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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Weighing Digital's Speed Against Daunting Delays

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I bow to no one in my thrill at seeing my stuff come up in an instant when I shoot digital.

Just last week, for example, I was able to fine-tune the lighting for an outdoor group portrait so that the subjects were lit perfectly by the on-camera flash of my digital Fuji Finepix S2 while the wonderful pinks and blues of an evening sky were rendered beautifully in the background. This was a careful dance of balancing correct aperture with correct shutter speed to: 1. capture the subjects perfectly, lit as they were by the flash, and 2. render the background perfectly as well, making sure the shutter speed was slow enough to bring up the colorful evening sky. [The perennial mistake of the amateur doing a picture like this is to shoot with far too fast a shutter, thereby making the people in the foreground look as if they had been posed in front of dismal black velvet.]

So in this case the digital camera performed like a champ – which pleased me since I actually was in the picture, having done all the exposure calculations for Judy, who actually made the shot.

Other virtues of digital, often cited by happy amateurs, also involve instant feedback:

– The ability to see immediately if you've "got the shot" – or if someone's eyes are closed, for example.

– The ability to rapidly "dump" non-keeper images from your storage media, keeping your CF card, or SD card or whatever it might be, reusable seemingly forever.

– The ability to immediately and simultaneously call up tons of images on a computer screen, with no need to wait for a film lab to produce prints or contact sheets.

Every one of these qualities is real, and I have enjoyed every one of them myself. But the danger in charging hard and headlong into digital is in thinking that everything in the digital photography world is fast.

A practical case in point: everyone loves to say that digital means you never have to buy film, that you can keep using your storage cards forever. But that's only if you keep them fairly well edited. Since it's a safe bet that most folks (and certainly most amateurs) aren't toting around multi-hundred-dollar 256mb or 512mb or even gigabyte memory cards (the way most pros, including myself, do) you'll have to stop and edit down your take as you go in order to stay in business. This can be a real pain to do in bright sunlight, or when your kid's soccer game is in full swing and you desperately want to catch him or her in action. Frankly, I'd rather store my take in my pants – i.e.: shove in a new roll of film, stick the exposed roll in a pocket, and barely miss a beat – or a goal.

In fact, in addition to being hellaciously expensive (especially if you are a pro dumping all your old film gear for pro-level digital stuff) digital photography, especially on the post-production end, can be every bit as time-consuming (and, I believe, even more tiring) than the old film-based "wet darkroom" technology.

Part of the problem is that digital (done right, that is) expects you to do a lot more work yourself once you have taken a picture.

Where once you would have shot a roll of film, then handed it over to a lab to have prints made, now with digital you are expected to make your own prints on your own home computer. Remember: this is being asked of a nation that can't program its VCRs. Theoretically at least, this presents a marvelous creative opportunity for the consumer to get exactly what he or she wants out of every single image that he or she has taken.

In fact, it's a monumental pain in the butt. Which is why I suspect two things are happening:

1. Either the consumer simply e-mails poorly shot images all over the place, where they languish on the recipients' hard drive, looked at maybe a few times before being forgotten, or...

2. The digital consumer does, in fact, print out a few images, either on a home printer or on one of those Kodak in-store work stations, and wonders why the prints never look as good as he or she had hoped they would.

I am convinced that home printers have made a whole generation of consumers willing to accept crappy prints simply because they can print them quickly. Sure, some low-end photo editing software affords a measure of image control, but in most cases it ain't Photoshop. And Photoshop, as I learned to my chagrin and amazement during a week-long workshop last summer, can be a blessing and a curse. It is at once the most amazing electronic image-editing tool I ever have encountered, as well as one of the most maddeningly involved and complicated – certainly beyond the learning curve of the average Joe or Jane who simply wants a few good happy snaps of the kids or grandchildren.

Even when gallery quality work is not the issue, the digital process can sap your time. Trust me; I know this from my own wedding work and I must admit: my work is better for it. In the past, when I shot my digital "executive summary" to give to the bride and groom within 24 hours (while the conventional lab took several weeks to process more than two dozen of rolls of our film) I simply would do a quick edit, press "select all," then transfer the whole unedited shebang onto a CD.

And the clients loved it.

But now, having seen what even rudimentary Photoshop skills can accomplish, I find myself more and more tweaking my digital take, out of sheer professional pride (or orneriness) and eating up unreimbursed hours on a job that used to take much less time.

But what if you welcome that learning curve? What if you love the idea of not being in a smelly darkroom making prints, and instead long to make gorgeous prints on your home computer and printer?

That certainly is the path chosen by, among other superb photographers in the DC area, Barbara Southworth, Craig Sterling and Jim Steele. In fact a few weeks back, all three took part in a multi-week seminar on digital printing at PhotoWorks at Glen Echo Park – where, by the way, I again will be teaching my own course in Documentary Photography and Project Printing this fall. (see below.)

Barbara, Craig and Jim still shoot on film, but each has mastered the art of making stunning digital prints from scanned negatives and transparencies. Still, the one message Barbara and Craig brought to the evening session that I attended was this: don't let anyone tell you digital printing is fast, or faster than conventional darkroom work.

In fact, Craig's litany of the cavalcade of upgrades he has had to install just to keep his machines current made me appreciate all the more my ancient Beseler 4x5 enlarger and cold light head that asks only a darkened room and three trays of chemicals to do its thing – and superbly.

Author and photography columnist Frank Van Riper will once again teach his popular course in Documentary Photography and Project Printing this fall at PhotoWorks at Glen Echo Park. The 6-week, Thursday evening course will run from October 7th through November 11th. He also is scheduled to teach the course again next winter, February 17th through March 24th.

For more information: 301-229-7930, http://www.glenechopark.org/classes.htm.

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 through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Judith Goodman
It's a little thing, but when shooting flash in lowering light, a slow shutter speed can bring up the background and add a pleasing depth to a photograph. And digital helps you know immediately when your exposure is on the money. [FYI, that's me standing on the left with members of Harvard's 1979 class of Nieman Fellows, in town last week to celebrate our 25th anniversary.]

© Frank Van Riper
Barbara Southworth, one of the area's best landscape photographers, tells a rapt audience at PhotoWorks at Glen Echo Park how she transforms her film-made panorama images into simply mind-blowing digital giclee Iris prints. Both Barbara and landscape photographer Craig Sterling (the evening's other speaker) conceded that there is nothing fast about the dry (i.e.: digital) darkroom. The acolyte on the floor looking up at Barbara actually is Maxwell MacKenzie, the well known DC-area architectural photographer.


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.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

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Making Tricky Birthday Pix

Of Diamonds and Dugouts And Polaroid Fantasy

What I Learned in School...

Stand in Ansel's Shoes and Make the Same Pic? (Sure)

What Price Purity? What Level of Skill?

The New FZ-10: If it Ain't Broke...

Muriel Hasbun and the 'Layering of Memories'

Burnett's 4x5: Covering Politics the Hard Way

Leica's Digilux 2: The 'Analog' Digital

Bar-Hopping with Mario: Pix 'In an Easy Way'

The Available Light Wedding

Tiny Digitals: When Smaller is Better