Catalog Photography
The MegaVision Digital Camera -- A Good Choice For Pros

I shot each element in this jewelry ad separately with the MegaVision T2 and blew the files up to 4000x4000 pixels. The final composited image ran in a giant tabloid sized jewelry magazine and was extremely sharp and crisp.
Photos © 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

A little while ago a reader contacted the Shutterbug offices and asked one of the editors a seemingly simple question; "How do they shoot all of those mail-order catalogs that I get in the mail all the time?" They're always filled with sharp, slick photography, the products look great, and the scenes are always filled with the most gorgeous props and decorations. Well how do they?

I'm no catalog photographer, preferring to shoot assignment work when possible, but recently I went after a few nice catalog jobs that had major paydays. I own a Leaf DCB digital camera back, so I figured that I was in good shape. To make the scenes look great I would do what all catalog photographers do and hire a professional product stylist. Since most of the catalogs you get in the mail are shot by corporate in-house catalog production teams or giant studios that specialize in catalog work, I wouldn't have the economy of scale of those much larger outfits. I would have a free-lance photographer's sense of style, color, and composition, something that occasionally is tough to find in mail-order catalogs.

Here's what the T2 is designed for. This kind of catalog photography can be captured very easily and finalized for print directly from within the PhotoShoot 3.0 software. The three-shot design totally eliminates any moiré patterns, critical for this kind of textile photography.

While the styling, propping, and lighting aspects of catalog photography are extremely important, the technical end has changed so much that you may be surprised to see how it's really done. While up to a couple of years ago almost all mail-order catalogs were shot on medium to large format film, scanned on pricey drum scanners, and assembled in Quark XPress, today they're shot almost exclusively with digital cameras. While the style of the piece is important, in this issue let's look at the state of the art in modern catalog digital photography.

When you're shooting several hundred images for four-color reproduction, all at smaller than full-page size, you don't shoot film anymore. The choice today is always digital. The big knock against most digital cameras is their lack of film-like qualities. Consumer level cameras aren't sharp enough, and exhibit a limited contrast range; pro scanning cameras like the Better Light 6000 reviewed here in the October 1999 issue require expensive continuous lighting and a lot of patience. New single shot cameras aimed at the pro market like the Kodak DCS 560/660, Leaf Cantare, Phase One LightPhase, and MegaVision S3 come closest to the film model of workflow, but their color matrix area array can cause slight problems with moiré patterns and color fringing on fine details. The results from these cameras are spectacular, but not perfect.

Here's the T2 bolted to the excellent Cambo Ultima camera. You'll need ultra short digital lenses since the T2 only covers roughly the area of a 35mm film frame.

For the last few years the choice of most catalog photographers who were looking to replace film for most applications has been the Leaf DCB II digital camera back. This 2048x2048 pixel camera back attaches to most medium format cameras and offers an interesting solution to the moiré problem. Rather than dividing its four million individual black and white pixels into a pattern of red, green, and blue, the Leaf unit requires that an electrically operated color filter wheel be placed in front of the camera lens. The camera back then takes three individual images in quick succession--red, green, and blue. The images are combined in Leaf's software to create a full color image. While the file is a modest 12MB, it is so pure, rich, and clean that it can be blown up in Photoshop to extremely large proportions with very little loss in quality. (My Leaf files can go as large as 36x48" posters and still look quite sharp. Since the Leaf back does not have any shutter of its own, you must hook it up to a camera or lens that can be actuated electrically via the camera driv- er. This means that the Hasselblad camera must be motor driven, and that view camera applications require expensive electrically operated shutter assemblies. Once you've got the right hardware, however, shooting is quick and efficient.

Don't have the coin for an Ultima? Just bolt on any Nikon F mount lenses and you're in business. I like the ancient sharp Vivitar 90mm macro for tabletop catalog work. Fast and sharp workflow.

