Assorted Blathering About
Equipment and Techniques
by Sarah Fox

INTRODUCTION: I have quite an eclectic and extensive background in photographic work, partly as a result of my having collected, repaired, modified, and used almost every imagineable type of photographic equipment. Although I cut my teeth with darkroom work as a child in the 1960's and spent countless hours burning up film and paper, my preferred medium is now digital. I broke into digital photography early in the game, with a little Olympus D-460, mostly for use in my scientific research. However, I quickly discovered the many advantages of digital photography. Realizing the possibilities of digital SLR photography, I hungered for years for a consumer digital SLR that I could afford. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, such creatures burst into the marketplace. It wasn't until I turned professional, in 2004, that I finally invested in a digital SLR -- my Canon EOS 10D. I later upgraded to full frame photography with the EOS 5D.

DIGITAL VS. FILM: Why digital? Why not? I've compared film and digital side-by-side, with my old EOS 10D and my EOS Elan 7n. One would expect the 35mm Elan 7n, with its slightly larger format, to outperform the 10D. However, the opposite is true. Even using the same lenses, the 10D yields a sharper image with most (all?) types of film. The difference is all the greater with my EOS 5D, whose sensor is the same size as a 35mm negative. Why does digital outperform film? It's because the grain composition of photographic film is much coarser than the pixel distribution in the digital sensor. The difference doesn't end there, though. Digital imaging results in much greater color depth and lack of color noise than film, especially in the shadow regions of the image. And that's just comparing ISO 100 film to ISO 100 digital. The advantages are absolutely huge as ISO increases. I can shoot some relatively clean pictures ditigally at ISO 1600, if I have no other choice. (See someone else's ISO 1600 results here.) However, shooting with 1600 film is marginally acceptable at best, and pushing ASA 100 film by 4 stops would be horrible.

I freely admit that film has a certain "look" or "feel" to it that some people love. I personally am not as enamoured with these properties, which come down mostly to grain structure and inaccuracies in color rendition or gray scale. However, I do maintain an EOS Elan 7n and an EOS 1n for clients who steadfastly prefer film (and are willing to pay more for it -- because it's also much more expensive). Most other professional photographers share my conclusions regarding digital media. There are still a few hold-outs for film, though, and the great debate rages on. Film proponents often argue that color rendition or sharpness is superior, or even that the superiority of film can only be appreciated in the form of a large print. The FiveFWD Gadget Show (with which I am largely unfamiliar) did a piece on this very subject, comparing the image from a full frame digital (at 12.1 MP) with that from 35mm film. The video has since been removed. However, the gist of it was that enormous prints (meaning several stories high and hung off of buildings) were made of the same image shot with the two different media. Viewed from the street, they looked pretty much the same. Viewed up close, the digital image had the edge in shadow detail. Their comparison also had interesting implications regarding other arguments, such as the supposedly critical necessity of a tripod or a vertical grip, neither of which was used. The shots were both handheld, and both were pretty impressively sharp

Whether I shoot digital or film, my days in the darkroom are behind me. Digital is where it's at! All film is digitized in my film scanner, and the images go straight from there to the graphic editing software. Trying to compare one's capabilities using a competent image editor with one's capabilities using "advanced" darkroom techniques is like trying to compare one's capabiities with a computer vs. a typewriter. Simply, most of the things that can be done with standard photoediting techniques cannot be accomplished at all in the darkroom.

AUTOMATION: To say that I like digital photography is not to say that I hunger for all forms of technological sophistication. I'm actually rather old-fashioned when it comes to my photography. My EOS camera bodies are modern, full-featured, fully programmable devices that would do all the thinking for me if I wanted them to. They have all sorts of "point and shoot" modes that control every aspect of the camera's functioning. (Well, I suppose my 5D is pretty basic, but my 40D has all those modes.) I hate that stuff -- usually. Why? It's because the automatic adjustments and computations are usually wrong. While they may yield an acceptable picture most of the time, they nevertheless yield a great picture only rarely.

