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Colin Devroe

Photographer. Podcaster. Blogger. Reverse Engineer.

Why I’m shooting with film

Nearly a decade ago Eliza and I began to make our own wine and beer. We started out making quick batches in buckets, carboys, or other small containers. It allowed us to get more familiar with the process of fermenting fruit or barley into one of our favorite drinks.

Pressing grapes, 2013

Eventually we graduated to making a more serious batch of wine that started as grapes still on the vine that were shipped by boat from Chile and ending up as 80 gallons of a Cabernet Sauvignon / Carménère blend that – to this day – is the best wine we’ve ever made or had.

When we began to learn this process it gave us a deeper appreciation for other wines and beers we had. We started to understand what each ingredient, what each stage, the temperature, and many other factors played into the end result. We also honed our tastes in so far as to know, without ever having a sip, what beverages we liked and didn’t like.

The process of learning to make wine feels very similar to the process of learning film photography.

San Francisco, July 2007
One of the first photos I took with the original iPhone

I’ve been shooting digital images for many years. I’ve always had an interest in making photographs as memories of our experiences, as well as an outlet for my creativity. But it wasn’t until the iPhone debuted that I began to explore photography as an art medium. Or as a documentary medium for that matter. With the iPhone I would have a camera with me everywhere I went and I ended up taking tons of photographs with my mobile phone for the next decade. Which led to me taking photographs with other digital gadgets like GoPros and drones.

A few years ago though I began to study photography. Looking up its history, looking at examples from the last hundred or so years, and trying to learn different techniques. Prior to this time period I only had very surface knowledge of the photographic process – digital or film. I knew the basics of composition and how an image sensor worked. Apart from that I had no idea.

For whatever reason, the desire to try film – like the desire to make our own wine – became stronger and stronger. I started to follow film photographers on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. People like Dan Rubin, Bijan Sabet and a few others were nearly daily reminders that I should give it a try. Which ate at me for over a year. Then, about 6 months ago or so, I stumbled across Nick Carver on YouTube. What he was doing with film photography was much different than Dan or Bijan – he was trying to create the highest quality digital file and print he could from a scene. This interested me greatly.

My current digital cameras are already over 10 years old (not counting my current iPhone 11 Pro Max). So my ability to create high quality images on digital is non-existent. Looking at film it appeared to me (knowing almost nothing) that I’d be able to get a much higher quality result without the budget needs of upgrading my digital cameras. It turns out I was only part right on this.

So, as you may have listened to in this episode of my podcast, I decided to pick up a few inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras to get my journey started in film. That was four months ago. I figured I’d buy a camera or two, fire a few rolls, see what the results were and learn. Little did I know the rabbit hole or the ride I’d be on over the next several months – and likely for the rest of my life.

One of my first exposures
Canon AE-1 Program, Kodak Tri-X expired in 1982

Since then I’ve purchased, or been gifted, well over a dozen cameras ranging from point-and-shoot 35mm film cameras to 100-year old medium format cameras that no longer have film compatible with them. I’ve read a few books on the history of photography as well as the complete photographic development process. I’ve shot dozens of rolls of film and developed them on my own, either in my kitchen sink or in my bathroom tub. In fact, I never sent away a single roll to be processed by someone else. I’ve even modified existing film stock to fit into that 100-year old camera.

I went a little off the deep end in an effort to give myself a crash course in film photography.

Radisson Station, Scranton PA
Canon Rebel G, Kodak Color Gold 400 expired in 1982
Lake Lanier Georgia
Canon AE-1 Program, Kodak Color Gold 400 expired in 1983, converted to mono
Garden fence, South Carolina
Canon AE-1 Program, brand-new Kodak Color Gold 400
Garden path, South Carolina
Canon AE-1 Program, brand-new Kodak Color Gold 400
Reedy River, Greenville, South Carolina
Canon AE-1 Program, brand-new Kodak Color Gold 400

I still have a long way to go and a lot more to learn. I still haven’t created a high quality result that I’d be happy with for, say, a fine art print like Carver’s work. But I haven’t tried yet either. Most of the film I’ve shot, with the exception of 3 brand-new rolls of inexpensive Kodak Color Gold 400 (or Ultra Max) that I purchased in an Atlanta camera shop, has been film that is well past its expiration date. In fact, some of it didn’t work at all. Also, the cameras I’ve been using all have their little quirks. One doesn’t have a battery (so I have to meter for light using my iPhone or just guess). It also has moisture in the viewfinder so I can’t focus the image so again I’m left guessing. And the rest has been downright bad film.

Why go through all of this? Because it has cost me almost no money so far. All in I’ve spent less than $500 to shoot film for 4 months on many different setups with different speed films and process them all on my own. I consider this a very inexpensive education so far.

