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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

My Great Digital Leap Forward

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

My stepson Bill called it working without a net and, of course, he was right.

But I knew that, for all of my attachment to, and reverence for, traditional silver-based "film" photography, someday I was going to have to make the leap, or more appropriately, hold my nose and take the plunge, into digital.

The only part I hadn't counted on was doing a little on-the-job training at my clients' expense.

First off, I'm proud to say that the pictures accompanying these words are among the first I ever made professionally with a digital camera. The fact that I also was able to transmit these puppies to my clients and later to my editors with comparatively little pain was just an added bonus.

Yes, I have seen the future and it works – most of the time.

Yes, I am delighted at the ease with which I was able to make photographs and "move" them. (That's newspaper lingo for transmitting words or pictures.)

I am delighted as well that the camera I selected, a Canon PowerShot G1, was almost intuitive to use.

But I am perhaps most delighted to know that, having dipped my toe into the cool waters of digital photography, I am wedded more than ever to traditional picture-making.

First, some background on the origins of my digital journey.

More than a year ago, Judy and I were hired by the Hoover Institution, the conservative California think tank based at Stanford University, to photograph its annual Board of Overseer's meetings in Washington. Hoover's public affairs director had seen us listed in a number of professional directories and, after reviewing our portfolio, hired us to shoot what turned out to be three full days of meetings at Washington's Willard Hotel last month.

The initial assignment was to shoot the meetings in 35mm, on color print film, and that's how it stood until a month or so before the event, when the phone rang.

"Just checking in," our client said, as we chatted about what really was a pretty run-of-the-mill job, albeit with some heavy hitters like Vice President Cheney and first lady Laura Bush scheduled as speakers. "Oh, by the way," the client asked, "do you think you could make a few shots digitally, so we can get them up immediately on our Web site?

The fact that I said "sure, no problem," was not just nervous bravado. Deep down I knew something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. Better sooner than later, I figured, and at least we also would be shooting with "real" film, should anything go wrong.

I had planned to either rent or borrow a digital camera – something on the order of the Nikon CoolPix 950 or 990 – that I had used in the past for reviewing purposes and which I felt fairly comfortable with. But, as the job neared I figured, what the hell, it's time to buy one of these and be done with it.

As it happened, I was led to the Canon G1 (List $899; street $825 appx.) simply because my local camera shop, PhotoPro in Kensington, Md., was out of 990s. But that was fortuitous because I have taken to this camera (the first Canon this die-hard Nikon lover ever has owned) like the proverbial duck in the pond.

What appeals to a professional photographer, especially one who works almost exclusively on location, may be different than what appeals to a computer fan who is looking for the most tech-laden way to make happy snaps.

For example, the biggest selling point of this camera to me, aside from its impressive 3.34 mega pixel resolution, was its hot shoe. A simple hot shoe, sitting on top of the camera, that allows me to override the G1's dinky (though talented) little flash and use this little camera with every kind of professional strobe in my arsenal. Suddenly, what looks like a weekend snapshooter's toy becomes a real creative tool.

Additionally, the camera has been designed to work delightfully like a "real" camera. For example, its optical lens opens up to the equivalent of f 2.0 – damn fast by today's standards. In fact, that means the lens, at optimum electronic aperture, has the same light-gathering power as the legendary Leitz Summicron on my equally legendary Leica M6 rangefinder camera.

The additional fact that the camera electronically mimics the Iris aperture of conventional film camera lenses means that you can blur out the background when shooting wide open – a great plus for portraiture. In addition, the camera lets you select from a number of different shooting "sensitivities" that are roughly equivalent to film ISOs. These include the usual 100-400 range, but the G1 also has an uncommon 50 ISO equivalent that can produce some incredibly detailed images.

Admittedly, when I made pictures at the Hoover meetings, all I wanted the camera to do was not embarrass me, and simply make good pictures that I could have transmitted to Stanford and put up on the Web. I wasn't into bells and whistles, just decent images. I got them in spades. I was amazed at how well the camera could "see" through its LCD finder and even more delighted, in manual mode, at how I could tailor an image to my liking, seeing the exposure change before my eyes before I press the shutter release – which of course is not really a shutter release, since there ain't no shutter. (Nevertheless, in what clearly is a sop to amateurs, and aging pros like me, the G1 mimics electronically the sound of a conventional shutter release.)

I know it's hokey, but I haven't the heart to turn the sound off – yet.

That weekend, emboldened by my Hoover success, I brought the camera to the next wedding we were shooting. Damned if I didn't make one of my best pictures with this little marvel, of the bride sharing a quiet moment with her flower girls.

It may not have been enough to make me chuck my Leicas, and Nikon and Hasselblads, but it was eye-opening to say the least.

More on this in future columns.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.


© Frank Van Riper
Portrait of first lady Laura Bush, before speech last month to Hoover Institution meeting, was made with Canon PowerShot G1.


© Frank Van Riper
As often happens at weddings and other events, some of best pix happen before the formal shooting starts. Here, bride chats with flower girls before her portrait session.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Death (and Love) in Venice

Venetian Formula: Go Slow, Stay Sane

Preparing for Venice

Great Photography Books: A Dinner Table Debate

Cuba: Taking Strong Exception

A Whole Lotta Shakin' Can Improve Your Pix




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