Starring: Nikon's D2x, Photoshop CS2 and much, much more
Text by Andrew Darlow.
Images by Vincent Versace.
Artist, Teacher, Philosopher and Highly Caffeinated Pixel Geek…
All of these are words that have been used to describe Vincent Versace. And these attributes help to define a person who has produced a signature body of commercial and fine art work, while educating many thousands of people along the way. In this 5-Step Technique, Versace shares with us a mixture of high-tech digital camera, computer and software tips, along with some low-tech but vital aspects of his "philosophy behind the image."
STEP #1 See the End First, and Start at the Beginning
Vincent Versace's "philosophy behind the image" begins even before the camera shutter is released, and can be applied to many photo specialties. He explains: "See the end first; visualize the final image as a picture in your mind, hanging in a frame on a wall, and when you are looking through the lens, you should see the image already done. Then do what you have to do to get to that vision. I've learned that if the image is not right when you shot it, it won't get any better. In other words, you can't polish a turd."
"From there, find out what things are keeping you away from your vision," he continues. "The human eye has the ability to determine detail in light as low as moonlight and as bright as direct sunlight at noon at the equator. The human eye is also an optical organic device that senses time and motion. A digital camera is not--it just captures fractions of time. Also, a glass lens on an SLR camera does not 'see' like a human eye, which can lead to disappointment when viewing captured images." To deal with these inherent limitations, Versace uses a process of blending multiple images of the same subject with variables of exposure, shutter speed, focus points and depth of field. Photoshop is then utilized to "mix" the layered images together.
He calls this process "image harvesting" and sums it up in this way: "I believe this is the best way to create an image that looks like what the eye saw and not what the camera captured. Don't get me wrong--I don't go out of my way to create extra work for myself (i.e., the cover shot is just one capture), but frequently, a single capture just doesn't match my final vision."
STEP #2 Choose Your Tools, But Don't Let Your Tools Choose You
Versace emphasizes the importance of selecting equipment not for perceived need, but for projected need: "Don't buy mediocre equipment that reflects what you might be capable of now; instead, buy high-quality equipment that reflects what you will be capable of in the future." Versace's digital toolbox contains a large collection of cameras, monitors, software, printers and computers, and he is very passionate about his equipment choices, starting with his newest camera, the Nikon D2x. "The D2x is a camera that I've been waiting 15 years for," he states. "The 12.4-megapixel sensor, excellent dynamic range, buffer speed, huge 2.5'' LCD monitor, lack of noise at higher ISOs, and overall build quality have blown me away. It is also two cameras in one, due to the 6.8-megapixel High-Speed Cropped mode, which creates smaller files with even faster capture and buffer speeds." Versace always shoots in RAW capture mode and does all of his conversions in Nikon's Capture 4 software to 16-bit TIFF files.
Prior to converting his RAWs, he usually selects the images he is going to work on in Photo Mechanic (www.camerabits.com). "Photo Mechanic is a very cool, very fast application that allows images to be quickly examined in a contact sheet layout with multiple view options. Overall image quality and sharpness of the Nikon RAW files (and many other file formats) can be judged quickly, and images can be tagged as they are viewed.
"I also love my Nikon D70 and D70s 6.1-megapixel cameras; When I need to carry less weight, those are the cameras I go to," explains Versace. An example of an image shot with the D70 is the black-and-white flower pictured below. This photograph was made from three captures in color. I then layered the images, did selective sharpening, and converted it to a toned black and white using my black-and-white conversion technique."
Other critical tools in Versace's digital arsenal are his Wacom Cintiqs, particularly the new Cintiq 21UX, which allows input (Fig. 1) via a penlike stylus directly on its LCD display (see sidebar). (Fig. 8)
The computers Versace uses have to keep up with him and his 16-bit layered Nikon D2x files (some more than 2GB), and his current desktop and laptop machines definitely fit the bill. "I have three Alienware (www.alienware.com) MJ-12 7550a desktop workstations, containing dual processors and conImg.red with 4GB of RAM, as well as two Alienware Area 51m 7700 17'' laptops with 2GB RAM. All systems are running Windows XP Professional software, and the processing speed of both machines is incredible."
There is no software shortage in Versace's sandbox, and Photoshop CS is like a close friend to him: "I essentially live in Photoshop, and I've recently switched to CS2. It is smoother, more elegant, and I've been very happy converting to it. I especially like the 'Merge to HDR' function (File>Automate>Merge to HDR), which enables me to take a number of exposures of the same subject and combine them to extend dynamic range. With regard to plug-ins, I use many nik multimedia filters (www.nikmultimedia.com), especially nik Color Efex Pro 2.0 and nik Sharpener Pro 2.0. Sharpener Pro 2.0 offers significant improvements over the previous version, including the ability to sharpen by specific sampled colors. For example, if I want the reds sharpened, but not the greys or greens, I can easily do that."
Versace also notes that a good tripod and cable release are as important as any camera or lens. "Don't buy a cheap tripod; I've spent far too much on bad tripods. The best thing I did was to invest in two Gitzo carbon fiber tripods, combined with the Really Right Stuff (www.reallyrightstuff.com) ballheads and MC-L Camera Body Mounting Plates. These L-bracket plates are on all of my camera bodies and allow for a very secure mount, whether shooting vertically or horizontally."
Lexar CF cards are Versace's choice for in-camera storage: "I use their 2GB, 4GB and 8GB Pro CF Cards, and I'm especially impressed with their performance in Nikon's D2x. I also find them to be virtually indestructable: Though not recommended, my Lexar cards have survived a trip through the dry cleaners and being run over by a Humvee. My flash equipment includes the very rugged yet portable Dyna-Lite power packs, with assorted Dyna-Lite heads (www.dynalite.com). I also use and highly recommend the Eye-One Beamer from GretagMacbeth (www.i1color.com) to calibrate and profile digital projectors at seminars and other presentations."
STEP #3 Capture and Begin Harvesting
Most of Versace's final images are composed from two to four captures. Versace illustrates his "harvesting" process for the flower (Fig.2): "This image was composed from four D2x captures, shot in San Francisco at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is a macro image, shot on a tripod with a cable release, and it was made from the following four exposures: The first was the master shot, captured at f/5.6 to achieve optimum sharpness on the circular yellow flower and a shallow depth of field. Two more shots were then made at f/5.6 focusing on two separate areas in the top half of the image. Lastly, a shot was made at f/5.6 with the foreground flower in focus. The lens used was a Nikkor 70-210mm f/4-5.6 VR lens with a 77mm Canon 500D close-up screw-on diopter lens. I like using close-up lenses with telephoto lenses because it allows me to zoom in to get what I want, while achieving a very shallow depth of field.
The four files were then processed to 16-bit TIFFs in Nikon Capture 4.0 and brought into Photoshop CS, where each was put on its own layer. The images were then selectively adjusted with layer masking to retain softness and sharpness in different areas; this produces an effect similar to that which can be achieved with a large-format view camera. I also used the nik Color Efex Pro 2.0 Skylight and Contrast filters on the image, followed by nik Sharpener Pro 2.0, which can be used with 16-bit files."