Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


Essay #009


Words of Wisdom from One Who Already has a Foot in the Door

Camels on Cable Beach, Western Australia

by Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph


You probably don’t want to hear this but I am going to tell you anyway. Moving away from film-based photography to digital photography ain’t for the feint-hearted.

You’d better have deep pockets and big CPU capacity. In this case, bigger is better! (I am talking about computers, of course.)

Just about everyone by now has USB ports to work with but it hasn’t really been all that long…some die-hards out there still have floppy disk drives and are running Windows ‘95 (maybe). And not a few desktops sport Macs that are too itsy-bitsy to run WORD, they still run Microsoft Works which requires Mac OS 6.0 or lower. If you email me I will tell you privately who they are so you can send them condolences.

Oh, to be so innocent!

A lot of photographers (and why should they?) don’t have the slightest idea what a firewire port can do for them. They don’t know how to think about RANDOM ACCESS MEMORY in gigabyte terms. And they surely can’t fathom having a Photoshop scratch disk the size of mine which is a mere 80 gigs. These guys should stick with film.

What digital photography has done is to ‘raise the bar’ on what we used to consider to be quite adequate desktops. And they were…ONCE.

Today, though, in order to step through the mysterious black hole into the digital photography domain with any success you need a powerhouse CPU sporting awesome gigabytes, a monitor that is calibrate-able, a printer with archival output, a firewire scanner of at least 4000 dpi with ICE capability in order to turn your existing film archives into digital archives, and…..cough…..(you’re going to hate this)….you will need to have more than a passing acquaintance with the trials and tribulations of Adobe’s magical photo manipulation software, Photoshop 6.0.

Yes, I said v6.0. In about ten minutes or so Photoshop 7.0 is going to become available, which just shows you how terrifyingly fast the digital pace is right now. Most of us just unwrapped 6.0 with severe headaches to boot.

That said, you still want to become a digital photographer do you?

If you have ever glanced through the pages of PC PHOTO while doing your weekly laundry you will know that the digital domain is a treasure-trove of photo toys right now. WOW. The toys are everywhere! And they are getting bigger, faster, cooler and better by the day. The newest NIKON COOLPIX 5000, for example, has a resolution of 5 megapixels, a complete redesign, and a host of jazzy new features. The Canon Powershot gained a million pixels in the recent upgrade to the G2. Even my Nikon D1 digital camera body has now been one-upped by the newest sibling in the Nikon line, the Nikon D100 which does far more for less money than I paid for the D1. Groan. And that wasn’t that long, mind you.

So jump all ye digital fans, but just be careful that you know what you are getting into first.

The bottom line is that a whole new support industry has to accompany your new purchase….yes, I said has to….at the very least you will need several backup rechargeable digital camera batteries, a special battery charger for them, another type of charger for the newest generation of AA rechargeable batteries, multiple megabyte Compact Flash Cards, a Flash Card reader in order to move your digital images from your camera to your desktop, an external flash of some kind for your digital body, a powerhouse CPU with firewire ports plus a HUGE scratch disk for digital work, an archival inkjet printer with all the requisite archival papers and inks, Adobe Photoshop 6.0 full-version which alone retails for $600.00….

Need I say more?

Don’t even THINK about going digital without being able to also buy the required peripherals, too.

If your existing desktop is not up to the task then you will be sorely disappointed with your new digital camera purchase because you won’t be able to maximize its potential. You might not even be able to use it depending upon the CPU that graces your current desktop.

GOING DIGITAL, in other words, requires a real commitment to do so, both in terms of upfront financial output and in terms of your digital manipulation know-how. And know that everything you buy today will become outdated tomorrow …maybe even before your sleep alarm goes off…

This is not to dissuade you from going digital. I don’t suggest digging a deep hole somewhere and putting your head into, quite to the contrary. The digital era is HERE. It has been here for quite awhile now. There are lots a folks far ahead of you in the running field by now and it is only going to get worse.

Indeed, if you are a photographer professional then you are going to have to go digital if you want to stay competitive.

So, what did I do?

Ahhhh, well, I am one of those curious sorts who likes to know what is going on around me. I got into digital about seven years ago but still well after my friend, Lewis Kemper, went digital, or even well after my friend B. Moose Peterson went digital. Those smart guys are way out front of both you and me, I am afraid to report. It ain’t a pretty sight if you must know…

I decided early on that I wanted to know what the ‘digital’ commotion was all about. With that thought in mind I continuously upgraded my desktop to the lastest MAC lines available, despite the cost, and for years I burned the midnight oil learning Adobe Photoshop’s magical tricks. I got the Nikon LS2000 film scanner early on, too, so that I could better understand the parameters of the digital technologies that were now at our fingertips – the scanner was a practice instrument for me, mainly – one that allowed me to reap HUGE benefits while I was digitally ‘studenting.’

What have I learned?

A lot. I love the digital arena. I love the digital technologies. And in the process of learning about those technologies I have also learned a lot about composition, exposure, and story-telling.

Photography, after all, is all about story-telling. The digital option allows us to tell our stories without so much overhead. Film and processing costs are almost a thing of the past in the new digital arena. My friend, Joe McCary, in Maryland says he hasn’t shot a roll of real film in more than a year now. And he is still making as much, if not more, money as a commercial photographer.

Take good note of that.

Digital photography technologies allow us to shoot scenes that a film-based system cannot compete with. In the nine months or more that I spent in the Australian outback, for example, I shot stellar digital scenes using my Nikon D1 in diverse (low light) places such as underground caves and in seaside aquariums and even in exotic wildlife sanctuaries where film and flash could not have prevailed. One night we had exclusive access to a colony of endangered penguins where flash could not be used under any circumstances.

On that remote Australian beach, in the middle of the night, without external lights of any kind….do you really think that your F5 would have come through for you? NOT.

What next?

GET GOING…time is a-fleeting. If you don’t know much about the digital arena yet then it is about time that you started becoming acquainted with it.

First you should buy a low-end digital ‘point and shoot’ and play with it on your existing desktop system. After you get the hang of things, and only then, start the expensive process of upgrading your desktop CPU so that you will be able to meet the demands of the new digital camera system that you are going to invest in.

BUY UP. I always tell this to folks. Don’t buy what you can afford the moment….wait if you have to until you can purchase the next level or two up. You do get what you pay for in digital equipment. Don’t settle for second-best.

One of the best things you can do for yourself as professional photographer is to get yourself a good desktop scanner first. Get the Nikon LS4000 or some other system that allows you to output 4000 dpi scans. Many stock photo agencies now will accept this quality of a scan and you can start making use of your existing transparency archives while learning the digital ropes. Upgrade your monitor. Invest in a good calibration software system. Be sure you have the latest Photoshop software. THEN Get one of the latest in the lines of Epson archival inkjet printers.

Then experiment extensively with all of the above. After that you will know for sure (or not) whether the digital era is for you.

Clap Clap Clap Clap

It is really fun stuff, trust me. Even Ansel Adams manipulated his images (in his darkroom) so don’t let the whispers of ‘digital manipulation’ dissuade you. Just be honest. If you put an African elephant on New York’s FIFTH AVENUE in some images, well, then you should be honest upfront and just tell folks that you did that.

Short of that take a deep breath, open your pockets, get a bank loan if you have to, and go for it. Whatever you do, do not go back to square one.



© 2002 Dr. Ellen K.Rudolph
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