The Olympus E-10 sure is a nice camera and reasonably
priced, but can you realistically call yourself a digital
pro if this is your only camera?
Photos © 2002, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved
is a wide-ranging field that engenders passion in its practitioners,
and like all great forms of expression creates opinions formed through
experience and reflection. In its early days one of the great debates
was: Is Photography Art? This was the subject of many essays and heated
discussions among players and spectators. Today, issues such as film
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Here is a perfect example of expensive digital gear making
me money. I shot this job with a Leaf DCB II back on a Hasselblad
body about five years ago. The client imposed a strict budget
on me for files delivered on CD-ROM. While I had originally
planned to shoot on 21/4" film and scan everything--I
began a lease on the Leaf back, and the time, money, and
hassle saved made me a convert to digital imaging.
The bulk of my investment
over the past five years has been in expensive cameras. While the digital
debate rages on the Internet over which digital camera platform can
truly replace 35mm negative film, I'm only shopping for cameras
designed to meet or exceed the quality of medium format, 4x5, and even
8x10 film. Why? Because my Mamiya RZ, Hasselblad, and Cambo 4x5 systems
have been my bread and butter. Clients looking to fill full pages of
magazines with brilliant ads need incredible definition, perfect color,
and unnervingly sharp images.
When It All Began
For me it all started in 1995. I stumbled into my pro camera shop and
saw a demonstration of the Leaf DCB. (DCB stood for Digital Camera Back.)
This brick-like appendage attached to a Hasselblad body was shooting
pictures of a tabletop still life setup and instantly transferring crisp,
sharp, and remarkable images onto a nearby Macintosh computer. The demo
guy blew the images up to 100 percent life size on the screen and they
were amazing. Perfect--no grain, no noise. I'd never seen
anything like it. Then he showed me a poster shot with the DCB, I think
it was 20x24"--again, perfect. To my 1995 eyes the images
looked as good as 4x5 film. Even though it was only 2048x2048 pixels
these were really great-looking pixels, and images re-sized up to 3600x3600
pixels still looked very good.
Here's about the entry-level point for a pro setup.
A digital SLR like this Canon D30 and a handful of pro lenses
will set you back about $7000-$10,000. Add to that some
CompactFlash cards, card readers, photo printers, newer
faster computers, and upgrades to your lighting equipment
and you've got a sizable investment.
What was this amazing new technology and what did it cost? Well, here
was the bad news. The camera back was $30,000. A suitable Mac Quadra
was about $3000, a 21" monitor $1500, 128MB of RAM (minimum) about
another $1500, and a color printer suitable of outputting these images,
in this case a Tektronix 480X dye sub, was another $8000. Luckily they
had a package--for a mere $45,000 I could buy the back, computer,
monitor, printer, supplies, and a nifty rolling cart. Ouch! A bit rich
for my blood, I picked up another brick of Velvia and headed back to
Figuring Out ROI
Back at my desk I pulled out the calculator and figured my ROI (Return
On Investment). At the time I shot about 450 rolls of 120 a year, 150
rolls of 35mm, maybe 400 sheets of 4x5 film, plus processing and another
$1000 worth of Polaroid film. I had a yearly film budget of about $7000
or so. Figuring my depreciation table on the digital stuff at five years
(hey, who knew?) that would be $35,000 worth of film I would be avoiding.
Forgetting interest charges and the like, it would be only a $10,000
investment over five years. But what would my $10,000 buy me? If it
didn't deliver more work and more profits then it was just an
expensive toy. Being the first digital photographer in my entire state
would certainly bring lots of work in the door, right?
about the entry-level point for a pro setup. A digital
SLR like this Canon D30 and a handful of pro lenses will
set you back about $7000-$10,000. Add to that some CompactFlash
cards, card readers, photo printers, newer faster computers,
and upgrades to your lighting equipment and you've
got a sizable investment.
First mistake: Given the
state of the art in 1995 and even in 2003, digital can't replace
film completely for a pro commercial photographer. The DCB was a three-shot
camera--one pop for red, one for blue, and one for green. What
that meant was no moving subjects. I shoot a lot of people for advertising
projects, so the camera would be of limited use. Add to that the tethered,
studio-only aspect and you had an expensive package, with limited usage.
Second mistake: The consumables aspect of digital imaging is just as
high as film. While I wouldn't be paying for film, processing,
contact sheets, and 8x10 prints I would be paying for a dye sub printer,
printer ribbon, and paper at roughly $3.50 per 8x10 and a certain amount
of maintenance on the equipment. When you factor in the cost of test
prints and mistakes I was right back to where I started. So, I passed
on the DCB.
