Digital And The Pro

Point Of View
The Olympus E-10 sure is a nice camera and reasonably priced, but can you realistically call yourself a digital pro if this is your only camera?
Photos © 2002, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved
Photography is a wide-ranging field that engenders passion in its practitioners, and like all great forms of expression creates opinions formed through experience and reflection. In its early days one of the great debates was: Is Photography Art? This was the subject of many essays and heated discussions among players and spectators. Today, issues such as film vs. digital, format choices, the validity of computer generated images, photography as exploitation or revealer, and even the merits of ink jet vs. silver prints cause similar debate. We are opening this department up to readers, manufacturers, and retailers--in short, everyone who lives and breathes photography and who has an opinion about anything affecting imaging today.

Here's how to get involved: write us an e-mail at or send us a letter with a proposed topic and a synopsis of your idea. Once approved, we'll ask you to send us about 500-1000 words on the subject chosen. The idea here is not to push any product or wave any flag, but to create discussion about photo and imaging topics of the day. We reserve the right to edit whatever you send in, although we will never edit intention or opinion but only for length and, hopefully, for clarity. We reserve the right to publish your work on our web site as well, so you can join the archives and be a resource for opinion for years to come.

So, get thinking and writing and share your Point of View.
--George Schaub
Here is a perfect example of expensive digital gear making me money. I shot this job with a Leaf DCB II back on a Hasselblad body about five years ago. The client imposed a strict budget on me for files delivered on CD-ROM. While I had originally planned to shoot on 21/4" film and scan everything--I began a lease on the Leaf back, and the time, money, and hassle saved made me a convert to digital imaging.

The bulk of my investment over the past five years has been in expensive cameras. While the digital debate rages on the Internet over which digital camera platform can truly replace 35mm negative film, I'm only shopping for cameras designed to meet or exceed the quality of medium format, 4x5, and even 8x10 film. Why? Because my Mamiya RZ, Hasselblad, and Cambo 4x5 systems have been my bread and butter. Clients looking to fill full pages of magazines with brilliant ads need incredible definition, perfect color, and unnervingly sharp images.

When It All Began
For me it all started in 1995. I stumbled into my pro camera shop and saw a demonstration of the Leaf DCB. (DCB stood for Digital Camera Back.) This brick-like appendage attached to a Hasselblad body was shooting pictures of a tabletop still life setup and instantly transferring crisp, sharp, and remarkable images onto a nearby Macintosh computer. The demo guy blew the images up to 100 percent life size on the screen and they were amazing. Perfect--no grain, no noise. I'd never seen anything like it. Then he showed me a poster shot with the DCB, I think it was 20x24"--again, perfect. To my 1995 eyes the images looked as good as 4x5 film. Even though it was only 2048x2048 pixels these were really great-looking pixels, and images re-sized up to 3600x3600 pixels still looked very good.

Here's about the entry-level point for a pro setup. A digital SLR like this Canon D30 and a handful of pro lenses will set you back about $7000-$10,000. Add to that some CompactFlash cards, card readers, photo printers, newer faster computers, and upgrades to your lighting equipment and you've got a sizable investment.

Sticker Shock
What was this amazing new technology and what did it cost? Well, here was the bad news. The camera back was $30,000. A suitable Mac Quadra was about $3000, a 21" monitor $1500, 128MB of RAM (minimum) about another $1500, and a color printer suitable of outputting these images, in this case a Tektronix 480X dye sub, was another $8000. Luckily they had a package--for a mere $45,000 I could buy the back, computer, monitor, printer, supplies, and a nifty rolling cart. Ouch! A bit rich for my blood, I picked up another brick of Velvia and headed back to the studio.

Figuring Out ROI
Back at my desk I pulled out the calculator and figured my ROI (Return On Investment). At the time I shot about 450 rolls of 120 a year, 150 rolls of 35mm, maybe 400 sheets of 4x5 film, plus processing and another $1000 worth of Polaroid film. I had a yearly film budget of about $7000 or so. Figuring my depreciation table on the digital stuff at five years (hey, who knew?) that would be $35,000 worth of film I would be avoiding. Forgetting interest charges and the like, it would be only a $10,000 investment over five years. But what would my $10,000 buy me? If it didn't deliver more work and more profits then it was just an expensive toy. Being the first digital photographer in my entire state would certainly bring lots of work in the door, right?

Here's about the entry-level point for a pro setup. A digital SLR like this Canon D30 and a handful of pro lenses will set you back about $7000-$10,000. Add to that some CompactFlash cards, card readers, photo printers, newer faster computers, and upgrades to your lighting equipment and you've got a sizable investment.

First mistake: Given the state of the art in 1995 and even in 2003, digital can't replace film completely for a pro commercial photographer. The DCB was a three-shot camera--one pop for red, one for blue, and one for green. What that meant was no moving subjects. I shoot a lot of people for advertising projects, so the camera would be of limited use. Add to that the tethered, studio-only aspect and you had an expensive package, with limited usage.

