Helena Costa is a veterinarian and amateur film photographer from Portugal who now finds herself living far from home in Northern Norway. It’s an environment not everyone would choose to live in, with months of extreme cold and darkness, followed by summers where the sun never sets. Nevertheless Helena has found herself captivated by this unique landscape and is endlessly inspired to capture the awe-inspiring natural world that surrounds her with the help of her reliable Nikon F65.
Hi Helena, and welcome to Lomography Magazine. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Helena Costa and I am a 27-year-old veterinarian from Portugal. Nowadays, I live in northern Norway where I am doing my PhD - my research focuses on investigating whale health in the Arctic and on discovering new ways of studying these animals in a completely non-invasive way. My work is divided between days on the water with the whales, lab days or office work. Photography comes as a side thing that I focus on mostly in my free-time, and it comes hand in hand with other passions like diving, hiking or generally spending time outdoors.
How did you first get started with film photography?
Around 12 years ago, when I was starting to get interested in photography and looking into what digital camera I should buy, my brother brought home a roll of film from a photography class he was taking. We took our parents old analogue camera from the drawer and spent the afternoon experimenting with it. At some point I dropped the camera, it opened completely and we lost all the photos. My brother was annoyed and went back to his day but I was too intrigued to let it go. I ended up buying my first film camera not long after that and got hooked ever since. I tried digital along the way, but it never really stuck with me.
Why was digital photography not for you?
When I shoot digital I feel like the instant feedback makes me get drawn into perfecting the end result, shooting a photo over and over again until I am happy with it, and end up losing sense of what's happening around me. With film, while the process and learning feels unbelievably slow, I love how it challenges me to be patient and extra mindful in each shot, how it allows me to still be fully present in the moment and how it teaches me to accept that imperfection is ok. I love the little mistakes that result from it, the haziness of the photos, light-leaks, out of focus shots, the grain and textures - it all seems to come closer to represent what living feels like. I especially love all the feelings that come with developing an old roll of film, as it makes me celebrate and be grateful once again for moments shared with loved ones or with myself.
Which cameras and film do you usually use?
My first camera was an old, very cheap Zenit-E. When it broke, I got another one, even older and cheaper. It was a great model and I love the photos I got to do with it, but when that one also broke, I understood that I needed to get a sturdier camera. I ended up getting a Nikon F65 and this has been the one I have been using for the last 10 years.
Film-wise, I just try to buy whatever I get my hands on. Using expired film is always great fun, as it can give you some crazy unexpected results. When buying new, my absolute favorite is Kodak Portra 800. I also really like Fuji Superia 400, Cinestill 800T, Lomo CN 800 and Kodak Gold 200. But I most commonly go for the cheapest or most accessible rolls I can find at the moment.
How does the landscape of Norway inspire your photography?
I lived shortly in northern Norway in 2018 and one year ago I moved back for good. Being out in nature, alone or with friends, has always been what makes me the happiest and this ends up translating into the photos I make. The landscape in Norway is like no other, but moving here has definitely been pushing me out of my comfort zone, as it is so different from what I was used to, growing up in Portugal.
Dealing with cold and snow is a whole new experience for me, as well as adapting to the way light changes so dramatically - during winter the sun disappears for months and in summer the sun never leaves. But looking past the challenges, all this comes with a big appreciation for the special fleeting things each season brings. It's a great place to be, between dancing northern lights, snowy pink mountains, colourful fall trees and endless summer days. I find myself in awe every day and that's what I try to capture in my photos.
Living in such a remote place, how is the access to film and labs etc.?
From time to time, I am able to find a shop that has a couple of rolls of film in store, but it's definitely hard to find it consistently over here, especially if I am looking for specific brands or ISO. Most commonly, I just buy a big batch when I happen to travel to a larger city; other times I order online. While there are a couple of labs around that I could use to develop my film, I always find myself coming back to a specific place in Lisbon that I have been working with for years. Each roll is so precious that I just prefer to leave it with a team I have full trust on. But that's why these days I end up developing my film only once or twice a year, when I travel to Portugal for a visit. So, while it can be a challenge to access film and labs where I currently live, I am also lucky to be able to travel often to other places that offer more options.
What are the biggest challenges you face shooting film in extreme cold and dark conditions?
I used to struggle a lot with exposure when shooting film during slightly less ideal light conditions, and it has been quite interesting to see how living here has pushed me to be less intimidated with darkness and with shooting at night. Kodak Portra 400 and 800 have become my top choices for those conditions and they work great together with a tripod and longer exposures. Having a place to keep the camera warm and carrying spare batteries is also essential during winter - I learned that after reaching the top of a beautiful mountain at dawn, with the most epic view, just to find out that the cold had drained all the battery of the camera!
Do you have any exciting photography plans that you’d like to tell us about?
I got a Nikonos V camera recently, and I have been very excited about getting more into underwater film photography. Being underwater is a very meditative, calming experience; the world slows down, noises are smoothed out and the light refracted on the water creates all these beautiful shades and nuances - and I think film captures all this perfectly. It's been a slow learning process to understand how to work with the camera and how to deal with light underwater, especially as weather up north is not always allowing for diving, but I have been enjoying the journey. The ultimate dream would be to be able to photograph the whales I work with, but because we see them up here during the polar nights, it makes it quite a challenging photographic plan, especially for analogue. But who knows!
What are your hopes for the future of film photography?
It's been really interesting to see film photography come back to the spotlight over the last few years and see more people using it. I hope we don't see the passion fade away, but at the end of the day, it's just good to see people making and enjoying art and expressing themselves, whatever the medium they use.