Magazine Article


Go with the flow

Text and images by Kevin Foley

So, by the time I became a professional photographer in 1992, I had several years of computing knowledge under my belt. When I started hearing about the possibility of taking photos digitally (and all of the benefits that come along with it, i.e., no film, processing or scanning, saving money, saving time, and putting images directly into Photoshop for enhancement), I figured that I 'd have a big jump on other photographers who didn't already possess this knowledge. I tested several cameras and read about a few more before finally seeing one that I really thought had everything I needed. It was the Kodak DCS 520, and the colors that I was getting actually looked like they did in film. The hard drive was removable, so I could keep shooting even while I was downloading to my laptop, and the batteries were also removable so I could shoot all day long. I didn't want there to be any negative differences for clients when I approached them with this set up. We could keep shooting as long as they wanted, and the colors and clarity looked as good as film.

Since buying the Kodak 520, I progressed on to the Kodak DCS 560 (the only difference being that it gave me an18mb file instead of a 6mb file, which is great for clarity). I could now do full page layouts in magazines without seeing any pixelization whatsoever, but the burst depth (the amount of images the camera can shoot before stopping to download to the memory card) was reduced from 18 to 3, so it was a significant slowdown there. But now the quality rivaled a medium format camera, and they only shoot at about 1 fps, so for those kind of applications, it worked great. If I needed speed, I would still use the 520. Then the Kodak DCS 760 came out and I could get 19 frames of burst depth again, with the same 18mb file from the 560, and life was good. I pretty much had everything that I required out of a digital camera. As I changed cameras, the prices kept getting better. When I first bought it, the 520 was $19,000, then the 560 was $35,000, and the 760 was $14,000, and now the 14n (with 14 megapixels, it is roughly 6 times the resolution of my first camera) is only $4000! It is shocking how Moore's Law has applied to digital cameras at an even higher rate than personal computers. You may wonder why I have been so loyal to Kodak cameras for all of these years. I've tried several other cameras and found that, although some cameras have gained a short lived advantage over the Kodak cameras, the Kodak models, for me, have consistently been the best cameras on the market for what I do (studio and location people shooting). By the way, I use the 14n with the extra memory upgrade option (SOMEBODY was thinking when they decided to do this), that gives me the same burst depth of the 760 (19 images).

People also ask me about the workflow of a digital shoot and are often mystified by the process. Shooting digitally has so many advantages over shooting film, and the workflow is just one of them. Before we begin the job, one of my assistants will create an IPTC tag for it in the laptop, and copy it to the camera so that all of the images will have the date, job name, copyright information, and my name, address and phone number. This information stays with the image forever, even when it is acquired to Photoshop, so that no one can ever say that they didn't know who to contact about using the image.

When I shoot with the 760 or the 14n, I shoot a few frames as my test shots on my assistant's for exposure with a Greytag Macbeth color checker. This accomplishes two things: 1) I'm able to spot check the exposure (by zooming in on one of the gray patches), look at how the overall lighting ratios appear, and also see any areas that might be blown out (flashing indicator in the image on the back of the camera), and 2) Color balance the image either in camera, or after the fact in the free software provided with the camera (Photodesk 3.0) that you are free to distribute to your clients.

Then I get the actor or the model to stand in and start shooting. They're usually surprised that we start shooting immediately and are wondering where the big pause is where you would normally wait for the Polaroid (this is what I like to call "The longest two and a half minutes in photography". Especially when you have the whole cast of a TV show waiting to see the results of a Polaroid that might not be perfect!). What I like to do is shoot about 10-20 frames until I know that I have a couple of good frames of them, and then I take the camera over to them to show them how great the shots are looking. Imagine the advantage you have over someone who has to show them the first frame that you have taken of them (Polaroid), when they are not ready or warmed up to shooting yet. Quite often after the actor or model sees this test photo, their sprits drop, and you have lost them for the rest of this setup. By showing them only the best images from the first 10 or 20, it's a positive experience that makes the actor want to stay longer instead of getting their publicist to make up an appointment they had to be at 10 minutes ago.