Along Came Lumina
A little while after that first digital demo I heard about another Leaf
product called the Lumina. This was a small Nikon-mount body that contained
essentially the guts of a 35mm film scanner. With a basic software package
you could scan three-dimensional still life images into a computer,
even a basic Windows 95 machine. For $8000 it seemed like a bargain.
While the Lumina had its problems, it established me as a digital photographer
at a time when virtually no one was using digital cameras. I exposed
this technology to my clients and the work flowed in.
Over the past six years I've learned a bunch of lessons about
making business sense of this entire digital world, and I'd like
to share them with you.
Sometimes film can coexist with digital. I shot the smaller
images on this cover with a MegaVision T2 three-shot camera
with a 105mm Micro Nikkor lens. The large image of the leather
bag was shot with a Mamiya RZ67 on Fuji Provia 100 film.
I shot the leather stuff on film because I was concerned
about shadow detail.
The Business Plan
We photographers are notoriously poor businessmen, but to invest serious
money in equipment and come out smelling like a rose demands careful
planning. I produced a simple business plan that detailed my current
business, the next five years of capital investments, and my projected
revenues. Only after you take a good look at where your money is going
can you decide how much you really can invest.
There are any number of sources for information on generating business
plans, but you can start with the SBA (Small Business Administration,
www.sba.gov). They have plenty of information, though I would try and
finance any purchase through the equipment manufacturer or your local
pro camera shop. I know plenty of guys who continually shop online,
looking for the best bargains. Find a good pro camera shop--either
in your area or in the pages of this very magazine. Introduce yourself,
make friends, and rely on this relationship to help you find the right
gear for your business.
Once you know what your business is and where you think it's headed
you need to assess the fit. How does this new equipment fit into your
business model? Commercial guys like me shoot a wide variety of advertising
work. There is no one "right" technology, but plenty of
wrong ones. Portrait and wedding guys really have to recreate the look
of medium format color negative film for most of their work. Certainly
a Kodak DCS 14n or pro back would do the trick.
I heard from one very large portrait house that they were spending $30,000
a month on film and print processing for all of their stores. They shelled
out big, big bucks on a bunch of Kodak DCS 660 cameras and a Fuji Frontier
digital printing lab, but claim to have recouped their entire investment
in less than two years! If they can get two more years out of their
gear before they upgrade then the entire investment will have returned
a handsome profit. Add to that the increased flexibility of digital
and their fully digital print ordering system (which apparently has
resulted in almost 30 percent higher sales) and you've got a persuasive
argument for the digital investment.
Even if your work really doesn't have a compelling digital model
you've got to factor in the learning curve. In three years or
five years or 10 years when you will be forced to shoot digitally will
you have enough experience to compete? How much more successful will
current digital guys be in five years when tons of inexperienced digital
photographers are trying to show lots of average-looking work?
For this shot we needed a very specific image of this LCD
panel to fit with the flying screen shots--film and
Polaroids were too inaccurate for the design process, so
I used my BetterLight 6000 scan back. Unwilling
to wait for the full scan time, I just grabbed the 2MB preview
scans and we used those for position. Once happy with the
fit, we scanned the final image (which is "crisp"!).
The Big Picture
Yeah, the big picture. The photo world is going digital and we all know
it. Every working pro, I'm going to guess, has a computer, a copy
of Photoshop, and, at the very least, a Nikon Coolpix and a desktop film
scanner. Every working pro is messing with this technology, and plenty
are planning the big jump. It's a bit difficult to time the jump,
since the prices seem to drop every day. That $30,000 Leaf DCB sells on
eBay for $3000 today, and still does a fine job. My $20,000 Dicomed scan
back is worth less than $5000 just four years later! How can I call that
a good investment when the $3000 I spent on a complete used Hasselblad
500 C/M kit with three lenses in 1988 could net me $5000 if I sold it
all today? (And I've shot thousands of rolls of film through it!)
Imagine the poor shooter who begged, borrowed, and stole to get his hands
on a $28,000 Kodak DCS 560 two years ago. How did he feel last year when
the retail priced plunged to $16,000, or last March when the price fell
again to under $7000? How does he feel today when the much better DCS
760 sells for $6995 or the astounding 14-megapixel DCS 14n lists for $4999?
How does he feel? Well, if he was smart he had his eye on the big picture.
He shot constantly with his camera and created a service that his competitors
didn't. He used his $28,000 investment to generate $50,000 in new
business. If he wasn't so smart then he did nothing but mess around
with his new toy, showing it off to friends and shooting vacation pictures.
Given the speed at which this gear is depreciating here in the first part
of the 21st century, you've got to buy it, shoot it, and dump it--fast.
