Digital Photography Takes Off
Digital photography is maturing into its own image capture specialty. but novice beware: to succeed, you need to do more than just point and shoot.
Photographs are the principal marketing tools of the retail catalog. The better the quality of the photograph—that is, its ability to express adequately the details and essence of the item—the higher the chance of customer satisfaction. Achieving enticing product shots traditionally requires a multi-step process, which includes: initial, instant film shots to test composition and lighting; the actual photo shoot; sending the film for development; waiting; checking the transparencies for accuracy; then re-shooting or digitally manipulating anything that comes out below standard. This time- and materials-consuming method is deemed appropriate by conventional photographers, because they understand the weight of the responsibility that rests on their product shots.
But another option does exist. A digital photographic process would eliminate at least five of the six steps mentioned above, as well as the cost of the Polaroid film, the lab processing fees and all costs incurred when shots need to be redone or fixed. Through the digital method, the composition and lighting are previewed on a color-calibrated monitor, the images are shot and downloaded directly as files, ready to be processed electronically. If a shot is substandard, the photographer knows within minutes, not days.
“Digital has definitely arrived,” states Richard Salas, owner of ASK Photography Studio in Santa Barbara, CA. But like any other high-tech solution, arrival does not equal perfection. The digital photography field is wide open, with many options for photographers and many opportunities for other service providers to get involved. With manufacturers making constant developments in performance and accessibility, catalogers should see more and more studios, as well as prepress vendors, offering digital capture alternatives to film. With the right equipment, training and workflow, digital image capture can revolutionize a catalog’s production.
In the early days of digital image capture—quite recently, compared to the long tradition of film—the main problem was the limit on the amount of information the chip could capture. “The earlier models did not have the resolution to capture the data correctly,” recalls Manny Akis, president of Akis Productions, a photography studio, based in Hackensack, NJ, that offers both film and digital workflows. Akis and his studio have watched this technology emerge and, in 1994, found a camera worthy of their standards. The first digital scanning back camera Akis felt was worthy of capturing enough information to warrant the sale of the service was from Dicomed, Burnsville, MN, and employed a charge-coupled device (CCD) in a linear array. This technology, attached to the back of a camera, works much like a scanner.
Several years ago, Kevin Despain, president of Interwest/Rastar, Salt Lake City, UT, added digital photography to his prepress company’s list of services when he acquired a scanning back device from Dicomed. At that time, he says, this was a defensive movement. “Digital photography is the future of scanning, (so) we (were) planning for our own obsolescence.”
Interwest reproduces works of art that cannot be captured via conventional scanning methods due to physical considerations. The film-based photographic workflow was too slow to be efficient. “By the time we got a transparency ... the original (was) sold ... and we subjectively went through a difficult color-correction process while listening to the artist describe for us what (the color in) this painting looked like,” Despain recalls.
Once Interwest began investing in digital photographic equipment, its cataloging contracts increased. “What the market was saying to us was that there was a portion of photography that people did not perceive as ... needing a level of styling; it just needed to be produced well, accurately and to fit into certain composition guidelines,” Despain notes. However, as Interwest fielded larger projects, Despain says, “the scan back technology became unproductive.” Despite the scan back’s ability to capture up to a 130MB file, the service provider needed something faster.
A New Leaf
The linear array is not the only game in town. The area array, or matrix, sensor has emerged more slowly than the linear array, but now has cleared the way for faster, cleaner image capture and made digital photography an economical possibility for a greater variety of workflows.
Interwest tested and considered the available three-shot and single-shot area array digital cameras and decided against the single-shot options. “Although (they) will allow you to shoot live subjects ... and are getting very good ... the multi-shot cameras still have an edge as far as image quality, and they capture more detail,” explains Doug Orgill, studio manager for Interwest/Rastar.
They chose the Leaf Volare three-shot camera by Scitex, Bedford, MA, and lighting and peripheral equipment from Sinar Bron, Edison, NJ, the exclusive distributor of the Scitex photographic technology. The Leaf Volare is a professional-level digital camera back designed for quality still-life, studio work that has allowed Despain to switch from defense to offense. And so far, Interwest has scored. “Speed, productivity and predictability ... we gained over (our) old digital gear,” he notes. “We ... have been awarded several large catalog projects that we did not expect to gain.” However, Interwest will work cooperatively, not competitively, with photographers: Pooling expertise and technology, he opines, can be mutually beneficial.