Tree, medium format
Ansco Rediflex 1920s, Kodak Tri-X 120 400 expired in 1982
Warming up C-41 chemicals in my kitchen sink to develop color film
Ansco Rediflex
I had to modify 120 film to fit
Canon AE-1 Program, gift from my brother-in-law
At a great brewery in Virginia

But I’m about to level up. I’m ready to move onto the next phase in my education and that is to use the skills I’ve learned so far to create high quality images using both 35mm and medium format film. I need to buy a bunch of brand-new film, which I’ll likely ruin or mess up in some way, and I still need to track down the medium format camera (maybe a Rolleiflex?) that I want at a price I can afford. But all that I’ve learned these last months will hopefully help to cut down on the mistakes I’m about to make. I’m on a budget after all!

I’ll check back in here in a few months time to see if, like the wine Eliza and I made, I’m making photographs that are now my favorite I’ve ever taken.

I’ll be publishing a lot more photos here on my site that I’ve taken over the last few months as well.

The Best of 2019 as told by me

At the end of the year I like to sit down and make a rather random list of the “best” things I’ve seen that year. I do this almost entirely from memory but I also peruse my browser history and look through my Unmark archive in order to uncover some of the things I appreciated throughout the year.

You can review previous years: 2008, 2009, 2017, 2018.

At the tail end of December I sat down and made this list and since then I’ve taken some time to cull through it and make the list you’re reading now.

Best Blog: Gurney Journey by James Gurney

James Gurney, who I interviewed for The Watercolor Gallery, has kept a blog for a very long time. This past year wasn’t necessarily a stand-out year for his blog – it has always been very good – but I believe his blog and his YouTube channel deserve recognition this year.

Runners up: Waxy’s links, Kottke as always.

Best (new to me) Blog: AOWS

Since I’ve really been going all-in on my photography this year I’ve stumbled across a lot of photographers. In fact, I’m well over 100 photographers on my private Photography Twitter list (I’m @cdevroe there). I’m very glad to have found AOWS. See also the Instagram account.

Runner up: Chris Sale.

Best place: Kentucky

Jim Beam Distillery

Last year I said that we’d likely return to Kentucky and we did – that must say something about it. We enjoy the entire state, the distilleries, horse farms, and rolling hills. See posts.

Runner up: Cape Cod – This was our first trip to Cape Cod and I enjoyed the whole feeling there. Likely because so many people are either retired or on vacation. I’d like to go back and make more photographs in the future.

Best book: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.

I didn’t read nearly as many books as I’d like this year. But I’m trying not to beat myself up when I miss self assigned goals like number of books to read. I did a lot of fishing, photography, and even started a podcast this year. So I need not read books.

Dark Matter was a nice change of pace from other things I’d read this year. I always like a book that has time jumping. And this book sort of did.

Best service: OneDrive

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but OneDrive – for the most part – holds up very well for my needs. I have nearly half of a terabyte stored there and it isn’t skipping a beat. I use it mostly as a cloud-based backup of all my photos and videos. I also use it to transfer things to/from my computer and phone which worked well when I was on so many different platforms; Android, Windows 10, iOS, and Airdrop wasn’t possible.

Runner up: Disney+ just for The Mandalorian.

Best song for working: Morning of – Colin Stetson

According to Spotify I listened to this song, and the album it comes from, a lot while I was writing code.

Best album: Benton County Relic – Cedric Burnside

Love the old style jazzy/bluesy feel of this album.

Best company: Disney

I wrote a bit about what they’ve done with Lucasfilm since they acquired the company. But, when you look at the scope of Disney – and watch some of their documentaries about how it all came together – they really deserve a round of applause this year.

Runners up: Microsoft is still killing it and I think 2020 looks interesting for them. Apple for finally fixing their laptops.

Best hardware: Canon 400D

Me w/ 400D, recording my podcast

I shot nearly as many photos on this camera as I did on my phones (Pixel 2 XL until October and then iPhone 11 Pro Max) and the camera is 13 years old. It is rugged, has a lot more features than I ever knew it did, and I’m satisfied with the results I’ve been getting.

I have the feeling that next year a film camera may win this category and I’m very excited about that.

Runners up: iPhone 11 Pro Max – the battery life alone deserves an award, iPad Pro – I still use this every single day, in fact I’m writing this post on it right now and I’d say I do greater than 75% of my photo editing on the iPad.

Best desktop app: Firefox

Rather than keeping Firefox in just the browser category, I’m going to give it the best desktop app award. I really, really like Firefox and it has improved greatly this year in terms of speed, privacy, feature set. I simply cannot live without Containers at this point.

Runner up: Lightroom CC.

