Turning Points: When Digital Took Over from Film (for me at least)


Originally posted to www.hmml.org on 2-23-11

Sometimes, one’s attitude changes gradually over time and you arrive at a new way of thinking without knowing how you got there. Then there are times when your thinking changes completely and in an instant, and you know precisely when and where it happened. In the digital versus film debate in photography, this moment happened to me while parked by the side of the road looking up at a large billboard. Here’s the story.

Digital photography is so universal today that it’s hard for some folks to remember a time when it was wasn’t easy, inexpensive, versatile, or particularly rewarding. To understand, it helps to look back about 15 years.

I was a commercial photographer working with film at the time. In the commercial world, big film images meant high quality pictures. Inanimate subjects were photographed with large-format cameras using sheet film measuring 4×5 inches. Moving subjects were handled with medium-format cameras that produced film images on 2¼-inch roll film. 35mm film was for photojournalism, slide shows, and for when the budget was really tight.

In addition to camera gear, a photographer would assemble quite a bit of specialized lighting gear tailored to their favorite techniques. A photographer’s sense of composition and lighting made up what was referred to as the shooter’s style—this was a key point in building a portfolio and selling one’s work.

Most photographers didn’t promote digital imaging; it was customers who dictated this change. This was due to the tremendous cost savings digital imaging offered over film in terms of scanning fees, color separation services, etc. It saved money for the customers, but not for the photographers. The early digital imaging solutions for the professional were scanning inserts used in large-format cameras. They were slow, needed tons of light just to work, and were incredibly expensive to buy.

And they were miserable to work with. By 1997, a commercial prepress outfit had recruited me to be their in-house photographer because they had purchased one of these units and needed photographic expertise to maximize its potential. As for potential, it had little. Since the device scanned the image over time, one couldn’t shoot anything that moved. Even minor vibrations during the scan would ruin the shot. If dust settled on the scanning sensor, it would create a colored streak across the entire picture. The unit needed colossal amounts of light to produce high-quality images—lighting technique went from “quality” to “quantity” in an instant. Finally, if the lighting varied during the scan (during electrical fluctuations, for example), the final image would have a striped appearance. We called it “zebra-striping,” and the solution was a $3000 power transformer to smooth out our electrical power supply.

Compared to “real” (analog) photography, it was no fun at all for the photographer. Tricky lighting? Not possible; generally, you needed all the light you had, blasted onto the subject. Long time exposures? Nope. Multiple exposures and other sophisticated effects? Forget about it. I called it “photography in handcuffs.”

Things did get better after a while. I remember the first “instant capture” camera module that we purchased in 1999. It produced a six megapixel image in a single shot, mounted on my existing Hasselblad camera, and cost over thirty grand. It was a revolution over the scanning camera for sure, but it had its own limitations.

The instant-capture module was a “tethered” system; the camera was attached to a high-powered (at the time) Macintosh computer via a data cable. Images went directly from the camera to the computer, where they could be adjusted and saved. This meant that the system was studio-bound. There were some brave souls who ventured out with specialized laptop computers attached to these rigs, but it was clunky, slow, and risked a lot of delicate, expensive gear.

Fully portable digital single-lens-reflex (SLR) cameras were appearing at this time, but the early versions were fairly low in resolution and had, by our standards, lousy image quality. They were fine for newspaper work, but not for the sort of images we needed to make.

In 2003, things changed. A new digital SLR from Canon, the EOS 1Ds, came into the marketplace. On paper, this was a photographer’s dream: SLR speed and handling, a full-sized 11-megapixel sensor, long battery life, rugged construction and the low, low price of $8000! Think I’m kidding? This was a fourth of what the Hasselblad/digital module combination cost, and this unit was versatile and portable in ways the older system could never be.

Canon EOS IDs

Canon EOS IDs. The camera that changed my view on photography.

To my surprise, my company purchased one of these for evaluation. After getting used to its many arcane controls and settings, I felt comfortable enough to try the unit on an actual field assignment. It was good timing; we had just gotten a job to create environmental portraits of various doctors and nurses for a health clinic ad campaign. I was planning on doing this job on film before the Canon arrived.

It was a revelation. The camera handled with the speed and ease of my old Nikon SLRs. I could light my subjects the way I wanted to because the digital SLR had the sensitivity and dynamic range of film. During lunch hour, the art director and I could transfer the images to my laptop and review the morning’s take. It was in many ways much easier than working with film, but would the resulting images be as rewarding as the new workflow?

The answer came a few weeks later as I was driving along a highway. I had seen some of the project images retouched and proofed at our shop at “brochure size,” maybe six inches across, and was pleased with the quality. Now, as I drove along, I spotted a billboard for the medical clinic. On the billboard was one of my portraits, enlarged to perhaps ten to twelve feet in size.

I pulled over and walked up to the base of the billboard and looked carefully at the image, which was cropped from the original rectangular format to a square image. I was perhaps 25 feet from it.

The photograph looked great. It wasn’t fuzzy or “jaggy.” The color range and tonality were good. It wasn’t muddy and had no enlargement “artifacts,” those crisscross “hatchy” patterns that computers often create when blowing up an image to an extreme size. From the distances at which it would be normally viewed, the image looked as good as billboards I had shot years before with large-format film.

That’s when I knew that digital had won. Commercial photography is a business, and cost is always a factor. If one could produce an image that could be printed on a billboard with a moderately-priced camera that used no consumables and created no extra scanning expenses, it was clear to me that the economics of the business would tip in this direction and never go back. It’s eight years later, and things have only gone further in the digital direction.

2003 was also the year that I helped the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library set up its first overseas manuscript digitization project in Lebanon. We had used the expensive Hasselblad/digital module setup at the time because we hadn’t tested the Canon system yet. Once I became a convert, I suggested that HMML convert to the new, less expensive, more rugged system. Soon, HMML had over a dozen studios in place, all using this new technology.

Between then and now, HMML has digitally photographed around 20,000 manuscripts using digital SLR technology, working in over 40 site locations. The image quality, ruggedness and versatility of these cameras, which has steadily improved over the years, are key factors in the success of HMML’s preservation efforts. I still photograph with film once in a while for fun, but realize that my world changed for good as I gazed up at that billboard years ago.


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