Back in the last century, when digital cameras were still a bit of a novelty, I was invited to write a regular column for a print trade magazine just in case there was anything that might be of interest to the print industry. None of us could have anticipated that twenty years on the electronic eye would be with us everywhere we go, whether we are viewing through it, or it is watching us.
So I have been part of that transition, and how things that were previously in the hands of a professional, have been transferred to the fingertips of the average customer. This digital democracy would be fine if it didn’t also increase the expectations of what could be produced without experienced help and advice.
It’s not just the print industry that suffers from this instant expert syndrome but it is especially frustrating when years of accumulated knowledge and expertise are assumed to be simply replaced by an app that’s expected to do the same job, and at a fraction of the price.
I always find inspiration for this blog from things customers have said, and this month is no exception. I do a lot of fine art printing, and many of the original works I either scan or photograph.
I’ve been a photographer since the days of film, so I have a fair amount of experience of shooting many different subjects. With film you didn’t have the advantage of reviewing what you had taken immediately so it was vital to understand how the camera captured light, and particularly appreciate the reflectivity of different subjects under different lighting conditions. On the other hand, once you had mastered that black art, film cameras were a lot more straightforward because they didn’t try and do anything clever like second guessing what you wanted the picture to look like.
Digital cameras are designed to be smart so you don’t have that painful learning curve, but instead the challenge is to work out which of the many different operating modes you actually need to use in different circumstances. This applies to all units from the ubiquitous mobile phone to the most sophisticated DSLR, and understanding what all the options are, and what they do is even more complicated than grasping the mysterious behaviour of film. But understanding them is just as essential being the difference between taking a professional picture and simply just an average one or worse. Just pressing the button is the easy bit.
So when an artist for whom I had previously photographed original work messaged me to ask which camera I would recommend her to shoot her art for reproduction I had to restrain my immediate reaction and come up with a more thoughtful one. The request was on social media so I had to be aware that my response might seem patronising or dismissive alongside other responders trying to offer “helpful” advice, but who, as is usually the case, didn’t really have much more of a clue.
So I politely suggested that it was a little like me asking her which brush I should buy to paint really great pictures. The brush, like the camera, is just a tool without consideration of subject, composition, media or any actual talent. Any camera can take a picture, but to reproduce accurate detail and colour you need sharp focusing, a steady platform, and balanced lighting. All of these need some expertise in digital camera controls and functions, and the additional kit needed to support it.
As the issue comes up quite often at the shop counter when a customer doesn’t want to pay for hi-resolution scans, I have the same simple response. Just because they have a scanner at home or a friend who has a good camera, doesn’t mean it will be suitable even if they know how to use it. And even if that friend is a photographer they are unlikely to have the experience of shooting a variety of different artworks. It’s not like cute babies and weddings where no one’s going to quibble if the bridesmaid’s dresses aren’t exactly the right shade of pink. I point out they are most welcome to provide me with digital files they have sourced, but if I have to do a lot of colour correction and test proofs the customer may end up spending more money than if I had photographed the original in the first place. And even then may not be satisfied if I can’t match the exact shade of beige !
The simple problem is that unless you start with an accurate digital file, there is a limit to how much manipulation you can do in whatever editing programme you use because you will just not have enough pixel information to play with. With scanners, you need a preview that will allow you to alter not just resolution and file type, but exposure, colour and sharpness. If only automatic settings are available the device may be fooled by the reflectivity, or lack of it, from the subject overall or certain colours in it. Pumping up the resolution doesn’t help. Actual resolution, that is the number of pixels, and the clarity of the image are not necessarily the same thing.
Similarly the megapixel count of a camera, while it may be a rough guide, is not guarantee of a quality picture without consideration first of the lens, and it’s ability to focus, and then the settings selected for camera capture.
Most digital images are captured as Jpegs , which means that the camera is processing the file on the basis of the presets selected, and outputting an item that is, in culinary terms, already cooked.
All professional digital cameras, and many of the better quality mid-range ones are able to shoot in format called RAW which I have mentioned many times before, but is the one single ingredient that makes all the difference. A RAW file isn’t entirely untouched by camera settings : you still have to focus and get the shutter speed, aperture and colour balance fairly well sorted to give the format a helping hand. But given that, it allows a massive amount of image adjustment and fine tuning that can perfect a reproduction or even recover one that would otherwise be lost.
This is the most significant development in digital imaging, matching camera performance with advanced software, making possible things that could never have been achieved in the darkroom with film. In the early days of digital I discovered how it’s predictive processing in camera was compromised, for example, trying to shoot a black cat in the snow. The colour differential would result in everything being a variety of shades of grey.
The scene would still be a challenge for a modern camera, but using RAW would enable a perfect balance of both background and subject, as well as details right down to the whiskers. But shooting in RAW is only one of the factors involved in a perfect picture. You still need to be able to understand all the camera’s manual settings, and use them correctly, to avoid any presumptions it is making about exposure and colour that may be difficult to iron out later.
For that, the ability to set a white balance for different lighting conditions using a white or grey target card is essential. Then the camera knows how to adjust the colour scale it sees. The camera may have approximate presets for flash, daylight or tungsten lighting etc but this is only a basic guide. A more precise measure is really needed, and on better cameras, even the custom white balance can be finely tuned to offset any colour bias in the subject. For that a simple colour chart is useful as a reference because it can then be used as a comparison when editing on the screen on a computer.
It’s a matter of dialling out any possible limitations to the eventual image quality, like using a decent tripod to avoid any slight camera movement even with high shutter speed, and not pushing the lens to it’s maximum wide aperture where performance may drop off. Even with focusing the lens, it’s important to ensure it’s precisely centred on the subject and not distracted by the background. Again, better cameras have the ability to move focus points, or create a spread of targets. It may even be possible to fine tune the electronic focus points by calibrating the lens with a target gadget that has clear black and white shapes and lines to grab it’s attention.
It’s quite possible, for example, on a DSLR where different lenses are used for one to perform better than another not through any fault of the lens, but because the autofocus device doesn’t completely mate with the camera body. If the camera itself has suffered knocks that may also affect the focus operation, and even a slight fault may affect the sharpness of fine detail.
I haven’t even begun to mention lighting, as it’s another acquired skill the average amateur enthusiast is unlikely to grasp. I have amassed a large amount of studio equipment over the years that comes in handy for one job or another. I’m just showing my basic “mobile” kit to tackle an average task. Two light sources rather than one enable me to balance and control artificial light, whether using two powerful battery powered flash guns, or larger mains powered studio lights.
From either of these sources the light needs to be diffused so it spreads evenly over the subject to avoid highlights and shadows, achieved by using reflectors and white panels of various sizes, as well as adjusting the distance between light source and subject. This is almost instinctive to me as I had to do it with film when you couldn’t monitor the effects in real time.
Even if you have done all that bit right, you still have to do the other bit editing post production on the computer, but it should have made that job a whole lot easier.
Although these hundreds of words may seem a long winded explanation they are still far from a comprehensive one. So the best thing next time a customer says “it’s ok I have a friend with a camera”, just say “It’s a bit more complicated, trust me I’m a photographer”