Best mobile app: Anchor

If it weren’t for how relatively easy it is to create a podcast using Anchor I don’t think I would have done it. Though I am looking forward to my podcast getting a bit better with some desktop-based editing apps. If you have an idea for a podcast I suggest at least giving it a look.

Runners up: VSCO, Twitter, Pocket Casts, Cash.

Best tool: Photoshop CC

Adobe has made very big updates to the entire CC suite of apps. I feel like they deserve a nod as a result of that.

Best podcast: BirdNote

The podcast is just so simple. I love it.

Runners up: ATP. I go back and forth on whether or not I should listen to ATP. Very good information, they were even nice enough to answer one of my questions, but the constant hypercritical (see what I did there?) take on things can sometimes be draining, and so I take long breaks from listening. But that is the entire point of the podcast so I don’t begrudge them of the style. I just always try to look at things positively is all. Also Cal’s Week in Review.

Best YouTube channel: Nick Carver

Nick has easily has the largest impact on my approach to photography this year. His channel is also very entertaining even when he’s discussing very nerdy photography topics.

Special second place: Joe Rogan Experience – I have to cherry pick episodes that I’m interested in, mostly with scientists and outdoorsy people, but the interviews and long form style are refreshing compared to the bit-sized bits we get through TV these days.

I watch a lot of YouTube. Probably too much. Not probably. Actually too much. It is how I learn, am entertained, waste time, etc. In fact, I watch a lot less TV because of YouTube. So this isn’t an easy category to choose.

Runners up: Morten Hilmer, Jack Black, MKBHD, Kevin Nealon, Rainfall Projects, The Lion Whisperer, Zimri Mayfield.

Best Twitter account: Todd Vaziri

Behind-the-scenes and background information on special effects in TV and movies. Fascinating stuff. The amount of work for just a few seconds of video is amazing.

Runner up: Adam Savage.

Best Instagram account: Luke Beard

Luke shares a ton of photos via Stories from his town of Atlanta. It is inspiring the number of photos he’s able to take, process, and publish and has really gained a following in that area. He’s also super gracious in his responses whenever I’ve asked him how he did something.

Special second place: captain.solo – I can always appreciate when someone creates their own style and sticks to it – it isn’t easy to do either of those things. This account has.

You can also follow @cdevroe on Instagram where I frequently share accounts and photos I like via Stories.

Runners up: Dan Rubin, PPP Repairs, Clyde Butcher, Brad Baldwin.

I hope you enjoyed this year’s list. Whenever I sit down to make the list I always under estimate the amount of time it takes to create it. But I’m always glad that I do so that I can look back on it in the future. So this post is more for me than for you.

22mm ∙ f/22 ∙ 1/15s ∙ ISO 100
22mm ∙ f/20 ∙ 1/40s ∙ ISO 100
22mm ∙ f/20 ∙ 1/50s ∙ ISO 100

Culm dunes – October 2019

You can listen behind the scenes as I make these photographs in an episode of Photowalking with Colin titled Culm dunes.

I’d been wanting to use the Monochrome picture style in my Canon camera but hadn’t found the right subject. Until this day, when the sun was still relatively high in the sky, and I remembered how Nick Carver took advantage of these less than stellar photographic conditions to make black and white photos in the desert. I don’t have sand dunes or cacti available to me so I thought of using these anthracite culm piles as my sand dunes.

I am happy with how the first photograph came out. But I’d like another crack at these, and a few different compositions, with a lens hood.

Nick Carver on his photographs

Nick Carver, in an interview by Cody Schultz in early 2018:

Certain artworks I’ve seen throughout my life have had a powerful impact on me. When I look at a painting by Kenton Nelson or a sculpture by Michael Heizer, I feel something deep in my psyche that I can’t put words to. I can’t describe the feeling, but I know I love the effect it has on me. I hope that my photography can have that effect on other people.

If you listen to my podcast, you’ll know that Nick Carver’s work – and notably his YouTube channel – has had a profound effect on my photography.

Because Nick’s hobby is large format film landscape photography, his approach to exposing film is far different than my approach with digital photography. Or, at least how my approach used to be.

For years I’ve followed digital and even mobile photographers that recommend shooting hundreds of photographs in the hopes of capturing a few you like. With large format film you really can’t do that. Not only isn’t there enough time in a day to expose hundreds of slides of film, but also it would cost you a fortune.

This forces the photographer to slow down, strongly consider their composition, be certain of their light metering to determine the camera’s exposure settings, and be more mindful of each and every photo. I’ve been trying lately to find the balance between those two worlds. How can I be more purposeful in my digital exposures – yet still leverage the ease and inexpensive use of the tools I have on hand? I’m still trying to find that balance. But it is because of Nick Carver that I am trying to find it.