In this column, I'll address questions concerning critical digital photographic equipment and skills. These are the kinds of questions often asked by students at my workshops and seminars, especially by photographers still considering whether they want to change from film to digital or those just making that change. But even advanced digital photographers find they lack essential equipment–in the camera bag or at the desktop–and the knowledge keeping them from achieving their photographic vision in the digital realm.
What are the basic tools necessary to technically support digital photography, and what are the basic skills needed to manage those tools competently? The easiest way to structure the answers to these questions is to group them within the basic work sequence that the photographer typically undertakes—from taking the picture (capture) through processing (optimization) to presentation (sharing) of his or her images.
This image from Mono Lake, Calif., embodies all that can be accomplished in digital photography today. A Canon EOS 5D was used with a 17-40mm wide-angle zoom to capture a 30-second exposure at ƒ/16 while my colleague, Rich Hansen, and I painted the tufa formations with high-powered flashlights. Using the camera's LCD and histogram, the exposure was calculated to include detail in the sky. The image was optimized in Photoshop CS2, and I've printed it on the Canon iPF5000 pigment printer. I digitally project it in my seminars, and I sent it to Outdoor Photographer by e-mail so you could see it here in my column. It's a digital world!
What kind of camera should you buy? Well, first, think hard about what kind of photography you want to do. Landscape photography requires lighter and less complicated equipment, but it demands skills, lenses and filters that will capture fine details and resolve contrast issues.
On the other hand, the wildlife photographer needs a camera body with the ability to capture quick sequences (up to eight captures per second), long lenses, sophisticated flash techniques and a fair amount of biological knowledge. Macro photographers need to work with specialized lenses and flash. And the photographer who wants to do everything can expect to carry a very heavy bag and a second mortgage.
There are trade-offs. Even if you can afford one, can you physically handle a heavy, professional camera and the long, bulky lenses and the tripods they require? Much can be accomplished in digital format at less cost and heft than film cameras demand, because even the less-expensive digital cameras have features that exceed film, such as speed of capture, sophisticated metering systems and autofocus capabilities, and improved image quality in the form of ever-increasing numbers of megapixels.
So how do you make your choices? Do your research before you buy any piece of your setup. Making hasty decisions almost always backfires when you discover your purchase doesn't allow you to accomplish what you want or isn't compatible with your other equipment.
Find a photographer who's working in the area and at the level you want to reach, and take his or her advice about the gear needed to achieve that level. Go online, read evaluations in photography magazines like OP and study the manufacturers' brochures, web tutorials and specifications. Attend workshops and trade shows, get one-on-one information from the manufacturers' technical experts and handle the equipment before purchase.
But don't stop there. I'm surprised by how many of the students I encounter who haven't taken the time to master the full capabilities of their equipment. Many camera stores offer basic tutorials as purchase incentives. The moment to figure out the dials and settings isn't when you're undertaking an expensive field workshop with an instructor you expect to help you take your photography to a higher level. If you can't already use every feature of every piece of equipment in your bag, you and your instructor will waste a lot of precious time—and will possibly miss amazing photographic opportunities.
Finally, the magic of digital capture doesn't preclude the need to fully understand the basic photographic principles of shutter speeds, ƒ-stops, depth of field and composition. To achieve the maximum sharpness capability of your new equipment, you need a quality tripod and ballhead, while employing techniques like locking up the mirror and using a cable release to eliminate vibration in long exposures. Plus, learn proper exposure adjustment using the camera's histogram feature, and understand the various advantages and limitations of each file-format option—JPEG and RAW.
One of the most exciting facets of digital photography lies in the power to control nearly every aspect of the final image. This gives the photographer an unprecedented ability to complete the photographic vision, far beyond any possibilities previously achieved in the darkroom.
Many want to work on a mobile platform. A laptop is fine for basic editing, storage and analyzing images in the field, but for serious work, a desktop unit with a quality, calibrated LCD monitor is a must. Choose a Mac or PC based on the availability of help. Yes, you'll need help, and you want to work on the same platform those around you are using.
A wide range of imaging programs is available at varying costs—choose yours based on the level of complexity you expect to pursue when working on your images. The latest version of Adobe Photoshop Elements (www.adobe.com) may provide sufficient versatility for your key image-processing tasks. The more expensive Photoshop CS offers more control and unlimited editing capabilities with each new version; it isn't for everyone.
You don't need to know everything about your program, but it's essential to develop a consistent workflow for downloading, optimizing, storing and retrieving images. The optimization aspect of your workflow can be as simple as correcting exposure to bring out detail in dark and light areas, sharpening all or portions of an image, and eliminating blemishes caused by dust or flare. You can go further with adjustments to color saturation, removal of distracting elements, and addition or elimination of highlights. More complex software will help you stitch together a series of images into a panorama or blend a number of images into one that's perfectly exposed, perfectly focused, or both. New software can even help you produce images with nearly unlimited depth of field (visit Helicon Products at www.heliconfocus.com).
The format you choose for presenting your images may be as simple as a computer-generated slideshow or as complex as large-format prints. Software programs, such as Photodex ProShowGold (www.photodex.com) for PCs and iPhoto (www.apple.com) or Boinx FotoShow (www.boinx.com) for Macs, provide versatile slideshow capabilities and are easy to master. Some photographers are using high-definition movie-editing programs to produce stunning image presentations.
For projection of your programs, you'll need a laptop computer and a digital projector with a minimum resolution of 800 x 600 dpi. Crisper capability is offered by projectors with a resolution of 1024 x 768. I personally use the Canon Realis 50, which has superior resolution (1400 x 1050) and excellent color reproduction.
Inkjet printers have revolutionized both amateur and professional photography nearly as much as digital cameras. Printers have advanced in quality and speed, and prices are more affordable. There's an increasing range of choices.
If you want your images to survive for future generations, choose a printer that offers archival inks and accommodates a variety of quality, long-lasting papers. If you'd like to print digital black-and-white, check out the new printers that include shades of black among the pigments, improving the production of neutral prints with great tonal range.
You'll need to master the printing software in your imaging program or the custom programs that are provided with some printers. It's not simply a matter of loading the image and clicking "print." Develop a reliable, consistent workflow that includes monitor calibration and the use of paper profiles to assure that the color of your prints matches the image on your monitor. You must be able to critically evaluate your prints to assure that they fulfill the creative vision you had from before the moment of capture.