How old fashioned am I? Well, if I'm having to shoot lots of pictures really quickly, and if there is no time for intelligent metering, I just fly on automatic -- usually aperture priority. However, I usually shoot manually. I rely extensively on spot and incident metering and use a method that is similar to Ansel Adams' zone metering system. In short, I spot the brightest object in which I want any detail and underexpose by 2 stops with reference to that spot on a 12 bit camera (e.g. my 5D) or by 2.5 stops on a 14 bit camera (e.g. my 40D), with reference to that spot. I'll adjust the exposure down by as much as 2/3 stop if the brightest areas are highly saturated. I then spot the dimmest object in which I want detail and ensure that its EV is no more than 4 or 5 stops below the brightest object, respectively. This is a modification of the popular "ETTR" method. I usually do my spot metering with the internal metering capabilities of my camera. I particularly love my 5D, which has a very clean spot occupying 3.5% of the frame. For situations less demanding of dynamic range, I'll often take an incident reading with my trusty Gossen Luna Pro CDS, which I have carried with me, repaired, and recalibrated for decades now. (Most recently I converted it to use silver oxide cells. Read about it here.) For flash metering, I use my Sekonic Flash Master L-358. Once I've determined my exposure, I take a test shot and check the luminance histogram to determine how the exposure must be modified. Even when shooting automatically, I rely heavily on the luminance histograms to tweak my settings.

Even though I'm about a 95% manual shooter, I don't shun all automation. I have fallen in love with image stabilization technology, which is particularly useful for my most common shooting style -- handheld, in natural light. Canon was the first to develop this technology, but now everone seems to have developed their own. Canon and Nikon have theirs in-lens, and others have theirs in-body. Which is better? That's another raging debate. Cutting through all the hype, the biggest advantage of in-lens is that image stabilization is superior with very long lenses. That's because the required movements for the sensor can become enormous. The demands on lens design, with regard to the size of the image circle, can also pose limitations. The advantage for in-body stabilization is obviously that it works with every electronically coupled lens you put on it. The electronical coupling is important, because the camera has to "know" what the focal length of the lens is to stabilize correctly.

LENSES: I'm also not a prude about zoom vs. prime lenses. I do like zooms for most of what I do. Although I wasn't a fan of zoom lenses when they burst onto the photography scene back in the 1970's, they have improved markedly in their design, producing images that are nearly indistinguishable from prime lenses. The zoom lens' principal weaknesses are distortion and chromatic aberration. The former problem is easily corrected during editing. The latter problem is less pronounced, and the bulk of the lens's middle range is fairly abberation-free. And while fixed focal length lenses still give a slight (but now almost negligible) edge in image crispness, they cannot do one thing that zoom lenses do very easily. They cannot be adjusted so as to balance the relative image sizes of foreground and background. It is this feature that makes zoom lenses indispensable to artists interested in fine-tuning the composition of their images. I'm not suggesting for a moment that prime lenses don't also have their place. Primes often do something that zooms can't. They offer wider apertures. I own Canon's EF 100mm f/2.0 for those "big bokeh" portraits that only a short tele prime can deliver. (I chose it over the popular 85mm f/1.8 for its better sharpness overall, especially in the corners). I also own a few fast, classic, manual primes for odd applications.

I'm also not a prude about fast zooms. Many photographers insist that a zoom is no good unless it's an f/2.8 zoom. They insist that they can't shoot fast enough with an f/4 lens, and they can't see to focus in the dim viewfinder. To the contrary, I've had no problem focusing with f/4 optics. I admit that my viewfinder looks prettier through one of my f/2.8 lenses, and even prettier still through one of my f/2.0 or f/1.8 lenses, but I really, truly, have no difficulty focusing or composing a shot with f/4 optics. Frankly, neither does the autofocus on either my 5D or 40D, and my 10D had no problems either. The other argument that is made about f/2.8 optics is that they offer shallower depth of field than f/4 optics. I can't argue with that. They do. However, an f/2.0 prime offers even better depth of field, and the combined weight and cost of an f/4 zoom plus an f/2.0 prime is often less than that of an f/2.8 zoom alone. Getting two lenses instead of the one big one can sometimes keep one's wallet heavier and one's camera bag lighter, not to mention making one's pictures better! That's a win/win/win situation.