The New Generation
More recent adopters of digital photography may have skipped the early camera backs entirely. Richard Salas has been a photographer for 20 years, mostly for the catalog industry. Three years ago, when Salas purchased his first digital camera, he considered the requirements of the work he was producing. Since the majority of his shots print no larger than the trim size of a magazine cover, he had no need for the image data gathering capability of a linear array-type camera. Thus, he chose the T2 three-shot area array CCD camera from MegaVision, Santa Barbara, CA. In 1998, Salas reports, he shot film only two or three times. “ Since I’ve been shooting digital, my business has increased 200 to 300 percent.”
Salas has had so much success using the T2 that he began using a second digital camera, the single-shot S2, and finally purchased the new S3, both also from MegaVision. One advantage the S2 has over the T2, Salas notes, is mobility. He recalls the awkwardness of shooting on location with the T2: It needs its own computer and monitor to go along with it. However, for the S2—and soon for the S3—MegaVision offers the BatPack image storage/power pack accessory (shown to the left), designed to give digital photographers mobility and set them free from the studio. However, Salas warns that while the BatPack is handy, it may prove disastrous if the operator is not accustomed to photography by the numbers.
The Human Element
Indeed, all of this technology means nothing without appropriately skilled operators. A hybrid specialist—skilled with both prepress and conventional photography— is key. “You can have the same equipment and four different photographers, and they will come out with four different results,” Salas states.
Orgill underscores that color management lighting issues are two of the most important lessons for new digital shooters to learn. “One of the biggest issues is just making the conversion from RGB to CMYK for printing,” he notes. “There’s a lot of confusion out there.”
“If (an operator) is a real neophyte, ... the first (thing he’ll) blame is the ... technology.,” Akis opines. “In the wrong hands, (digital photography) is a disaster waiting to happen.”
It’s Up to You
“Any photographer who does not get into digital is going to be losing business,” Salas opines. Given the increased turnover rate of the new generation of digital cameras, the currents of change are growing stronger. Before you pull up your anchor, consider the nature of your catalog and the products it displays. If it features mostly people or extensive location work, film-based image capture may still be best. However, if your catalog is mostly studio-based, still items, then what are you waiting for?
Two Different Directions
The charge-coupled device (CCD) sensor—the core technology of the digital camera—exists in two formats: the linear array and the area array. The linear array provides one, hearty technology. The area array offers a number of options, depending upon its configuration within the camera. Agfa, with a U.S. base in Ridgefield Park, NJ, offers the ActionCam and StudioCam digital cameras, and has published a reference guide entitled A Guide to Digital Photography Theory and Basics, which provides the following list of sensor options to consider when shopping for the digital camera best suited for your catalog’s workflow.
Linear Array Sensor
• Trilinear array: Consists of three rows of CCD elements, coated with RGB filters, this technology configuration works by scanning lines of information across the image. Since the three filters work simultaneously, only one pass is needed to collect the image data.
Environmental tolerance: Vibration free with constant lighting. Variations in the lighting will translate as a band across the image.
Applications: This technology is considered mature, as far as scanning is concerned. The trilinear CCD sensor will capture high resolutions, but not instantaneously.
Area Array Sensors
Also called matrix arrays, this technology option is designed to capture the entire image in one to three shots, but often at the cost of resolution. Interpolation through color management software provides compensation.
• One-shot, triple matrix: Three separate matrix arrays work simultaneously to capture RGB information, therefore avoiding the resolution difficulty inherent in single matrix set ups.
Applications: Fast enough to capture moving subjects.
• One shot, single matrix: CCD elements are coated with RGB filters and capture full RGB information instantaneously.
Disadvantage: Resolution is diminished requiring software interpolation. Color fringes may result around high-contrast edge details.
• Three-shot, single matrix: An uncoated CCD matrix captures a full color image after three separate readings through RGB filters affixed to a rotating wheel.
Environmental tolerance: Filter misalignment may result in fringes on edge details. Movement of camera or subject is to be avoided, except when working in black-and-white.
• Multi-shot, single matrix, sub-element shift: An alternative to the one shot, triple matrix. A single array is shifted multiple times, the full length of a pixel, to fill in gaps in RGB information without the need of interpolation.
Applications: Camera using this technology can operate in two modes: one-shot matrix with software interpolation (action shots), or multi-shot mode for full-resolution still shots.
• Multi-shot, single matrix, whole-element shift: Takes numerous readings and shifts either the array or the light beam position after each reading. This masks to a smaller size the light sensitive area of each element.