1.The Raw Facts 2. The Raw and the Cooked 3. Why a Jpeg is Like a Can of Frozen Orange Juice 4. When Shooting Jpegs Might Be Best 5. Eye to Eye 6.Building Architectural Images 7. Tiff and Touch 8. Size Matters -- But This Can Be Finessed 9. Tempus Digital 10. The Image-Making Machines
THE BEST DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY WORKFLOW -- AND HOW TO GET IT
© by Bill Wisser
1. THE RAW FACTS
How can you get the highest quality digital photos for your next project -- and in the most efficient and cost-effective way?
In less than a decade, a sweeping digital revolution has transformed the art and business of photography, creating enormous new artistic and business opportunities for photo buyers and photographers -- and some nasty pitfalls, too.
Savvy clients and talented photographers can flourish and profit in today's fast-changing digital space if they've educated themselves on how to optimize the new possibilities -- and how to avoid the pitfalls.
But not surprisingly, the stunningly fast triumph of all things digital has left some clients (and even some photographers) perplexed and intellectually jet-lagged:
Everyone's got big helpings of hot new technology on their plates.But it's not always clear what to do with it. What, for instance, are all these much-discussed, but mysteriously named, new workflow concepts such as RAW files?
And tiff files?
These indecipherable names look as if someone popped opened a can of alphabet soup and poured out a batch of random letters.
But understanding these very different file formats -- RAW, tiff and jpeg -- and knowing when to use each one is crucial for producing the best photography and best results for your projects, and for getting the most out of your photography budget.
So what is the best -- that is, the highest quality and/or most efficient -- digital workflow for your next project? It's different from film. And not all projects require the same solutions.
This Raw Facts on-line briefing provides plenty of useful information and insights, plus great-looking pictures, all in an entertaining, and fast-reading package.
But first, here's a quick, three-point summary explaining what you need to know in a nutshell:
(1) For the very finest in image and reproduction quality, shoot RAW files and process them into high-quality tiff files. (I explain RAW and tiff in the chapters below). The sophisticated RAW-to-tiff workflow is highly recommended for most advertising, fashion, and magazine work, and for top-quality reproduction by printing press.
(2) For the very best quality web and e-mail use, also shoot RAW and process them into high-quality tiff files; but, then, to render the files small enough to transmit over the net, do custom, hand-made -- not automated -- compression of the tiff files into smaller but still very good quality jpegs.
(3) And for projects where speed is more important than reproduction quality -- such as in newspaper photojournalism, party, convention and other event photography -- shoot and distribute good-quality jpegs
And here's a fourth point: Chose a photographer who really knows and loves this stuff.
Want to learn more? Read on!
2. THE RAW AND THE COOKED
A RAW file is a digital record, or file, that contains 100% of the data a digital camera captured when its shutter was clicked, but which has not yet been processed and adjusted for the best viewing and reproduction quality.
A RAW file is raw in the sense that it is uncooked, unprocessed, and unready to be shown as a finished product. It is literally raw material.
Here, from a recent advertising shoot I did, is a RAW file:
The colors are weak. And the contrast is so low that the deepest blacks register only as shades of gray. Similarly, the whites appear dusky. And the whole thing looks blurry, not sharp.
Now, here's the same pictured after I "cooked," or optimized it. Using a program that works only on RAW files, I boosted the saturation of the colors, set the white balance, and adjusted the contrast curve. Then, for fine-tuning, I converted the RAW into a tiff file, which contains 100% of the data in the RAW file, but which can be read by Photoshop (which can't itself read RAW files directly). In Photoshop I sharpened the image globally and selectively, and made a few other little adjustments . . . and, voilá:
This photographic cooking revealed the image's true colors -- this is very much the way the studio, the models, the exercise machine, the umbrellas, the chair, and the flowers really looked that day.
Moreover, this cooking or optimization process is open to an almost infinite amount of creative adjustments and interpretations. We can make the colors brighter or quieter. . . the contrast higher or gentler, the image sharper or softer, the reds redder . . . the possibilities are amazing.
