Photography Goes Digital

By Robert O'Malley

When Boston photographer Craig Orsini recently finished a photo shoot in Switzerland, he downloaded images from his Nikon D1 digital camera into his laptop and almost instantly emailed his images off to an art director in the U.S.

When the art director arrived at work in the morning, Orsini's JPEG files were waiting for him in the office. Gone were the days when Orsini had to return to the US and drop his film off at a color lab before sending them off to an art director.

With digital photography, says Orsini, the process is instantaneous. "I think the Internet has made us work at a pace where we're an instantaneous society," says Orsini. "The technology is amazing."

Like many professional image makers, Orsini has adapted his commercial photography business to the digital age. Orsini recalls how a friend showed him some digital images in the early 1990s, but he wasn't impressed. Four years later, however, he was shown an image taken with an updated digital camera, and he was immediately converted.

"Once I saw that, man, I was just hooked," says Orsini, a recent winner of the Photo District News award for the Best Digital Capture for a printed piece of work.

"I was one of the first to go digital," says Orsini, who dived into digital work and hasn't looked back since.

Orsini said he initially had to invest some $60,000 in digital equipment as well as the time needed to learn new digital skills. He purchased a $25,000 Phase 1 scanning back for his 4x5 camera and studied Photoshop and color calibration techniques. It was a big investment, he says, and some photographers questioned his decision. But Orsini felt confident he was moving in the right direction. "It's paid off by about 30 times," he says. "My business has probably grown 500 or 600 percent in the last four years."

Orsini says he initially had to sell clients and art directors on the digital process, but he says he doesn't have to sell them on it anymore. Now art directors come looking for him.

"Now there is a major shift toward digital," says the photographer, who adds that art directors like the speed and quality of today's high-end digital cameras. The shift toward digital has been especially noticeable over the last year or so, he says. Now many photographers are trying to catch up to photographers like Orsini, who have been working with digital for years now. But the transition won't be easy. "For the last three years I've had no competition," he says.

Digital Photography and the Web

Going hand in hand with the growth of digital photography is the growth of the Internet. About 30 percent of Orsini's images are being sold for the Web, and another 50 percent will at some point end up there. Clients, he says, are paying him for both print and web publication rights.

Even when he shoots digital for the Web, Orsini still likes to use a large format camera with a digital back. "I like to shoot with the 4x5," says Orsini. "I can see it. I can see how the light is working."

If he needs to shoot fast he uses his Nikon D1, a $5,000 camera released by Nikon last year that has quickly caught on with professionals.

Even when his images are destined for the Web, Orsini shoots at a high resolution so that he can give his clients a printed copy of his images. "Then I'll res it down for the Web," he says.

Focus on the Web

"Clients now are more cognizant of the value of the Web," says Boston photographer John Still, whose clients often use his images on their web sites.

While the Internet is becoming a major source of work for many professional photographers, Still believes the photographers shooting for the Web need to pay attention to the same aesthetic issues that are important to print photographers.

"It comes down to a uniqueness of vision and the skills you bring to it," says Still, who specializes in photo illustration for corporate clients. Still says that creating images for the Web and for print does, however, require a slightly different approach. He notes that his print images tend to be complex composites with a lot of detail, while his web images need to be less complex and more compressed.

In creating for the Web, he says, "I would tend to work with smoother textures and larger, more graphic shapes."

Still believes it's important for photographers to know beforehand how an image will be used so they can adjust their work accordingly. One problem, he says, is that many images created for print are being "repurposed" for the Web. Many of his clients, for example, tell him they want to use an image for a splash screens or an Intranet site.

Still continues to shoot mostly film, but he scans many of his images and manipulates them in an image editor (Live Picture) to create the photo illustrations for which he's known. For digital work, he says, he uses an Olympus 600 and sometimes rents a Phase One digital back for his Hasselblad.

"I love them," he says of the high-end digital equipment. "They've really come a long way...Every year they're strikingly better."

Virtual Reality

While Orsini uses digital technology to shoot straightforward images, some photographers are using the new technology to move in unconventional directions. In his studio in Haverhill, Mass., photographer Logan Seale uses a 4x5 camera with a digital back and a Nikon CoolPix to create imagery that moves.The back - or scanner - as he likes to call it - can acquire images as large as 55 megabites.

Digital images are "actually better than film because they don't have grain," says Seale, whose work includes composites as well as more traditional imagery.

To make his virtual reality object movies, Seale photographs an object from many angles, then uses a "stitching" software to create a QuickTime movie. QuickTime, he says, "is probably the best platform out there."

Seale has been trying to get advertising agencies interested in his work, but he says many still believe QuickTime and other multimedia are impractical for the Web because of bandwidth problems. Seale, however, suggests that five years from now bandwidth won't be a major problem and multimedia will be pervasive on the Web.

Virtual reality movies, he says, can enhance product display on the Web by presenting a 360 degree view of an object on the screen. "I'm trying like crazy to get into agencies that are doing this," he says.

Seale says he sometimes has to remind himself that he's still a photographer - not a producer or designer. At times, he adds, the line between the two seems to blur because he now makes such extensive use of computers to create his images.

Newspapers Go Digital

In addition to professional photographers, newspaper photographers across the country are making extensive use of digital cameras to produce their images, says Eric Bauer, executive news editor at Boston.Com, the Boston Globe's web site.

Digital photography is especially appropriate for daily newspaper work because speed and web publishing are major considerations. Also, he adds, web and newspaper photographers don't need to use the kind of high resolution digital cameras required in magazine and other high-end print work.

"For our site, we put a premium on speed," says Bauer, who describes as "a regional portal" that uses information from a variety of sources, including the Boston Globe, New England Cable News, and Boston Magazine.

When covered the Boston Marathon in April, the web site published pictures of the start of the race soon after the event took place. Bauer says newspaper web sites are constantly updating their pages and that digital cameras help make this possible.

To speed up the news-gathering process, the Boston Globe now has sites around the city where photographers can download their images to computers and relay them to the newspaper. The Fleet Center - Boston's professional sports center - has a computer room where Globe photographers send their images back to the newspaper.

"It gets input into the system here quite quickly," says Bauer, who adds that the photographs generally don't need extensive processing before publication, perhaps some lightening, sharpening, and compressing. He says the images are published small to ensure quick download times.

Bauer says the Internet is also changing the way reporters carry out their assignments. "Some of them are producers with a variety of skills," says Bauer.

Some reporters now go on assignments equipped with inexpensive digital cameras in the $600 range. "They're really point-and shoot-cameras," he says.

"We're using off-the-shelf digital cameras....We don't need a $1200 Nikon to shoot what we need to shoot," he says.

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