Second mistake: The consumables aspect of digital imaging is just as high as film. While I wouldn't be paying for film, processing, contact sheets, and 8x10 prints I would be paying for a dye sub printer, printer ribbon, and paper at roughly $3.50 per 8x10 and a certain amount of maintenance on the equipment. When you factor in the cost of test prints and mistakes I was right back to where I started. So, I passed on the DCB.

Along Came Lumina
A little while after that first digital demo I heard about another Leaf product called the Lumina. This was a small Nikon-mount body that contained essentially the guts of a 35mm film scanner. With a basic software package you could scan three-dimensional still life images into a computer, even a basic Windows 95 machine. For $8000 it seemed like a bargain. While the Lumina had its problems, it established me as a digital photographer at a time when virtually no one was using digital cameras. I exposed this technology to my clients and the work flowed in.

Over the past six years I've learned a bunch of lessons about making business sense of this entire digital world, and I'd like to share them with you.

Sometimes film can coexist with digital. I shot the smaller images on this cover with a MegaVision T2 three-shot camera with a 105mm Micro Nikkor lens. The large image of the leather bag was shot with a Mamiya RZ67 on Fuji Provia 100 film. I shot the leather stuff on film because I was concerned about shadow detail.

The Business Plan
We photographers are notoriously poor businessmen, but to invest serious money in equipment and come out smelling like a rose demands careful planning. I produced a simple business plan that detailed my current business, the next five years of capital investments, and my projected revenues. Only after you take a good look at where your money is going can you decide how much you really can invest.

There are any number of sources for information on generating business plans, but you can start with the SBA (Small Business Administration, They have plenty of information, though I would try and finance any purchase through the equipment manufacturer or your local pro camera shop. I know plenty of guys who continually shop online, looking for the best bargains. Find a good pro camera shop--either in your area or in the pages of this very magazine. Introduce yourself, make friends, and rely on this relationship to help you find the right gear for your business.

The Fit
Once you know what your business is and where you think it's headed you need to assess the fit. How does this new equipment fit into your business model? Commercial guys like me shoot a wide variety of advertising work. There is no one "right" technology, but plenty of wrong ones. Portrait and wedding guys really have to recreate the look of medium format color negative film for most of their work. Certainly a Kodak DCS 14n or pro back would do the trick.

I heard from one very large portrait house that they were spending $30,000 a month on film and print processing for all of their stores. They shelled out big, big bucks on a bunch of Kodak DCS 660 cameras and a Fuji Frontier digital printing lab, but claim to have recouped their entire investment in less than two years! If they can get two more years out of their gear before they upgrade then the entire investment will have returned a handsome profit. Add to that the increased flexibility of digital and their fully digital print ordering system (which apparently has resulted in almost 30 percent higher sales) and you've got a persuasive argument for the digital investment.

Even if your work really doesn't have a compelling digital model you've got to factor in the learning curve. In three years or five years or 10 years when you will be forced to shoot digitally will you have enough experience to compete? How much more successful will current digital guys be in five years when tons of inexperienced digital photographers are trying to show lots of average-looking work?

For this shot we needed a very specific image of this LCD panel to fit with the flying screen shots--film and Polaroids were too inaccurate for the design process, so I used my BetterLight 6000 scan back. Unwilling to wait for the full scan time, I just grabbed the 2MB preview scans and we used those for position. Once happy with the fit, we scanned the final image (which is "crisp"!).

The Big Picture
Yeah, the big picture. The photo world is going digital and we all know it. Every working pro, I'm going to guess, has a computer, a copy of Photoshop, and, at the very least, a Nikon Coolpix and a desktop film scanner. Every working pro is messing with this technology, and plenty are planning the big jump. It's a bit difficult to time the jump, since the prices seem to drop every day. That $30,000 Leaf DCB sells on eBay for $3000 today, and still does a fine job. My $20,000 Dicomed scan back is worth less than $5000 just four years later! How can I call that a good investment when the $3000 I spent on a complete used Hasselblad 500 C/M kit with three lenses in 1988 could net me $5000 if I sold it all today? (And I've shot thousands of rolls of film through it!)

Imagine the poor shooter who begged, borrowed, and stole to get his hands on a $28,000 Kodak DCS 560 two years ago. How did he feel last year when the retail priced plunged to $16,000, or last March when the price fell again to under $7000? How does he feel today when the much better DCS 760 sells for $6995 or the astounding 14-megapixel DCS 14n lists for $4999? How does he feel? Well, if he was smart he had his eye on the big picture. He shot constantly with his camera and created a service that his competitors didn't. He used his $28,000 investment to generate $50,000 in new business. If he wasn't so smart then he did nothing but mess around with his new toy, showing it off to friends and shooting vacation pictures. Ouch.

