  She barely looked at any of us but said hello to our guide in her native Quechua. We were all somewhat in awe of her strength and curious where she was coming from and going to.  A little while later, I was ahead of most of the group and I came upon her resting.  When she saw me she got up and started walking.  We walked for about five minutes, paces apart and in silence, while I translated a question in my head.

Inca Trail by PolaroidMy broken Spanish went like this: “Permiso, Senorita? Puedo tomar un photo para tu? Dos photos, uno para mi y uno para tu. Un regalo para tu?” (Excuse me, miss? May I take a photo of you, one for me and one for you. A gift for you?) She smiled very sweetly, was probably confused by me saying that I was giving her “a gift,” and stood still.  I pulled out my camera “uno… dos… tres” and handed the film to her.  From the way she looked at the little card, I couldn’t tell if she had seen a Polaroid before or not.  She didn’t ask me anything, just smiled. Then I said “Y uno para mi,” and snapped the second. In my picture, you can see the first photo in her hands. As we were both waiting for them to expose, she was looking at the black side instead of the white. I told her to flip it around.We both walked on, both too shy to talk, and with time her quickened pace separated us gradually.

I saw her again at the the next meeting spot, selling local energy drinks and corn beer that had been concealed in her sack. She smiled at me when I walked by, which I took to mean “Gracias.”

. . . . .

So do I regret traveling with just my Polaroid? No. I prefer tactile over digital (don’t even get me started on the Kindle debate), and I doubt that will go away anytime soon. I am putting all of my Polaroids in a simple book soon: void of the usual scrapbooking stickers and more simply a housing. When I want to revisit these memories, I’d sooner pull out this book than hook up an external hard drive and search for the right folder. It would be nestled among folders from other trips taken over the past decade that I haven’t revisited since. In terms of sharing these images, I think people are more interested in the tale than the snap. My dad traveled around Europe for a summer when he was my age (with the same backpack I brought to Peru, Burning Man and Thailand!) and I just realized I have never asked him if he took any photos. My mom has a stash of letters he wrote as well as a journal he kept, and it’s these stories, recounted over the years, that have given me a real sense of his experience during that time.Polaroids from the Inca Trail

All in all: I know the Inca Trail will never be as beautiful as it was in person, and I know a photo will never be able to convey how I felt waking up everyday in the Andes mountains. But alas, ask me how many times I’ve flipped through Alex’s Peru album on Facebook and I’ll be honest: a lot.

Muchas gracias to Zoe for sharing with us! Would you guys ever take a big trip with just a Polaroid camera to document it?

  • Eve
    December 19 2013

    I travel with my Polaroid too!! But it’s not the price of the photos that puts me off bringing it, it’s the size and weight of it: it can be annoying to log around. And it’s so annoying when you take a photo and everything is so much further than you realised. Your Polaroids here are lovely (especially the ones of you and Alex); I love the story about the young girl.

    • Alex
      December 20 2013

      Fun to hear from another Polaroid taker! I can see how the size would be a put-off, but if you compare it to the weight of my dSLR it seems like a feather 🙂

  • Lauren
    December 19 2013

    This was perfect! Bring Zoe back to Alex in Wanderland soon!

    • Alex
      December 20 2013

      Thanks Lauren! I’ll see if I can talk her into another post someday 🙂

  • Shaun
    December 19 2013

    Never considered giving them out as gifts as you take them. In-person instagram! It’s a great way to capture a moment for the other person.

    I won’t forget about doing this in those parts of the world where technology is not common.

    • Alex
      December 20 2013

      I love the idea of an in-person Instagram! How long until the iPhone comes with its own printer, ya think?

  • Andi
    December 19 2013

    Oh my gosh how much fun! I so want to do this now!!

    • Alex
      December 20 2013

      I would love to see what you could do with a polaroid, Andi!