I continue shooting with my happy subject, until I fill up a memory card (2gb Lexar Media type 2 cards) and hand it off to my assistant to download. In real speedy situations, I will work with two of the same cameras and fill up the memory buffer (19 images) as quickly as possible, and then switch to another body with it's own separate card in it and fill that one up before switching back. This way, I can shoot as fast as possible for the longest period of time. Honestly though, I only do this in rare situations, because the flash recycle time will usually be enough to slow me down to the point where I don't even hit the burst depth limit anymore.

There are two ways that my assistants download the images now. If we're in the studio or on the set of a movie or TV show, they'll simply put the cards into the PC/MCIA slot of my Apple PowerBook G4 17" ( to quote Ferris Bueller.. "If you do have the means, I HIGHLY recommend acquiring one"), and drag the images off to a folder that we have created for the job. The images are then ready for full screen viewing immediately, and one of my assistants will start doing a rough edit so that we can start showing the client, actor, or publicist only the best shots almost right away. If necessary, we can burn a DVD (CD's are almost useless for the file sizes that I am creating now. I'll typically shoot two DVDs worth of images a day, and with DVDs I can set the burner to go and walk away. If I use CDs, I have to break the images down to 650mb chunks, change disks every 15 minutes and spend a lot more time babysitting a burner in my hotel room. The other option is to copy everything to an external hard drive and have an assistant burn the DVD's (when you get back to the studio) right away on the PowerBook, and can leave with the images right from the shoot.

This brings me to another subject. ALWAYS bring back-ups for all of your electronic gear! You have to think, "If this piece of equipment gets left in a tidepool (worst case scenario), will I be able to continue to shoot without it?" Think about it - even if it is a little item like a Pocket Wizard, and one goes down (and yes, I've had one of those also fall into the ocean during a shoot!), will you be able to still shoot? I bring back-ups for every piece of essential gear, even if it is a substitute, like bringing a really large external hard drive instead of a second DVD burner. I also will make sure that at least one of the assistants has a PowerBook with all of the software on it that I might need in lieu of bringing a second one myself. On this same vein, I burn DVDs every night when I go away on a multi-day shoot. When that PowerBook was left in the tidepool, I was really fortunate that the hard drive was located in the only corner of the computer that was not underwater. Since I knew how to replace the hard drive in the PowerBook from upgrading it in the past, I took it out and put it in a new one that a model bought for us and flew down to Cabo with. We didn't know if it was going to work until we turned it on for the first time. My point is, burn your images off the hard drive every night - you never know what might happen. We had two and a half days worth of shooting still on the PowerBook before the tide came in. It could have been disastrous. This is why we generally don't take the PowerBook to the beach anymore!

Once we get back to the studio, some clients (actors on multi-cast member shows, in particular) have a need to make kills or approvals before the images get released to anyone. We've developed a proprietary system for uploading all of the images to the Internet behind a password-protected firewall, where individual actors can log in and make kills or approvals. This is much more efficient than the way that we used to do it. We would print out 8-10 copies of each proof sheet (sometimes there are 50 proofs per shoot x 8-10 copies) so that the actors could mark them all up with kills and we would Fed Ex them to the actors and then they would Fed Ex them back to the studio. It didn't seem like a very smart way to do things (not to mention spending a LOT of money and taking a lot of time), so I contracted someone to write a program to accomplish this over the Internet. We end up charging about 50% of what it would cost to print out proofs and Fed Ex them, and it takes about 1/4 of the time, and everyone is much happier.

This is the digital workflow system I've implemented for me and my business. See what works best for your particular needs and keep in mind, you want to put a digital workflow in place that best suits your needs and the needs of your clients.

If you would like to meet with me in person, or talk to me about your digital advertures, I will be doing a presentation on digital workflow in Denver on October 23rd, and I will also be presenting at PhotoPlus in New York on October 29th- Nov. 1st at the Kodak booth. I look forward to seeing many of you there wish you the best of luck implementing a digital workflow that works for you and your business.