Given the speed at which this gear is depreciating here in the first part of the 21st century, you've got to buy it, shoot it, and dump it--fast. I sell off my gear usually within a year or so. Leaf DCB--sold. Leaf DCB II--sold. DCS 420--sold. DCS 560--sold. I've kept my Dicomed only because the newer stuff isn't that much better, but I suspect my D60 and 1Ds will be out the door very soon to be replaced by a newer, faster, and bigger Canon digital SLR. Leasing makes particular sense here, especially if you can work out advantageous terms.

This high-end jewelry and watch catalog ended up as a 6x9" booklet. I had just received one of the first EOS D30 cameras, and used it for the whole shoot. Since I had quoted the job with film, processing, and film scanning in the bill, the client had no problem paying a roughly commensurate "capture fee" for the color corrected, sharpened CMYK images saved to disk. One job and the D30 paid for itself!

Shout It From The Rooftops
Once you have this gear you've got to let your current and prospective clients know about it. Certainly the hook for portrait and wedding photographers is an easy one--it lets clients review their pictures, right now! Hand out wedding prints to your guests on the day of the wedding! The proposition seems too good to resist, and the sale is reasonably easy.

For an advertising agency looking for the perfect image the technology is unimportant. The photographer's style and vision is important. However, there are plenty of jobs where the budget is limited, time is tight, and the client is under pressure. Shooting digitally, reviewing the images instantly on the monitor, and heading back to the shop with a freshly burned CD-ROM or DVD becomes extremely attractive.

Even though there are more and more high-end digital cameras showing up in my neck of the woods, I remind my clients what I have. Every time a new piece of gear arrives in my studio I do a post card mailing.

Besides the obvious promotion attempts, I make sure that my portfolio shows results from all of my different pieces of equipment. When showing my portfolio I always make it a point to mention what gear I used and how the print was made. Even if you have a Coolpix and an Epson printer you should be able to put together some decent-looking images. Mentioning when showing your work that you used a "Nikon digital camera" and that you produced the photo print "in-house" isn't lying. When you don't have the big guns it's OK to be somewhat vague about your gear.

You Need A Friend
When it comes to the real pro digital equipment, don't be a bargain hunter. I've looked for deals and always wound up paying more to get stuff fixed, upgraded, updated, and revised. Besides the obvious benefit of buying the latest technology, choose your dealer wisely. A full service nationwide shop like Calumet Digital is an excellent choice. They not only stock some of the better high-end stuff, but they'll support you with financing, training, and expert service. I've seen a few Phase One LightPhase cameras pop up on eBay for thousands less than they go for anywhere else, but if anything goes wrong you could be out thousands of dollars.

There are any number of digital specialists catering to the pro photographer. They'll not only put together a comprehensive studio package but even prepare a quick ROI chart for you to review with your accountant.

When I bought my first D30 body I called my friends at KenMar camera in New York. Since I'd been dealing with them for years I knew they could get me a camera when they were in short supply and would be there for me if I had problems. If you don't already have a good relationship with a pro camera shop now is a good time to establish one.

Eyes On The Prize
It's very easy to get wrapped up in image quality. The Internet is filled with digital camera sites that painstakingly compare every digital camera. They're a wealth of information if you're into taking pictures of test charts, but filled with average photography shot by camera junkies, not photographers. The bottom line is the images you create. My signature line has been, "My clients don't care if I use a ham sandwich to shoot their ads." And it's true. I've never, ever had an Art Director ask for a particular camera or digital back. I've had them explain to me the usage of the image and the type of image they need, but if they're smart they've hired me to figure out how to deliver the image.

If you're a photographer then your job is to deliver the best image, not wield the fanciest toys. That said, be aware that trying to foist a consumer digicam image off on an experienced and educated client will result in disaster. Three years ago I used a DCS 420 on big money portrait sessions for annual reports that were under severe time constraints. If I tried to use that camera today, I'm not sure any client would be happy with the results.

If you're a pro, your entry-level right now is a pro SLR from Nikon, Fuji, or Canon. The minimum requirements for product photography are super resolution SLRs (10+ megapixels) or digital backs from MegaVision, Leaf, Eyelike, Jobo, Phase One, and Imacon. Minimum quality for a film scan is from a Nikon 8000ED or Imacon Flextight. Trying to pull off a major portrait shoot or national ad with a consumer or "prosumer" camera could be a serious mistake.

Bottom Line
To be a working pro you're going to need to be digital. The digital equipment that's good enough to surpass film isn't cheap, even with consumer camera prices plunging. Add to that a decent proofing printer like a Fuji Pictrography, Sony or Kodak dye sub printer, or even a decent Epson ink jet, studio lighting consistent enough to deliver excellent digital images, and enough computers, CD-RW drives, and big flat screen monitors and you're talking about a nice chunk of change. But if you plan your purchases right you'll find that your digital investment will deliver substantial returns.