Without skilled processing, the colors of a RAW file straight out of a camera appear dull. Yet paradoxically the RAW file is the very finest file a camera can make, if what you want is the ultimate in picture quality after it is fully processed.
So, if the highest possible image quality, the greatest flexibility, and the finest reproduction are your priorities, working RAW to tiffs is the way to go. It produces images with the greatest emotional power, the greatest impact or resonance. So I do this, I shoot RAW files and then optimize them in tiff form for almost all of my advertising, magazine and personal work.
This RAW-to-tiff workflow is also the best base from which to build subtly toned black and white images.
There' s a touch of green, blue, sepia and platinum tints in the image below; and this split-toning, as it's called, helps create an illusion of depth and three-dimensionality:
It takes a bit of time, technical expertise, and some artistry to bring out the latent beauty of a RAW image -- to, so to speak, cook it in a way that reveals its full flavor -- but for the best quality, the strongest results, it's worth it.
On the other hand, if speed is of the essence -- such as for most news photographers and paparazzi -- it's usually quicker to just shoot and transmit jpegs
3. WHY A JPEG IS LIKE A CAN OF FROZEN ORANGE JUICE
A jpeg file is one in which the data has been quickly "cooked" and compressed, according to a complex mathematical recipe called an algorithm. It's sort of industrial food processing in comparison to the custom gourmet cooking of RAW files.
In the production of a jpeg, a portion of the original RAW picture information is thrown away and the rest is compressed to make the jpeg smaller.
When displaying a compressed jpeg for viewing, your computer strives very hard -- using a clever algorithm -- to reconstitute all the missing data.
Unfortunately, the jpeg compression-and-expansion process isn't perfect, and some data, some subtlety, some quality is inevitably lost in translation
A jpeg image that's been condensed and then reconstituted in this way is very much like a can of frozen orange juice.
The process is similar. First, fresh juice is sent to an evaporator where vacuum and heat greatly reduce its water content, making a concentrate. Like a compressed jpeg, concentrated juice takes up less space, and thus is easier to store and transport (or in the case of a jpeg, to transmit).
To make the concentrate drinkable, the manufacturers add flavor oils and essences; then they ship it to customers who mix the artificially enhanced concentrate with water to bring it back to normal size.
This is a technical marvel; and it's used to ship orange juice all over the world.
But this reconstituted juice never quite tastes or smells as good as a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.
A jpeg file is like that recosntituted juice -- it's never quite as tasty as the original.
The tiff file, on the other hand, is the fresh juice.
4. WHEN SHOOTING JPEGS MIGHT BE BEST
Jpeg cooking and compression is often done almost instantaneously in the camera, right after the data is captured. This generally saves time, and also saves space on memory cards and hard drives.
For these reasons, a fast-moving news photographer, for example, or a social photographer shooting a party, or a corporate photographer shooting a convention, will typically set his or her camera to produce jpegs.
I, myself, will sometimes produce high-quality (i.e. the biggest and least compressed) in-camera jpegs when shooting corporate conventions or parties or other events. Especially when I know the most demanding usage will only be small pictures on a website or little, 4 x 6 inch prints, where the loss of quality in the jpegs will not be very visible, if at all, while the amount of time saved may be significant, for instance if the client wants to post a photo-gallery that day.
A little trade-off in image quality can be very acceptable in these circumstances.
However . . . I find that I still want to fine-tune the automated generated files manually to get better results -- which pretty much eliminates jpegs' supposed speed advantage.
Here's a sample of party coverage -- it's an automated, in-camerra jpeg, but I ended up tweaking it manually anyway to strengthen the colors and improve the sharpening.
High-end digital cameras do allow the photographer to dial in the amount of jpeg compression he or she wants, and also the amount and type of cooking -- that is, the sharpening, color correction, contrast adjustments, and other optimizations -- the camera will automatically apply to these files. But despite these controls, I find most jpegs still need individualized post-production work to look their very best.
