|When Digital is Wonderful
by Jim McGee
I have a friend Andy whose love of woodworking borders on fanatical. This guy makes so much sawdust I've nicknamed him "The Termite". Every conversation invariably drifts into woodworking (which is also a hobby of mine). It's makes for a nice change of pace from work related conversations.
He's been after me for a while now to take a few pictures of him working in his shop. So the other night I headed over with a bag of Chinese food in one hand and a D100 in the other.
The idea was to play around in his basement workshop and grab a couple of images. There would be no fancy lighting setups, so there would be some shadow lines, and the tight working space of his basement workshop meant that I wouldn't be able to control my backgrounds very well. Further complicating things was the fact that the workshop lighting is a mixed bag. There are some bare light bulbs, a couple of very bright overhead halogens and a fluorescent fixture or two. Not having one of Nikon's new DX flash units in-house I'd have to rely on the output of the D100's built in flash. That meant that my working distance would be restricted as well.
Now with film this situation, even though I was shooting for fun, would have been a real pain. I'd be trying to figure how much working distance I could get with the flash of an unfamiliar camera before I started to get weird color shifts from the odd combination of light sources. Trying to work out just how much shadow I was getting from the flash would be another challenge. After all there's no modeling light with a built-in flash! I wouldn't know until I got the slides back if I'd guessed correctly.
Then there's the matter of working with someone who's neither model or photographer. The average person is fascinated with the idea of being involved in a "photo shoot", but they soon grow tired of the repetition of it all. You can see it in their face when you say "lets try that again from a little different angle." That's why great model and portrait photographers are always good with people. You have to be to keep the shoot moving and keep the subject interested in what's going on. Unhappy people make for poor images.
Digital gives you a tremendous advantage here. You can show your subject what you're doing and why right on the camera. They can see how different angles affect the shot and what you're trying to get.
When I showed Andy the first few frames his eyes lit up "That looks just like a shot from a woodworking magazine!"
Well not quite. The photographer in me wasn't particularly happy with the shadows from using a single flash for a light source. I wanted a couple of lights so I could control the light and shadow in the background and soften the shadow lines in the foreground. To see what I mean look at the shadow in the shot to the right. Whenever you're shooting in a situation like this you want to be able to control the background light.
But the images looked better than I expected. I had instant feedback on the working distance I could get from that little built in flash and it was better than I expected. Pleasant surprises I don't mind.
I learned a long time ago that non-photographers seldom notice the subtleties of light and shadow. As the photos filled up the memory card the Termite seemed pleased indeed.
The next morning I loaded the shots into my computer. Since I had multiples of every shot I whittled them down to a few I thought he'd like. Those images had their contrast and gamma slightly tweaked for the Web and were resized and sharpened. Since I was playing I decided to try out the "Web Photo Gallery" tool in Photoshop. It automates the process of creating simple Web sites to showcase your images.
Using it is pretty simple. Just pick "Automate" from the File menu and choose "Web Photo Gallery". You can choose from 11 predefined photo gallery styles. These templates set up colors, links and slide shows. Enter your email address, choose the directory that will be the source of the images, and fill in the options (there are a couple of option screens). The process is quick and painless. The tool will even resize your images, though I prefer to do this myself. Resized images always need a bit of sharpening.
After clicking OK there will be a lot of flashing and popping on your screen as Photoshop opens each image and builds a Web page around it. When it's done a browser window opens and shows you the results, which you can edit or uploaded directly to the Web.
The results are surprisingly good. As creative people most photographers won't be happy with what comes out of the can and will tweak the final Web pages. To see the results click here for a sample. I resisted the temptation to make too many changes. The only one I did make was to insert a link in the final page that allows the slide show to loop.
So a day after taking the photos the results of my fooling around in the workshop were on the Web. Had I shot slides I wouldn't even have them back until Monday and then I'd be looking at the time required to scan the images before I could even think about building a Web page. Honestly with my other time commitments I probably wouldn't have bothered.
Greetings from the Road
Back in the room that night I flipped through my images. Resized one and emailed it out to a couple of friends. The shot at left conveys the weather in the valley far more than words ever could. Were I shooting film I wouldn't be able to send out that kind of instant electronic postcard.
The shots in Andy's workshop are a perfect example. Using film I'd be more likely to want to take just a few test shots to take a look at the effects of the lighting and then come back to do the "real" shooting later. Since there's no cost penalty for digital I just fired away. If I want more formal images later I already know the lighting situation. If not so be it. There is definitely an element of freedom to digital.
There are issues around digital workflow and image storage that can be a real pain in the posterior sometimes. But film can't touch the instant gratification of digital photography. A Polaroid may be instant but I can't have it in front of friends or clients a continent away in 10 minutes or less. With digital I could be discussing that image with a client in England minutes after pressing the send button on my email, and if I'm wired for it, only minutes after pressing the shutter.
There are times when digital really is wonderful.