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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Digital Proofing

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I got my new Capitol Hill press credential the other day, joining scores of other reporters, photographers and Hill staffers who waited until the last day, then had to endure long lines for their new picture ID cards.

In the old days, generating press cards and staff cards each year for the literally thousands of people who work in and around the Capitol would have meant burning a ton of double-image Polaroids – one instant picture for each ID card; one each for the files.

A lot of Polaroid every year.

Not anymore, though. On Capitol Hill the whole process has gone digital – yet another reason why Polaroid Corp. has filed for bankruptcy.

And, in fact, though I still go through Polaroid like there's no tomorrow in my editorial and commercial work, the fact is I am finding digital photography a far more convenient proofing tool than the miraculous, but messy, stuff invented by Edwin Land decades ago in Cambridge, Mass.

But, as so often happens, the new technology has its drawbacks: drawbacks that make it impossible for me to abandon Polaroid totally.

I first tried out digital proofing last month, when shooting a magazine feature for MAMM Magazine in New York. MAMM is a glossy slickly-designed niche magazine aimed at female cancer survivors, concentrating on, though not limited to, survivors of breast cancer.

In this case MAMM's art director contacted us to shoot location pictures of Rae Johnson, a 58-year old English teacher at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington. Rae, I learned from the draft of the article that was e-mailed to me before I contacted her, has had three bouts with breast cancer, but so far has beaten back the big C with a combination of surgery, chemo and courage.

The article painted a picture of a plucky woman who was not about to be defeated, either by her disease or by the obstacles she had to overcome because of her other disability: deafness.

It sounded like a terrific job – location pix of Rae teaching deaf students at MSSD, then a more formal portrait, all for MAMM's monthly series of profiles of "powerful survivors."

As it happened, my wife Judy and I had been photographing at Gallaudet for years, largely for MSSD's renowned performing arts program. But neither of us knew how to speak in sign language beyond a few rudimentary gestures and greetings. Happily, e-mail made communication a cinch and Rae and I were able to schedule a shoot quickly.

[Practical hint: when working against a deadline – and magazines always seem to want stuff yesterday – try skedding your sessions sooner rather than later, before the actual, drop-dead deadline. That way, if a session has to be scrubbed for some reason, there still may be time to re-schedule.]

[Second practical hint: If the shoot is to occur on only one day, ask the subject to bring a change of outfit, so that every picture doesn't have him or her dressed identically. Check out the quick-and-dirty personality profiles in popular magazines and you'll see what I mean. Nothing shouts a "hurry-up job" louder than a bunch of pictures with the subject in the same suit.]

When I showed up at MSSD around 8am on a rainy morning, I found Rae getting ready for her first class. She reminded me somewhat of the actress Linda Lavin, both in looks and temperament. [As it happened, I had interviewed Lavin years earlier as she starred at the Kennedy Center in "Broadway Bound," the Neil Simon play that, literally, was Broadway-bound and which ultimately would win Lavin a Tony for her performance.]

Like Lavin, Rae had a very animated face. Like Lavin, she was comparatively short. Like Lavin, Rae had a great rapport with people. In addition, Rae was a superb lip-reader and was able to understand me fine as long as I looked at her squarely. Her own speech was very clear, so much so that we never even thought of asking for a sign language interpreter.

My first use of a digital camera – my trusty little Canon PowerShot G1 – came during the morning class, and resulted in some of the best images of the day. To be as unobtrusive as possible, I shot in 35mm, using a Nikon F-100 on a stroboframe bracket with a diffused flash. These images, made on daylight-balanced color slide film, were fine, especially the close-ups I made of Rae talking animatedly with her hands. [Because the classroom was lit by fluorescent light, I used compensating filters on my lens and flash to overcome the greenish cast of the lights in the background.]

But the G1, with its white-balance feature, allowed me to adjust for fluorescence on the spot and thereby shoot by available light. I have to admit, I may like these shots better than the "real" ones I made on film. In fact, I liked them so much that I transmitted four to the magazine, to the art director's delight.

But it was during the formal portrait that the G1 shone. As Rae went off to change into a more formal outfit and put on more makeup, I set up my lights in a hallway. When she returned, and with my Hasselblad on a tripod, I positioned Rae and then made a series of digital "proofs" that came up immediately – not after what I routinely have called the longest 30 seconds in photography, the time it takes each Polaroid print to process.

Still, there was something missing – and it took a mundane, messy, bxw Polaroid to make me sure I had all bases covered.

The Polaroid back on my Hassy provided me with exactly the composition and camera position I would get when I made the shot on real film, something I obviously only could approximate with the hand-held G1. Granted, if I were working with a digital back on the Hasselblad, I could, in effect, shoot my proofs and then my finals one after the other. But I choose to work in film for a number of reasons, ranging from cost to creative control, to archivability and the ease with which the G1 let me do my initial proofing simply made it easier for me to stick with film – as well as Polaroid – for the key fine-tuning and actual portraits.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.


© Goodman/Van Riper
Available light shot of deaf teacher Rae Johnson, balanced for fluorescent light, was first indicator that digital would be useful for this job.


© Goodman/Van Riper
First digital portrait proof of Rae was too hot – lighting was too intense. Color balance also was off since I was more interested in the exposure.


© Goodman/Van Riper
Final digi-proof is right on the money. Excellent exposure, but a "real" Polaroid was necessary to check precise camera position for medium format image.


© Goodman/Van Riper
A pair of color-balanced keepers for the magazine, from different distances to give the AD a choice for the layout.


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Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

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 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

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Mamiya's Drop-Dead Digital

Travels with Chernush

A Vase of Flowers

Film: Premature Obituary

The Happy Marriage Of Old and New Technologies