It's not unusual for a jpeg to be squeezed down to only one-tenth, or an even smaller fraction, of the size of the original RAW file. Obviously this saves space on the camera's memory card, allowing a news photographer, for example, to carry fewer memory cards. And the relatively small size of the jpeg files enables the news photographer to upload the images to his picture editors much quicker -- important in the news business
Even I have to admit that the small size of jpegs is especially nice in that they take up less room on my hard drives, where I archive virtually every job. Maybe that's their best advantage. But there is some trade-off in quality, especially if you want to reproduce the photo big. And hard drive space is getting cheaper and cheaper,
(Jpeg, by the way, stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, part of the non-governmental International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which promulgated the technical standards for this format in 1992).
Here's a custom-cooked jpeg I shot for the Italian Trade Commission at the opening of a design show they sponsored in Miami:
It wasn't practical to set up my big lights, power cables and softboxes at the crowded opening, so I lit this simply by aiming the light from a little, on-camera flash at the ceiling, while slowing my shutter sufficiently to let the light bouncing back down from the ceiling to blend with the warm, ambient tungsten spotlights in the gallery.
That's a quick, smart and unobtrusive way to create good, natural looking results in such fast (and usually low-budget) situations -- I call it guerilla photography, because you leave your heavy artillery at home and work very light, mobile, and quick.
It's good for certain things, especially for photojournalistic or public relations work but even then I prefer to shoot Raw-to-tiff, so I can extract the very best image from the files.
6. BUILDING ARCHITECTURAL IMAGES
I also use Photoshop extensively in my architectural photography to achieve even better and more accurate views and perspectives than what I can capture with my tilt-shift lenses.
Tilt-shift lenses are specialized and costly optics engineered so that the photorapher can move certain groups of the constituent lenses inside the lens barrel up, down, and laterally. You can also rotate and tilt them to produce remarkably deep, sharp focus, or very shallow, soft focus effects.
Above is my trusty Canon EF L 24mm TS lens, tilted and shifted to the max to show what exteme changes you can introduce into the path that light will travel inside the lens -- changing the shape and character of the image the light will then form on the sensor.
The movements possible with these unusual lenses are similar to those of a classic, bellows-type, view camera and thus can correct for distortion and render straight lines straight -- or at least straighter -- which is important for architecture.
I own and use three different tilt-shift lenses, a wide, a normal, and a telephoto. They can produce remarkable images; but now I can take these remarkable images and refine and improve the lens's corrections even further with Photoshop and various plug-ins (specialized sub-programs often written by artist-type programmers).
Here's an example:
The building is the Fairwind Hotel, a Miami Beach Tropical Deco landmark, designed by L. Murray Dixon in 1938. I photographed it in 2006 for the current owner, Oceanside Resorts. Here's a small jpeg copy of the original RAW file.
Next, in the image below, I rotated and straightened the lines, corrected the color (removing the nasty yellow-green colorcast created by sodium vapor street lights), then I selectively sharpened, and performed many other optimizations to make the image look more realistic, more like what our eyes and brain actually perceive in real life.
(In life, our brains miraculously color-correct away the green cast. Our eyes take in the yellow-green light of the street lamps, but our brains conveniently translate it into the nearly white, color of daylight -- though scientifically the street light is measurably yellow-green in color and that's what the camera records). So techically the camera is accurate -- but not realistic.)
Here's my color-corrected version of the photograph, and this is the version Oceanside used :
Finally, in the third version, I decided to bring out the essence of the image more subjectively, and to emphasize the building more. I invested about an hour and a quarter, retouching out the traffic light's shadow, reimagining the color of the street and making a few other changes:
Next, a shot I did for The Related Group, developer of these towers in Miami Beach. The first image below is a small jpeg version of the unprocessed RAW file.
