Thursday, November 02, 2006

No Skateboarding, Summersville, West Virginia

Digital Color Photography


In a recent comment, Kent Wiley said, "You may have written about your progression to digital color elsewhere, but I'd be curious to hear about it again." It might be of some interest to others, so here goes:

Most of my personal work has been in monochrome, not because I don't like color, or color photography, but because until very recently I never really liked any of the color print media. I have an absolutely visceral reaction against the tone, color-makeup, and surface of Cibachrome/Ilfochrome. Reversal prints and internegative prints from color transparencies leave a lot to be desired, RA prints from color negatives can be quite wonderful in tone and color, but have the inescapably nasty RC surface. I made a serious study of dye transfer at one point, and decided that one lifetime was not enough to both master that process and spend enough time on photography itself. But I was always making color photographs for clients—I can't guess how many rolls of Kodachrome and, later, Fuji Provia I've shot—and often really liked the final results from the four-color offset press.

Here's a snapshot of some promotional mailers I did for my commercial business back in the mid-80s:



Note the devilishly clever ad copy.

Nearly ten years ago I wrote a magazine article predicting that before long digitally produced color prints would surpass the quality of Ilfochrome and RA paper prints, and we might even be making these prints from digital captures rather than scans. This has happened in the past few years. Color prints on "fine art" watercolor papers prepared for digital printing are capable of wonderful color, tone, and detail, all with a surface quality I find vastly preferable to RC photo paper.

However, I was not an early adopter of digital capture, largely because at the time I was concentrating primarily on fine art photography rather than commercial work and couldn't see any way to amortize, with a low volume of assignment work, early digital equipment which was ghastly expensive and apt to be obsolete in months. Then in the spring of 2004 a commercial publishing project came my way, a large project, that had to be done with digital capture, not film. It was big enough that I could buy a decent outfit with about half the fees and so be sure not to wind up behind the 8-ball even if the equipment became obsolete by the time the book was finished. So I took the plunge, and the assignment.

As soon as the camera arrived I ran around shooting real world scenes with it, on the assumption that natural lighting was a far more severe test of its capabilities than the tightly controlled artificial lighting I'd use on the book illustrations. Thanks in part to my intense study of an excellent guide to RAW capture workflow by Jeff Schewes, I was immediately bowled over by the quality of the digital files, and of small prints made from them with a good inkjet printer. It was obvious that these digital captures had far better tonal range than chrome films, though less than color negatives. The more I learn about RAW processing—and the better each successive generation of ACR becomes—the more I can get from the digital captures. I'm not happy with digital captures interpolated more than a small amount larger than the native file, but luckily I've always loved small, intimate prints. After all, I've made thousands of pictures with an 8x10 camera, not to be able to make huge enlargements, but to make contact prints in platinum.

So I've been exploring color work intensively for a couple years now, using digital capture, and in many cases working with ideas and themes that have been in the back of my mind for decades. As a last note, I've gotten so interested in color that there is some work that I want to present as really large prints, which means I'll probably do the shooting with 8x10 and then scan the color negatives.

5 comments:

Kent Wiley said...

Carl, thanks for the history story. I find it interesting that you apparently use the digital capture to "study" a subject that may eventually become an 8 x 10. It definately relates to this blog idea by Paul Butzi: Quantity is Quality.

Kent Wiley said...

Carl, love the skateboarding image. These contained wall images are still striking me as a kick. The limited view creates some visual drama that too often is missing in straight landscape photography.

Carl said...

Kent,

I knew I didn't say that right. But thanks for the link to Paul's material. I don't want to give the impression that I'm using the digital camera to make sketches that I will later revisit. What I do is incredibly dependent on being in the right place at the right time and I know better than to try to recreate a picture. The bane of my existence as a commercial photographer was the client who wanted to have something exactly like my portfolio, although their factory or architectural design or product was a completely different entity. 'It don't work that way.'

So rather than planning to return with the Deardroff to the spot where I made a picture with digital capture, I'm just recognizing that maybe I want to have three film holders of Portra 8x10 along with the HP5+ in the back of the truck in case, when I see something I want to photograph, it says to me quite clearly, "put the E1 away, get the Deardorff, and do an 8x10." This might have as much to do with needing the controls of the big view camera as a desire to present the picture as a large print. But the current fact is that if you do want a big print you need to put up with, or enjoy, a big camera and a big piece of film because digital capture doesn't do big well...yet.

Kent Wiley said...

Carl, thanks for the clarification, but when I wrote "study" I didn't necessarily mean a literal "sketch" of a composition you intended to later work on w/ the view camera.

I hope you don't find me being a pest, but I'd really like to hear what you have to say about how this decision gets made, between the digital capture or the 8 x 10. I know it's not a purely rational decision, nor is it entirely emotional. As I have both technologies available to me as well, I'm not sure how I make the decision whether to use the peashooter or the Linhof. Care to post something about this?

Carl said...

The decision gets made as I mentioned in the last response--the picture tells me. To clarify, for a number of years I worked monochrome only, contact prints only, traveling with four or five different formats from 5x7 to 12x20. The first time someone asked how I chose which format to use I was stumped, I didn't know. Then I realized that by the time I had decided a subject was worth photographing, it was completely clear which camera format needed to be used. The same thing is happening now when I realize that a picture I want to make won't work as a small digital capture, or as a large format b&w, but is going to need large format color.