  • Sarah Somewhere
    December 19 2013

    Really sweet post, Zoe!! I think polaroids are amazing and I was obsessed with them when I was younger. Your photos are awesome and I love the idea of giving them as gifts as some people will never have photos of themselves. And yeah, it helps to travel with a photographer. I’d probably never take a shot if I was traveling with Alex!!

    • Alex
      December 20 2013

      I’m flattered 🙂 And I say the exact same thing when I travel with my professional photographer friend Heather. I get so lazy with my camera!

  • Jade
    December 19 2013

    I love that when you use a digital camera you can take hundreds of photos and not have to worry about cost or space (with the right memory card!), but who doesn’t love a polaroid! I think I’d have to be greedy and say I’d want both!
    Along with my IPhone for Instagram… oh the high tech world we live in!

    • Alex
      December 20 2013

      My iPhone has basically made my point and shoot camera obsolete. If only I could bring it diving, I’d be all set!

  • Gaelyn
    December 20 2013

    I love the idea of the Polaroid gift the best.

    • Alex
      December 20 2013

      It’s a gift I’d love to be on the receiving end of!

  • Monica
    December 20 2013

    Never seen anyone traveling with a Polaroid!
    The picture of the Polaroid at the location IN the polaroid is very clever! Love it.
    Excellent choice for a guest post 🙂

    • Alex
      December 20 2013

      We’re just a bunch of art school geeks over here, Monica 🙂 That’s one of my favorite shots from the Inca Trail!

  • Zoe
    December 20 2013

    Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting!
    this was fun. thanks, Alex!

  • Kathryn
    December 21 2013

    Hey Zoe,

    Great to hear your take on these topics…I hear you about traveling with Alex…I did take photos in Thailand and Iceland, but basically the burden is off when you travel with a pro…

    The story about the young girl is lovely.

    And BTW, I’ll bet Polaroid will be coming out with a pocket-able camera sooner than we expect….

  • Dad
    December 23 2013

    Zoe, this is terrific post. I like the idea that you can give the polaroid photo out as gifts….that are total one-of-a-kind gifts to boot. Good thinking Alex to have Zoe do this. I can see why you are good friends and travel buddies.

  • TammyOnTheMove
    December 23 2013

    I used to have a polaroid as a kid back in the 80ies when everybody had them. I used to love the anticipation of pulling the photo out and waiting for the picture to disappear in front of me. I really love the idea of giving photos to the locals. I often show locals the photos I took of them, but always feel bad that I can never give them a copy. I think if there was a small enough polaroid, I’d probably would take one with me, but not my model from the 80ies, as that was huge!

    • Alex
      December 26 2013

      I always read articles that suggest taking people’s mailing address and sending them copies of the photo after, but I’ve never done that. Printing photos just like such a mission now that everything is digital!

  • Loz in Transit
    December 27 2013

    I’m a believer that the “tale is more important the photo” and am also mindful that we often don’t ask our own parents of their own adventures in their youth.

    I realise also that some people love being behind the camera. The moment for them might be peripheral by choice. It’s what they like doing, definitely handy as a travel partner.

    Ultimately for me it comes down to memory triggers – be it through photos, drawings or mementos. Creating a moment worth remembering before looking to capture it.

  • Giselle and Cody
    December 30 2013

    Very cool photos! We love the Polaroid look, it’s vintage cool. There is a Polaroid camera hanging around somewhere at our place in Toronto, and it is tempting to bring it along with us when we take off again in January, but the film is damn expensive out here! Love the simple scrap book idea too!

    • Alex
      January 2 2014

      And sadly I don’t think the cost of film will ever go back down again 🙁 But as Zoe said, it just makes the photos all the more precious!

  • Mindy & Ligeia
    December 30 2013

    The idea of capturing travel moments with a Polaroid makes me think of how far the technology has come. Before the age of digital, there were the rolls of film and people who knew how to use an SLR camera seemed few and far between. And if I think of much further back in history, I can imagine people traveling with only their sketch books or easels. When traveling now, I sometimes prefer to NOT bring my camera so that I can better enjoy the moments, and not be concerned about light, composition and that annoying tourist with the fanny pack that won’t get out of my frame! 🙂

    • Alex
      January 2 2014

      You should check out the blog The Great Affair — the author travels with a sketchbook and makes beautiful watercolors of the places she travels to! Now that is really a call back to a different time!