This was a 142 second exposure at f22 and, again, there was an unhealthy-looking yellow-green, almost kakhi-colored, cast from the city's street lamps:
Next is a small jpeg version of the final image, which included Photoshop work to correct the colors and to render the vertical lines more correctly:
To make the framing more panoramic to meet the art director's layout requirements for a 12 x 20 inch, two-page spread, I also cropped a tad on top and cloned some on the left and right sides, making the shot wider.
In theory, at least, jpegs don't need much final processing or painstaking optimization, and can be very quickly uploaded to a personal website, desktop printer, one-hour print lab, or client.
The trade-offs, though, can be costly.
Firstly, no matter how good the jpeg compression is, some data is lost forever, compromising the dynamic range -- that is, the ability to hold both shadow and highlight data -- and the very finest details and nuances of picture and color will also be sacrificed.
So, if you want a very good jpeg -- and it's possible to make a very, very good jpeg -- you should:
(a) use a minimum amount of compression; and
(b) spend some time manually re-adjusting, massaging, manipulating and selectively sharpening the jpeg file on a desktop or laptop computer to make it look its best.
But this need for post-processing somewhat undermines jpeg's speed advantage.
After all, if you're going to spend time custom-processing and massaging a jpeg to make it look as good as possible, why not just spend that time working on the original RAW file, which will give you even better results?
Here's an example of how good RAW-to-tiffs can be with careful optimization. I made this image a few years ago on location with a Canon 20D, a bounce flash, and a 17- 40mm lens at f4 and 1/50th, at ISO 400
The detail is extraordinary. The mural is by DearRaindrop, a Miami art collective. Here's a close-up:
Digital is noticeably better than film at high ISOs (i.e. settings for high sensitivity in low-light situations.) Digital is smoother, less contrasty, and the colors remain rich and true.
A problem with jpegs is if too much compression and/or sharpening is applied by the camera's automatic algorithm, boxy looking compression artifacts (the jaggies) or other flaws such as white halos around objects, or a general grainesss can surface in a jpeg, making the image look rough, low-res, and low quality.
Here's an image I shot at a fashion show at ISO 1600 -- i.e. high sensitivity in low light -- although I did add a little bounce flash off a high, dark ceiling to boost light levels and fill in the shadows. I shot RAW because I wanted every bit of data I could get, since I knew I'd have to "push" it and manipulate it in the digital processing.
The image held up even when cropped for a tight close-up:
Here's that same close-up but I've deliberately oversharpened it:
What I did above was deliberately too extreme.
But sometimes, I'll actually add a bit of digital grain to an image, or emphasize what's already there, for a richly rextrured, pointillistic look.
In digital, grain is not granules of chemicals, as it was in film. Rather, it is what electronic engineers call "noise." Essentially, that's faint static always present in the camera's circuitry but which only becomes noticeable when a very weak, low-light signal is heavily amplified to make it bright enough to form a properly visible image. The static or noise in the circuitry is also amplified along with the pure image signal, and the "noise" shows up as kind of pattern of graininess
I used to like to expose some high-sensitivity films in low-light and then "push" them in the darkroom -- i.e., underexpose the film in the camera, then overdevelop the film in the lab to bring out and strengthen the faintly-recorded image. This underexposure and overdevelopment would result in graininess, snappy contrast and some color shifts, but it let you photograph in amazingly low light situations; and certain combinations of film and chemistry made beautiful looks that I really liked.
Essentially I do the same now with digital -- exposing with high sensitivity in low light, and then overamplifying the signal in the camera and in Photoshop, to bring out the image, which now has visible "noise" or grain in it, but no color shift problems.
Here's an example -- I made this image with a little, six-megapixel, amateur DSLR that did allow me to save RAW files. I shot hand-held at 1/15 of a second at ISO 1600. And I worked on the file pretty extensively in Photoshop. Among other things, I removed a pedestrian in a white shirt from the foreground, I cloned in some extra sky and sidewalk, and straightened the lines of the building. It's a glowing, neon, Art Deco landmark on Miami Beach's Ocean Drive: The Colony Hotel, designed by architect Henry Hohasuer in 1935.
