Instant composition is strength of next-generation digital gear
Digital capture is becoming a reality for the professional photographer. Montizambert Photography Inc. built its dream studio and went fully digital last July, a move made possible by Foveon's next-generation digital capture workstation.
With workflow much more streamlined than with traditional film photography, we are finding that clients are embracing the technology with us. My partner/brother Mark and I are also reclaiming previously outsourced revenue streams since going digital. These include fees for digital manipulation, color correcting, retouching and CMYK conversions, plus immediate sales on people shots.
Since we began advertising our digital capture capabilities, numerous projects we've secured have been directly attributable to the quick turnaround and impressive session capabilities of our new Foveon digital camera. Since July 1999, all but four of our shoots have been digital.
Though many focus on it as a primary benefit of shooting digital, digital capture systems are much more. There are fewer compromises with digital. Stronger images can be created with less compromise because the shot is composed with the work station placed next to the camera, allowing compositing with Photoshop as the shoot progresses. Digital capture provides incredible creative possibilities.
For example, providing that the camera is not bumped between exposures, it is possible to shoot the same scene or set multiple times varying lighting, exposure, and so on. Each frame will be in perfect registration with the last.
In Photoshop, using layer masks, you can paint desired areas of one image into another, combining opposing light qualities that are impossible to combine in real life. With digital scans from film, this is totally impractical and nearly impossible, not to mention expensive. Since digital capture files have no film grain, they can be sharpened to very high levels using Photoshop's Unsharp Mask feature.
Extended lens range
Digital capture images have greater dynamic range than film, and they can be interpolated (sized up) further than film scans. The size of the imaging chips in digital cameras is smaller than film. This means that short lenses become long lenses and long lens become really long — a real benefit for telephoto; however you will need a fish-eye for a regular wide angle. As more photographers go digital, it will become worthwhile for a lens manufacturer to make the smaller lenses needed for digital. With instant preview and no cost, digital gives photographers the freedom to experiment — unlike film and Polaroid. Whether you shoot one image or a thousand, the camera's monthly payment stays the same. At our studio, our monthly cost of Polaroid and film was the same as a lease on a high-end digital capture system (computer, monitor, and Photoshop included). When you think about paying for a digital system with the money you already spend on film and Polaroid, it starts to make sense. As a friend of mine says, "You don't buy film, you lease it." You can't buy a roll once and reuse it for many years; you have to keep buying more. And as for the technology becoming obsolete, high-end digital camera manufacturers are using a lot of firmware instead of mechanical hardware. This allows many major improvements to be software upgrades.
The learning curve in "going digital" is steeper in the post-production area (color correcting, color management, compositing and retouching) than it is on capturing the image. Shooting with a digital camera is not much different than shooting traditionally. It takes only two to three hours to learn how to do it. However, it takes several months to learn to enhance and color-correct your work with programs like Photoshop.
Though it's feasable, not every photographer is going to want to go beyond creating a scene, lighting it and capturing it digitally. For this reason, I see more partnerships forming between photographers and post-production people, people who are already experts in image editing.
The most exciting advancement in recent years has been in single-capture systems. The majority of these systems such as MegaVision, PhaseOne, Betterlight, the Kodak DC series, and Leaf, use only one CCD imaging chip. Red, green and blue filtration are painted onto the single chip. With single chip/single capture, any given light-collecting cell on the chip can capture only one color. To create the missing color information, software is employed to "interpolate" color, or guess what the missing color should be. This works reasonably well, though the algorithms often break down when rendering patterns in fabric, resulting in color "artifacting."
Targeting Kodachrome 25
Last summer, Foveon released a single-capture full-color camera that captures images without color interpolation. It splits light into red, green and blue using a prism system which directs each of these split beams of light onto a separate imaging chip. It delivers the quality of three-exposure cameras with the flexibility of single capture. Foveon, partially owned by chip-maker National Semi-Conductor, gets an extra edge by designing its own CMOS chip sets, rather than using industry- standard chips as other manufacturers often do. The response curve of each chip is carefully designed to mimic Kodachrome 25. It is designed with a steep toe, giving lots of shadow detail, and a flat shoulder, maintaining detail in the highlights longer before burn-out. The result is that Foveon images look like film capture.
The Foveon system consists of a customized high-powered laptop that holds up to 500 uncompressed raw image files. It sits in an ergonomically designed cradle that houses the imaging sensors on its front. To this front section is connected a Canon L series autofocus zoom lens. To view the subject, you look at the right side of the LCD monitor, which displays a 7-inch by 7-inch live video feed image of the scene to be captured. Once you fire the camera, the captured image, also 7-inch by 7-inch, pops up on the left side of the monitor.
Bizarre at first
It seems bizarre, not looking through a viewfinder or a ground glass; however I find it superior. You can view with both eyes at the same time. Multiple people can view at the same time, too. In fact, you can set up a second monitor or a data projector for group viewing, a feature great for portrait photographers wanting to sell wall portraits.
I like having the client or art director in on the image from the start; the fact that they can see what I'm seeing at the same time really enhances communication. No longer do they have to sit in a dark corner somewhere waiting for me to throw them a Polaroid. You get it "right" for them in less time because they can see the image an instant after it is taken. Unlike film cameras or other digital cameras, the lens is somewhat independent from the camera body. It can be rotated up or down from the cradle so that on shoots where the camera is up really high, we pivot the lens down forward and the laptop down backwards — no matter what height you shoot at, you can get comfortable.
The Foveon is connected via Ethernet to a Foveon workstation that includes a 21-inch monitor, Foveon Lab for image processing, Adobe Photoshop 5.5, and an Epson 900 photo-quality inkjet printer for on-the-spot proofing. Foveon Lab is the program used to process raw image files into 48-, 24-, 12-, 6-, or 3-MB RGB TIFF files from the camera. As with most of the other single capture systems, you also have control over shadows, highlights, contrast, and exposure during processing. To capture and view the images, the camera does not have to be tethered to the workstation. It is portable and runs off of the laptop battery, so it can be used on location. At 15 pounds, however, it is not a camera you would want to handhold. For handheld applications, consider the MegaVision or PhaseOne digital backs that clip on to Hasselblads or Mamiyas. They need to be tethered to a computer. For location work, they are tethered to a very compact "BatPack" (as MegaVision calls it) which hangs at your side from its shoulder strap.
If you aren't quite ready to invest in such a high-end system, consider buying a consumer-quality 1.3-megapixel or higher digital camera for the short-term. You can then familiarize yourself with capture techniques, file formats, and the nearly infinite creative variations possible with digital-postprocessing software such as Adobe Photoshop. You can then be well on your way toward adding digital photography, with all its processes and possibilities, to your professional resume.