The big drawback with the Leaf system for years was the problem of lens coverage. You see, when mounted on my Hasselblad body the Leaf DCB occupies the same frame space as film does, yet the actual sensor dimension is much smaller. This means that only the central portion of the lens is used, making an 80mm normal lens a mild telephoto, a wide angle 50mm a normal lens, and a mild tele like a 150 Sonnar a giant telephoto good for sports coverage. Since most photographers don't own exotic glass like the 30mm Distagon, it was nearly impossible to get any sort of real wide angle perspective in the studio. Leaf addressed this a couple of years ago with the awesome Sinarcam--a $40k self-contained camera body that incorporates an internal filter wheel and a nice Olympus sourced zoom lens. For the well-heeled photographer, this is the solution. With realignments in the digital photography business, you can now buy a Sinarcam with lensboard and tripod mount for around $30,000. If you choose to use the Sinarcam on a 4x5 view camera to use the swings and tilts, you're looking at another $5k for the Sinar P2 kit. For a busy commercial studio this expenditure isn't that big a deal, but it's still a lot of dough. Popping for the larger 2x3k sensor as found in the Volare and Cantare will set you back a few more bucks.

Recently I heard that MegaVision, another well-known digital manufacturer, was lowering many of its prices. With the new 2x3k T32 three-shot camera now out and battling Leaf's Volare for the three-shot market, the existing model, the T2, was dropped to under $22k. For those of you looking for a decent $600 digital camera, remember that this camera is designed for working professionals who often charge from $500 to $3000 per day! With a typical catalog eating up several thousand dollars worth of film and processing and another big chunk of drum scanning charges, a back like the T2 can pay back its initial investment in no time at all. (In fact, one of my clients noted that the three weeks of digital shooting I did would have cost them approximately $20,000 to shoot on film, scan, and save to disk using a well-known service bureau.)

While I was anxious to check out the new T32, they're extremely popular and review samples are hard to come by. After a few conversations with Calumet, a nice T2 camera, brand-new Calumet Ultima view camera, and the latest MegaVision PhotoShoot 3.0 software were shipped to my studio. While it wasn't the T32, its 2x2k resolution would be just fine for the work I had coming.

At first impression the T2 is certainly underwhelming. Like the Sound Vision CMOS-Pro that I reviewed a few years ago and unlike the beautifully designed Leaf and Phase One products, the T2 is a black box. Once you investigate the technology packed into that nondescript black box, the T2 becomes quite an overwhelming tool. The T2 houses the same 2x2k Loral chip used by Leaf in the DCB II, but builds the color filter wheel and shutter right into the camera. This is a tremendous benefit to the photographer, since there are no extraneous cables and no unsightly filter wheel to hang on the front of your lens (especially nice when bringing the camera in close). Since the filter wheel and shutter are in the camera, MegaVision has given the T2 a nice split personality. Bolt it to a view camera mounting frame and it mounts to any view camera. Set your lens to "T" and use the PhotoShoot 3.0 software to control the camera and you can function just like you used to with film. Bolt on the Nikon lens mount and a tripod plate and it's a self-contained camera just like the more expensive Sinarcam. Nothing else to buy and ultimate flexibility. Nice!

Unlike most digital cameras that use a SCSI connection, the T2 comes with its own PCI card to mount in an unoccupied slot in a Power Mac. (PCs are not supported at this time.) While I thought at first that this would be a drag, it actually is a tremendous advantage, since there are no SCSI problems, no hangs, no crashes, and no problems using the T2 for one shot and your film scanner for the next. The card mounted flawlessly in my Mac, and the only connection between the card and the camera is a very long 25' cable. There is only the one cable, no extra power cable, so moving the T2 around the studio is really easy. You plug your flash synch right into the PCI card, which makes it a snap to move the camera around, change lenses, etc. The time between flash pops is user adjustable in software, so you can hook up to practically any flash unit, regardless of recycle time.

Unlike a DCB II that uses the standard Hasselblad body as its base, the T2 uses the computer monitor as the viewfinder. Like the Sound Vision camera this can be very awkward at first. I found it very hard to work with the T2 on a view camera initially, since it was hard to see the effect of my swings and tilts. Once I learned a few shortcuts like Command+ to zoom-in, I started to get used to it. In fact, after a while you begin to get very used to working like this, and going back to an optical viewfinder seems downright primitive. Using this kind of live focusing when shooting with the view camera setup requires a very rigid and precise camera. Luckily for me, the Cambo Ultima is just wonderful. The Ultima I used was delivered in the "digital" trim, with a bag bellows, short rail, and no ground glass. Priced under $4000 this is a really well crafted and reasonably priced studio tool. Every control is geared, and the gears have a Leica-like smoothness and no backlash.