I also emphasized the grain, or electronic noise, inherent in the file. Here's a close up, showing the pointillistic pattern:
I made this image in 2004 with what was, even then, just a medium-resolution (though quite impressive) little camera.
The cameras I'm using today, boast double or triple the resolution, much greater low-light sensitivity, and finer grain (or noise) patterns. Only just out of its infancy, digital camera technology is still improving by leaps and bounds every year.
Many photographers use special programs to remove the grain or noise from their pictures.
But these programs inevitably remove some detail, too, in their smoothing process.
So in ultra-low light situations, I usually go the other way and go with the grain. I sharpen and emphasize it. Grain is good! I like its detailed, pointilistic look.
Of course, if the final reproduction is going to be on newsprint -- a relatively low-res medium, anyway -- grainy noise, mild compression losses, and even some sharpening artifacts won't be very noticeable, if at all, and a good jpeg is what most daily newspaper and wire service photographers habitually use.
Incidentally, at low ISO speeds -- i.e. lower but richer sensitivity settings for more brightly-lit situations -- digital cameras show vrrtually no grain at all, and are superlatively smooth, far smoother than any comparable film. And on these images I go with digital's creamy smoothness.
Usually there's little point to adding grain to a smooth image, unless you need to match it to a grainier film or digital image in a montage or composite situation. On the other hand, sometimes I'll do radical transformations to even smooth images to create highly graphic, grainy effects, like in this image of New York's iconic Empire State Building:
In any event, as I see it, the main problem with even good, high-res jpegs is that they are harder to process and adjust fully.
Having already been compressed and adjusted, they don't respond as well as RAW files do to further adjustments, color corrections and numerous little fine-tunings.
Each such change causes a small loss of data. Since the jpeg is already a lossy compressed format -- in which much data has already been discarded -- jpegs simply do not give you as much raw material to work with. This sacrifice of data is especially limiting if your style involves a lot of post-processing and massaging to bring out the full potential of the picture, or to make major creative changes such as in this Empire State image.
Now, I don't want to criticize jpegs too harshly here.
Excellent work can be and is being done with jpegs everyday, expecially in short-deadline journalism. The processing software for jpegs is also getting better. Nonetheless, jpegs are somehow thinner -- not quite as rich in detail and tonal range. And each time a jpeg file is changed and saved, it degrades slightly.
Another drawback is that the one-size-fits-all, automated production of jpegs by a camera's on-board computer simply cannot produce as good results as custom processing of a RAW file by a skilled photographic artist working with his eyes, his taste and his talent -- and with a more powerful computer than the little one in the camera.
There are some purely technical reasons for this, and some purely artistic ones:
Basically, each image is different and requires individualized processing to look its best.
An infinity of essentially mysterious artistic choices must be made about what constitutes best when developing and optimizing a file , choices that no algorithm yet devised -- no matter how sophisticated its programmed logic -- can subjectively make.
For the computer lacks the human touch.
To be sure, there's really no one right way to develop and optimize an image; there are almost always many fine and valid interpretations that can be made when creating a final file for publication.
But in the end, I'd much rather have a talented photographer -- not a little camera computer -- making the choices based not just on the numbers, but on the image's emotional content, something that no computer can yet decipher.
A RAW file has often been likened to a negative, with the custom processing of the RAW file by the photographer being akin to making a custom print from a negative in the old-fashioned, chemical darkroom -- except nowadays we do it all on a computer, in a virtual workspace called the digital darkroom.
The inspired landscape photographer and master darkroom technician Ansel Adams, who was also a classical pianist, famously likened the negative to a musical score and the print to the performance -- and that's still the case today, except the RAW file is the score and the optimization is the performance.
And this is still an art.