      • Loz in Transit
        January 2 2014

        Great Tip Alex. I would add Craig Thompson’s ‘Carnet de Voyage’. This great Graphic Novel predates my blog-reading and travels.
        Ultimately I’d like any craft I work on during my travels to invite more adventure. To have curious locals invite me into their world because of the sketches I draw or the photos I take. Craig Thompson was a great inspiration.

        • Alex
          January 4 2014

          Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check it out!

  • Grietje
    April 7 2014

    Hey Alex,
    Great post! Here a polaroid traveler too 🙂 I saw a friend of mine do it and loved it so much I started too.
    We’re trying to inspire others to do it also. We even made a website: http://www.travelbypolaroid.com.

    Nice to find more and more people traveling like this!

    • Alex
      April 8 2014

      Sounds like a fun idea for a site, Grietje. There’s nothing quite like a good polaroid 🙂 Happy travels.

  • Kristen
    August 29 2014

    Hi Alex,

    I’ve been thinking about getting one of these cameras. I know sometimes you get some of sort of compensation when people go through your site, sobI want to make sure you get the “commission” when I do decide to make the purchase. Is it the link within the blog or should I be looking for one on the side bar?

    • Alex
      August 31 2014

      Hey Kristen! Thanks for asking 🙂 If you click any of the Amazon links on my site and then buy, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you! It will be much appreciated. Enjoy the new toy!

  • Jenn Vargas
    October 20 2014

    I always used to carry a film camera (or two!) with me in my travels but rarely actually used them because it was a pain to switch between digital, phone, and analog (or even have to make the decision) every time I wanted to take a shot. These days most of my photos are on my phone because it takes less time to get set up. Seeing all of these great shots has me re-inspired to start carrying an analog camera with me again! My polaroids have been collecting dust for far too long!


    • Alex
      October 22 2014

      Oh Jenn, tell me about it! Between my dSLR, my point and shoot, my iPhone and my GoPro, things get a little out of hand sometimes 🙂 It was such a treat traveling with Zoe and her Polaroid, though!

  • Isabella
    June 10 2015

    Love this! Thinking about taking my Polaroid to my next adventure and you’ve convinced me.
    How did you go about getting your polaroids onto your computer? Like that you can still the the shadow and definition of the Polaroid shape!

    • Alex
      June 12 2015

      These were scans, Isabella! Just done on an old printer/scanner combo 🙂

  • Jojo
    December 30 2016

    Haha I am usually the friend with the big camera snapping all the pictures. It’s nice to have other people who are interested in taking pictures too. I also have a problem deciding which camera I want to use: DSLR, phone, GoPro or Polaroid. So I will be in the corner setting up and undoing a bunch of cameras which gets to be a hassle.

    I definitely really like the Polaroid though! There is something about having a physical picture print out in the moment that is fun. And that is the only picture! No copies =)

    • Alex
      January 11 2017

      That is so true! I agree, it was really fun traveling with Zoe and her polaroid — adding something new to the mix, in addition to me and my million digital cameras 😉

  • Sandy
    May 5 2017

    I love the post! I remember Polaroid cameras back when I was little they were so huge but now Polaroid has come out with Polaroid Snap Touch Instant Digital Camera which is much smaller and lighter to carry. I definitely want it but I want it all you know? The gorgeous digital pictures, the printed Polaroid and the Instagram shots taken on the phone :D. I too loved the story about the little girl I bet she appreciated the gift (also love the idea about giving them as gifts).

    • Alex
      May 12 2017

      I know, I already travel with like four cameras — can’t imagine adding a polaroid to the mix! But I do love when Zoe and I travel together so I can enjoy hers!

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