The PhotoShoot 3.0 software offers a staggering array of image manipulation options. There are settings for white, black, and gray balance, sharpening, color correction, CMYK conversion, even some modest editing facilities. The idea is to help the busy catalog shooter to create images on the fly that need little if any work in Photoshop. For most catalog shooters this is a tremendous workflow enhancement. In fact, I found that CMYKs made on the fly with PhotoShoot were every bit as good as my existing files created with Leaf's $2200 Colorshop HDR software (though Colorshop is a much more powerful and flexible tool).

Once the camera was set up it was time to take a few test shots. Unlike the Leaf cameras, the MegaVision T2 doesn't employ any cooling schemes on the chip. In fact, the camera itself doesn't even seem to have any cooling fins or fans to keep the chip cooled. While Leaf has stated for years that the Loral chip must be cooled to reduce dark noise, the non-cooled MegaVision chip didn't seem any noisier than my Leaf files. In fact, after shooting a few test targets I noticed that saturation was excellent and sharpness actually a touch higher than my own DCB. Of course, building the filter wheel into the sealed camera probably helps with sharpness, since no dust or dirt is getting in the optical path. The MegaVision PhotoShoot software offers a rather dizzying array of setup and calibration options. While the screen layout and interface of PhotoShoot is, in my opinion dreadful, it is so complete and powerful that the working photographer quickly gets used to it. While the Leaf software is easier to use and better suited for different types of photography in one session, the MegaVision software makes repetitive catalog photography a snap.

Shooting a lot of items in one day is a pleasure with the T2. The on-screen focusing becomes second nature after a while, and the comprehensive calibration menus make it easy to dial in near perfect color. I was much more comfortable shooting RGB files, then opening the files in Photoshop later and performing any image editing and CMYK color separations. Certainly it would have been faster to do it all on the fly in PhotoShoot, but I'm just more used to Photoshop.

To those of you who think that 2048x2048 pixels is an awfully small file size given the resolution of some modestly priced consumer cameras, remember that the file quality of this camera is nothing short of spectacular. I have been interpolating my DCB files up to 4000x4000 pixels for years, creating nice beefy 48MB files, and the T2 files handled interpolation just as well. In fact, several clients asked for big files to print giant posters, and I gave them big interpolated MegaVision files. I saw the installation of one of the posters at a large jewelry store and it looked flat out awesome! How can this little 12MB file scale up so well? Well, it's all about the purity of the image. Without the slight moiré pattern created by the stepper motor of a scanning camera or the moiré and color fringing problems created by a one-shot camera, the pure pixels of the three-shot cameras can scale up without looking interpolated. It seems too good to be true, but it really works.
I would venture to guess that probably 70 percent of all the catalogs you receive in a year's time are shot with a three-shot camera like the T2 or the newer bigger T32. Look closely and you'll see how clean and crisp the images look, even when run quite large. While the one-shot backs like the Leaf Cantare and MegaVision S3 are really opening a lot of eyes, for products with fine type, textiles, and really detailed products the three-shot cameras still reign supreme.

In short, $21,900 for a digital camera is a lot of money, especially a camera that can only shoot still life. If, however, you are a pro who needs to shoot catalogs and would like to use your existing studio lighting, the three shot cameras are the way to go. While the near $30,000 Leaf Sinarcam and near $35,000 Leaf Volare Sinarcam are extremely well respected and popular studio cameras, I found the under $22,000 MegaVision T2 to offer nearly the same image quality and workflow with enhanced flexibility. While having the entire Sinar system to draw from is a tremendous advantage for the Sinarcam, the privilege doesn't come inexpensively. The MegaVision T2 and its big brother T32 are very well thought out systems with a powerful software package. If catalogs or still life photography are your livelihood and you're not shooting digitally, make sure your résumé is updated, because you're probably on the way out. While digital cameras are sure to get much better, there isn't much to improve upon when it comes to file quality with this camera. If you can swing the T32 by all means go for it, but for most catalog work the less expensive T2 system works for me. Frankly, I'm really spoiled by this thing and plan to add it to my arsenal of digital cameras.

For more information, contact Calumet Photographic Products, 890 Supreme Dr., Bensenville, IL 60106; (800) 225-8638, (630) 860-7447; fax: (800) 577-3686; or Mega-Vision, PO Box 60158, Santa Barbara, CA 93160; (800) 234-2580, (805) 964-1400;