I sell off my gear usually within a year or so. Leaf DCB--sold. Leaf
DCB II--sold. DCS 420--sold. DCS 560--sold. I've
kept my Dicomed only because the newer stuff isn't that much better,
but I suspect my D60 and 1Ds will be out the door very soon to be replaced
by a newer, faster, and bigger Canon digital SLR. Leasing makes particular
sense here, especially if you can work out advantageous terms.
high-end jewelry and watch catalog ended up as a 6x9"
booklet. I had just received one of the first EOS D30 cameras,
and used it for the whole shoot. Since I had quoted the
job with film, processing, and film scanning in the bill,
the client had no problem paying a roughly commensurate
"capture fee" for the color corrected, sharpened
CMYK images saved to disk. One job and the D30 paid for
Shout It From The Rooftops
Once you have this gear you've got to let your current and prospective
clients know about it. Certainly the hook for portrait and wedding photographers
is an easy one--it lets clients review their pictures, right now!
Hand out wedding prints to your guests on the day of the wedding! The
proposition seems too good to resist, and the sale is reasonably easy.
For an advertising agency looking for the perfect image the technology
is unimportant. The photographer's style and vision is important.
However, there are plenty of jobs where the budget is limited, time is
tight, and the client is under pressure. Shooting digitally, reviewing
the images instantly on the monitor, and heading back to the shop with
a freshly burned CD-ROM or DVD becomes extremely attractive.
Even though there are more and more high-end digital cameras showing up
in my neck of the woods, I remind my clients what I have. Every time a
new piece of gear arrives in my studio I do a post card mailing.
Besides the obvious promotion attempts, I make sure that my portfolio
shows results from all of my different pieces of equipment. When showing
my portfolio I always make it a point to mention what gear I used and
how the print was made. Even if you have a Coolpix and an Epson printer
you should be able to put together some decent-looking images. Mentioning
when showing your work that you used a "Nikon digital camera"
and that you produced the photo print "in-house" isn't
lying. When you don't have the big guns it's OK to be somewhat
vague about your gear.
You Need A Friend
When it comes to the real pro digital equipment, don't be a bargain
hunter. I've looked for deals and always wound up paying more to
get stuff fixed, upgraded, updated, and revised. Besides the obvious benefit
of buying the latest technology, choose your dealer wisely. A full service
nationwide shop like Calumet Digital is an excellent choice. They not
only stock some of the better high-end stuff, but they'll support
you with financing, training, and expert service. I've seen a few
Phase One LightPhase cameras pop up on eBay for thousands less than they
go for anywhere else, but if anything goes wrong you could be out thousands
There are any number of digital specialists catering to the pro photographer.
They'll not only put together a comprehensive studio package but
even prepare a quick ROI chart for you to review with your accountant.
When I bought my first D30 body I called my friends at KenMar camera in
New York. Since I'd been dealing with them for years I knew they
could get me a camera when they were in short supply and would be there
for me if I had problems. If you don't already have a good relationship
with a pro camera shop now is a good time to establish one.
Eyes On The Prize
It's very easy to get wrapped up in image quality. The Internet
is filled with digital camera sites that painstakingly compare every digital
camera. They're a wealth of information if you're into taking
pictures of test charts, but filled with average photography shot by camera
junkies, not photographers. The bottom line is the images you create.
My signature line has been, "My clients don't care if I use
a ham sandwich to shoot their ads." And it's true. I've
never, ever had an Art Director ask for a particular camera or digital
back. I've had them explain to me the usage of the image and the
type of image they need, but if they're smart they've hired
me to figure out how to deliver the image.
If you're a photographer then your job is to deliver the best image,
not wield the fanciest toys. That said, be aware that trying to foist
a consumer digicam image off on an experienced and educated client will
result in disaster. Three years ago I used a DCS 420 on big money portrait
sessions for annual reports that were under severe time constraints. If
I tried to use that camera today, I'm not sure any client would
be happy with the results.
If you're a pro, your entry-level right now is a pro SLR from Nikon,
Fuji, or Canon. The minimum requirements for product photography are super
resolution SLRs (10+ megapixels) or digital backs from MegaVision, Leaf,
Eyelike, Jobo, Phase One, and Imacon. Minimum quality for a film scan
is from a Nikon 8000ED or Imacon Flextight. Trying to pull off a major
portrait shoot or national ad with a consumer or "prosumer"
camera could be a serious mistake.
To be a working pro you're going to need to be digital. The digital
equipment that's good enough to surpass film isn't cheap,
even with consumer camera prices plunging. Add to that a decent proofing
printer like a Fuji Pictrography, Sony or Kodak dye sub printer, or even
a decent Epson ink jet, studio lighting consistent enough to deliver excellent
digital images, and enough computers, CD-RW drives, and big flat screen
monitors and you're talking about a nice chunk of change. But if
you plan your purchases right you'll find that your digital investment
will deliver substantial returns.