8. SIZE MATTERS -- BUT THIS CAN BE FINESSED
Jpeg files are only 8 bit; while RAW files are typically 12 to 16-bit -- that's geek-speak meaning RAW files are bigger and richer in color.
They have greater bit-depth and, as noted above, respond better to processing and creative adjustments.
But most computer programs can't read RAW files. So, typically, after I've performed initial optimization in a special RAW file program, I convert it into another format -- usually a Tagged Image File Format, or tiff file -- which is readable by many more computer programs, including Photoshop where I do more extensive fine-tuning, optimization, and retouching of the image.
One of the best things about a high quality tiff file is it's lossless -- that is, it retains 100% of the picture data from the RAW file. In fact, a tiff file is actually much larger than the RAW file from which it's made.
Of course, that's also one of the drawbacks of Tiff files: they are big, even when reduced to 8-bit after the adjustments are completed.
Their large size is not a problem for print use, which likes big files. But full-size tiffs, especially from the big, high-resolution cameras that I use, are way too big to be easily e-mailed or posted on a website, such as this one.
So, for these usages, I reduce the physical dimensions of the image and then compress the tiff into a high-quality jpeg, like this one:
The jpeg above measures 450 by 300 pixels @ 72 pixels per inch. To see the how small the compression has made this image, here's the amount of detail that was in a 450 by 300 section of the original tif:
These compressed jpegs, that I make from carefully optimized, creatively massaged, selectively sharpened and often retouched tiff files are of a much higher quality than the jpegs that a camera's automated on-board processor could ever make.
Even so, when I use an excellent Adobe program called ImageReady to give the files an extra squeeze of compression for the web, I find the colors weaken; the contrast, too; and some sharpness leaches away.
So I make an extra effort to manually restore and strengthen the image in ImageReady: I boost the saturation, sometimes individually for each color, I play with the contrast, and add sharpness.
Sometimes I'll automate all this if I have to do a huge web gallery for a client, but that's a one-size-fits-all proposition; and for this website, for example, I prefer to a custom, hand-made job on each jpeg, optimizing them individually for the best quality I can possibly give them.
I think most webmasters and most web designer don't bother to custom process web jpegs this way -- they just do the automated, one-size-fits-all thing, which can give you OK, but not great, results.
If, however, you've spent money to build and maintain a website to attract, and motivate customers to buy, why just settle for showing merely mediocre versions of the images on the your site? The images are what people will look at first.
I offer my clients oustanding, eye-catching custom jpegs for the web -- custom, handmade, individually processed jpegs like the the ones you see illustrating this essay, rich in detail, color and eye appeal. I charge an additional jpeg processing fee for this work, and it's worth it.
The capabilities of digital optimization are wonderful, far greater than what could be achieved in the old chemical darkroom.
But there's a tradeoff: this all takes time.
In the old days, after a shoot I'd just drop my film off at the lab and go home and go for a bike ride, or maybe have dinner, or watch a movie. A few hours later, or the next morning, I'd pick up the processed transparencies, do a quick edit on a lightbox and send my choices (and my invoice) to my client.
Now in the digital era, my job is more complex and takes much longer.
Instead of just dropping the film off at the lab, now I must insert my high-capacity memory cards into my computer, download all the images, and start processing and performing preliminary optimization on them. (Sometimes I or my assistant will start doing this on a laptop during the shoot).
At first my rule of thumb was one-to-one -- that is, if I spent one day shooting, I was also going to spend about a day on the compurter doing the digital processing and optimization.
Now, it often takes even longer, as I apply ever more sophisticated optimizations.
I'd say a day's shooting now requires at least a day-and-a-half of computer work.
This post-production work takes time.
But the great advantage of this new workflow is that I now have far greater creative control over my images and the quality of their processing from start to finish -- and thus am now delivering higher quality and more creative images to my clients.
In the brave new digital workflow, not only am I and my computers taking the place of the photo lab, but I'm also performing complex adjustments that used to be in the province of pre-press technicians who would scan the processed film on a drum scanner costing tens of thousands of dollars, and then would create the color separations for the printer.
