My Immersion Method For Cardiac Digital Conversion

Photos © 2003, Sara Frances, All Rights Reserved

Photography 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 vs. digital, format choices, the validity of computer generated images, photography as exploitation or revealer, and even the merits of ink jet vs. silver prints cause similar debate. We are opening this department up to readers, manufacturers, and retailers--in short, everyone who lives and breathes photography and who has an opinion about anything affecting imaging today.

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I decided we were converting to digital overnight. Fortunately no one told me this was a stupid idea at best; not knowing the first thing about anything digital has proved to be our amazing road to success! I did know two things: first, more than 30 years of film, studio, and people skills remain an unbeatable foundation. Second, school lessons learned early about how to research, study, and develop technique are the most valuable tools.

Here's how it all came about. Right up to that fateful morning I was happily and proudly "analog Jurassic," as I called it. I had no idea I was going to tumble out of medium format heaven by afternoon. But funny things happen when high-powered, opinionated artists get together in an open forum. The group who convened this day was as talkative as a bunch of bright parrots! My husband Karl, who is a former metal artist, helped stir the pot of ideas. I'll admit to a certain amount of one-up-womanship. I heard the opinions, both pro and con, about digital capture and computerized output, and decided then and there I was out to prove I could do it, and do it better.

Risky Business
You'd correctly observe that in early 2002, going fully digital was not just a risky proposition; the real-time moderately priced cameras had yet to arrive. Worse, outside the specialized Leica realm, I knew nothing about 35mm. We had experienced the cost and problems of outsourcing good scans from negatives, so I thought digital was all about fancy new cameras. Wrong assumption, but right result. After more than a year, I have had ample practical proof that my well researched, but still partly dumb luck, choice of three Canon D60s has been perfect for us.

More Do-It-Yourself
What I should have been doing first, however, was figuring out what to do with those digital images, those hundreds and thousands of images, once captured. We fell with a resounding thud from the relative, though artistically unsatisfying, ease of having a lab do all the work to being completely and utterly alone in a boiling sea of downloads, editing, and sequencing--before even considering color, density, and retouching corrections.

What do you do when you know you are clueless? You hire experts and you study. We did and still do study about five hours every day--each! It's no different from how I learned long ago to "break the code" of a tricky physics problem, the meaning of a passage from a Hemingway novel, or the nuances of a Tchaikovsky symphony. All these pursuits have concentration, sustained effort, comparative viewpoints, and the requirement of a flexible mind in common.

Getting Info
The first thing we found out was that most of the information you really need to know comes in small pieces and is carefully buried! Many of the experts we've hired, articles we've read, and classes we've attended have been only moderately useful for us. Looking back, our advice to the would-be digital location and events photographer is to try every avenue of learning you can, sort out the chaff, take what is relevant to your business and move on. If a certain convention speaker's presentation sounds like Greek to you, either you're not yet ready for the message, or it really is Greek! Eventually we've come to rely on two tutors, one for Photoshop, and one for everything else, and about 15 special industry people on whom we call every week or so. Yes, this is expensive, about like hiring another employee, but to us it's worth much more. Continued personal instruction has bought us success.

Digital In The Field
Our first three digital jobs were hilarious or terrifying, depending on how you look at it. By extraordinary chance those jobs just happened to present the main challenges of digital capture. I'm of the "just get out there and do it" school, so three days after the first camera arrived I attempted to photograph a dance recital with it.

I'm used to running a Hasselblad by touch alone. Suddenly in the dark I didn't know where any of the controls were on the Canon, and I kept inadvertently changing the settings. The flash was inexplicable. Histogram? How do you use that to get the best exposure? I pinched my finger balancing the heavy camera on a tripod for awkward vertical composition. The one thing that could have sunk the photographic ship didn't. Even with the speed of the dancers, focus lock posed no challenge because of the bright stage lighting, and I got well exposed, sharp, brilliant results.

Our second job four days later was all about the problems with focus lock. A group of policemen were being honored for their work for MADD. Dark blue uniforms in low light are a beginner's nightmare. Although learning about focus is ongoing, by the end of that awards ceremony I knew how to do it. The pressure of all eyes on me while I struggled to record each congratulatory handshake proved the ultimate, though heart-stopping lesson.

Our first digital wedding brought understanding of the problems of mixed media capture. Heeding conservative advice of others, we thought we ought to make formal portrait groups with medium format "just to be sure." The whole wedding party traveled on the antique narrow gauge train from Georgetown, Colorado, and the ceremony took place on the tiny Silver Plume station platform in the 10-minute interval before the return trip. You can imagine the speed and congestion we had to deal with. What a mess to keep track of all the different types of equipment in the vagaries of the mountain location and the hot, crowded, lurching train car!

I can make digital and film look fine together, but they're hard to manage seamlessly in the computer. In postproduction it took three tries (and three weeks' time) to get even passable scans from the few negatives, not to mention the exorbitant lab expense. We foolishly thought we might want to scan in-house, but after buying the fastest scanner we could possibly afford, we suddenly realized that a mere 100 120mm negatives takes more than a day of skilled operator time. Thus we learned early on to avoid the two major workflow bottlenecks of divided film/digital capture and negative scanning.

Planning for the computerized management, alteration, and printing of images must drive everything the digital photographer does. The road to follow is marked by precise exposure, careful focus, and trust that digital will meet and exceed the quality level of medium format film for location, portrait, and events work. These are the first and most important lessons that immersion conversion taught us. Trust the medium, trust the equipment, and take the necessary time to study, experiment, and practice until you trust your skills.

Sara Frances is the president and chief photographer of The Photo Mirage Inc., based in Colorado. A 30-year plus photo veteran, Frances is the author of a recently published book (Amphoto) "Elegant Black and White Wedding Photography." Over the years she has photographed over 4000 weddings and events. A Master Photographic Craftsman and Associate Degree holder of the American Society of Photographers from PPA, Frances is also an Epson Gemini Inkjet System mentor, an Accutech image coating system mentor, a nik multimedia mentor, and a Creative Uses Consultant for Polaroid.

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