The high-end scanning, pre-press work and, in many instances, retouching, were significant expenses for clients, who had either to establish a costly scanning and pre-press operation in-house, or pay outside contractors, or the printer to do it.
Today that all sounds so Twentieth Century. As obsolete as the steam locomotive.
Or the phonograph.
(The phonograph was a pre-iPod device that played musical recordings by amplifying electrical signals created by running a needle through wavy grooves etched into a big shellac or, later, plastic disk.)
Twentieth Centrury film and pre-press technology has been rendered obsolete by digital technology, as surely as some three decades ago digital, computerized typesetting -- or cold type -- replaced the 540-degree-hot, molten lead lines that hulking Rube Goldberg-like Linotype machines used to spit out into neat rows of metal type. It was literally "hot type" -- made from burning-hot lead -- and was used to emboss the printing press plates that would in turn imprint the words onto paper.
That's how newspapers, magazines and books were composed and printed back then.
I remember seeing all this at the first newspaper I worked for, a little, small-town daily in New York's Hudson Valley. Hot type! Molten lead that could burn you. It was like being in Vulcan's workshop, just as archaic now as a blacksmith beating horseshoes at his forge. But it was romantic; and I still have, as newspaper folk say, ink in my veins.
In any event, today's post-industrial, film-less workflow requires the photographer to educate and train himself, and then invest in powerful computers and complex programs for image processing, and to spend countless hours sitting before these computers -- doing all the sophisticated processing and optimization work that has eliminated the need for photo labs, wet darkrooms, drum scanners, separators, retouchers, countless courier deliveries, and much other old-style pre-press work.
These functions and responsibilities, and much of their associated costs, have been transferred to the photographers, or their paid assistants.
And that's why I and most other professional photographers now charge digital services fees, to pay for the additional time and investment we made to do this and bring you the higher quality, greater adjustability, and other advantages of the new technology.
I sometimes include a portion of these charges in my basic creative fee, sometimes covering preliminary color-correction and the production of digital contact sheets, while often specifying additional digital charges for creating impressive interactive web galleries, doing skillful optimizations of the client's selected images, and for performing major retouching work and other digital magic.
10. THE IMAGE-MAKING MACHINES
The image quality of the finest digital cameras now far surpasses that of 35mm film -- indeed it rivals and often surpasses even medium format film.
The biggest Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras, or DSLRs -- the cameras that look like the larger motorized, Nikon and Canon film cameras of the last century, but, instead of film inside, have 21- to 24-megapixel sensors and cost up to $8,000 -- are on the forefront of the digital revolution.
But next year they're destined to be replaced by a new crop of even better cameras.
It's startling that the image quality of these comparatively compact and fast handling digital cameras can surpass what formerly could only be achieved with the bulkier and slower-moving, big, box-like, medium format film cameras, such as the Hasselblad or Mamiya.
And with digital you don't have to wait for a somewhat innacurate Polaroid (or for a photo lab that'll take hours or even days to process the film) to see what your pictures will look like.
Nonetheless, here's the one film camera that I've kept:
It's a vintage Polaroid Model110A, built about half-a-century ago but later modified to accept more modern Polaroid film. It boasts a good Rodesntock lens and rangefinder focusing; and before digital I'd use it to make test shots to evaluate my lighting and composition.
Models, most of whom had never seen a camera like this, loved being photographed with it.
The lens's angle-of-view is about equal to that of a semi-wide 35mm lens on 35mm camera, and the Polaroid film gave a satiny smoothness:
But you couldn't change lenses to get different perspectives; you'd have to wait a minute-and-a-half for the Polaroids to develop; and the film was unreliable, often giving false colors and erroneous exposures.
Incidentally, here's the set-up I used to create the 1940s look of the shot above:
Three studio flashes.
To narrow their broad light into concentrated round beams, I fitted trhem all with grids; and added barn doors (adjustable flaps that further shape light) and a snoot (the funnel-like attachment at right) that compresses the beam into an even tighter spot, mimicking the focused light effects of the glass-lensed spotlights used in the 1940s, before more contemporary light modifiers such as umbrellas and softboxes became commonplace.
Since I shot my portrait of the Polaroid camera digitally, with a state-of-the-art Canon 1Ds Mk. 2, I didn't have to wait to see what the picture would look like -- I could check it instantly on the screen on the back of the camera.
This instant feedback is a giant advantage for both the photographer and the client. You can even connect the camera with a wire, or wirelessly, to a computer and see the pictures on a big computer screen as they are captured.
The instant viewing advantage of digital enables the photographer to fine-tune the exposure, composition and many other things right then and there -- on location, or on the set -- saving valuable time and enabling more efficient shoots and better results.
With this instant visual feedback you know immediately when you've got the picture you're trying for.
So you don't have to shoot many extra brackets, i.e. slight variations of exposures, as careful photographers usually did in the film era to cover themselves from the vagaries of exposure meters and film lab processing.
Polaroids were never very exact, either; and they slowed the pace of the shoot. In the end, all those 90 second waits added up, as did the costs of Polaroid film itself, and the costs of all the paid talent on the set waiting for the Polaroids to develop themselves.
Digital's instant feedback is wonderful because it can make the shoot shorter, or allow us to shoot more images in the same time thus helping us get more perfect results.
While the image quality of most expensive digital SLR cameras is comparable to that of the bigger, medium format film cameras, the new cameras retain the smaller, more mobile and faster handling form-factor of the traditional 35mm camera -- and share their far wider selection of specialized lenses.
This is an unprecedented technical combination that allows digital photographers to create pictures that simply were not possible before.
Because of digital's many advantages, I sold my beautiful, but purely mechanical, Hasselblad -- a classic picture-making machine whose design origins were in the 1940s. Here's some of my Hassy stuff before I put it on ebay:
For about five years now, I've been shooting all-digital.
My main camera currently is the 2- megapixel 5D Mk. II, backed up by a Canon 1Ds Mk. II (pictured below). That 16.7-megaqpixel camera cost $8,000 when it was introduced some three years ago.
Canon replaced it with an improved Mk. III model -- and then in less than a year surpassed that with an even newer camera, the 5 D Mk. II, which has even better image quality and yet is, at the same time, less expensive,
It used to be that successful cameras stayed in production for many years -- even decades. A few great classics like the Hasselblad and the Leica stayed fundamentally unchanged for more than half-a-century, with only slow, evolutionary changes.
The digital revolution overthrew that stately pace. Cameras are now changing and improving as fast as computers. Indeed, cameras now are computers . . . little computers fastened to a light-sensing chip and a lens.
None of this science-fictional comes cheap. Aside from the state-of-the-art cameras themselves, I've also been investing in extremely powerful desktop and laptop computers (at least two for fail-safe redundancy on location shoots), not to mention the huge hard drives for image storage and back-up, plus all sorts of other peripherals. And you need to periodically upgrade just about everything to keep pace with the stunningly rapid progress in picture-making and processing technologies.
No doubt a few artisans will keep alive the traditional skills of processing and printing in the archaic chemical darkroom. But, no matter how beautiful their work, it will be an almost a hobbyist pursuit, much like using 19th Century glass-plate cameras, or re-enacting Civil War battles.
Already, Kodak and other major manufacturers have stopped making many of the once common papers and films that were the heart of the old technology.
Yet whatever technology comes to hand, nothing has really changed.
Photography -- despite its antique mechanical and chemical origins in the early years of the industrial revolution, and its reincarnarion now in computerized garb -- is and will be essentially always about vision, light, and the human heart, and the artistry to encapsulate all that into a picture that reaches and moves people with its undeniable magic.
Text and Photos © 2006-7 Bill Wisser