There's also another win associated with f/4 optics. I think these optics are designed mostly for photographers who use smaller apertures and try to maximize depth of field. (If shallow depth of field mattered as much, these photographers would be buying the f/2.8 lenses.) Considering this, the optical formulae are optimized for smaller aperture photography, rather than for the wide-open shooting done commonly with the f/2.8 optics. Because lens design involves quite a number of tradeoffs and compromises, that means that the f/4 lenses will actually deliver sharper and better images at smaller apertures than the f/2.8 optics. One need only compare Canon's 70-200 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/4 lenses to see this. The difference is slight, but it's still there.

With all this in mind, my lens collection consists of several nice f/4 zooms, combined with some f/2.0 and below primes. The collection is based on my categorization of shots into three categories: The first is extreme shallow depth of field shots, in which the object is to blur out a distracting background. In this case, foreground/background relationships mostly don't matter, so zooms are unneccessary. Fast primes, on the other hand, are essential. The second category is broad depth of field shots that attempt to get everything in focus. Smaller apertures are needed, so the slower optics optimized to those apertures perform better. Foreground/background relationships are often critical to the composition, so zooms are often essential. Fast primes are essentially useless. The last category is shots that have partially blurred/defocused elements that provide context to the picture. Zooms are again essential compositional tools for these shots, but the moderate apertures generally used for these shots allow one to use the lighter/cheaper/sharper f/4 optics anyway.

Of course this all applies just to me. If I were a sports photographer, for instance, I might want the f/2.8 zooms for their speed of focus and their low-light capabilities (e.g. photographing gymnasts). An extra stop of aperture means an extra stop in shutter speed.

PHOTOEDITING OR POSTPROCESSING: Shooting a great image with fine equipment is really only the starting point. If the image is used as-is, it might look like anybody else's well-composed vacation snapshot. That's where the miracle of modern digital photoediting (or postprocessing) comes into play, and this is where I have a competitive edge on most professional photographers. My friends and relations often joke that I should take a job with the scandal magazines, because I could be content cranking out photos of Elvis and invading Martian toad-people all day. It is not uncommon for me to take a shot, knowing that I'll have to remove a person -- or a car -- or a tree -- from the image. Or perhaps I'll need to close a drawer or combine elements of two different shots. All this work involves lots of tedious hand-work, matching of spatial resolution and light noise, and so forth. Of course every photo also requires careful correction for things such as barrel, pincushion, perspective, darkness, gamma, contrast, color balance, color saturation, etc. I currently edit my photos with Corel's PainShop Pro X, which has a reasonably nice, expert-friendly user interface. However, I will probably soon be making a move to Adobe's PhotoShop line. It's not that PaintShop Pro can't accomplish everythingthing that PhotoShop can. It's that the PaintShop Pro lineage is getting more dumbed down with each successive release, while more serious needs go almost entirely neglected, e.g. the transition from 8 bit to 16 bit processing and the need to clean up program bugs to handle much more enormous chunks of working memory. Corel's product probably needs a complete rewrite. I've waited too long for this to happen, and I've decided it probably won't happen anytime soon.

PRINTING: There are several options for printing, but they are all pretty much digital. Most people don't realize when they take their film to the lab that it is usually scanned in a digital film scanner just as soon as it dries. Then the images are printed with a commercial inkjet printer after digital contrast and color adjustments. I could of course do my own darkroom work the old-fashioned way, but I could also ride my childhood tricycle instead of driving a car. Many of my colleagues in the film world are feeling very squeezed right now, as their media are being discontinued and transitioned to digital. However, I'm already there, and I'm right at home with it.

I do most of my printing in-house. That's where I have the greatest control over the output. My printer of choice is of course Epson -- a wide-format, professional Epson Stylus Pro 4000 photographic printer. Epson still dominates the fine-art and photographic printing world. It holds patents on its piezoelectric ink ejection technology that it licenses to no other manufacturer. This technology, unlike the competitors' thermal ejection method (once called "bubble jet"), enables the generation of variablly sized ink droplets, which is important for the creation of a more smooth and natural tonal range, with less "grain." Because the piezoelectric technology is also compatible with more varieties of ink formulations, it was also Epson who first formulated archival pigment-based inks (from ground minerals), which will last at least a century without any noticeable fading. (Think of Cro-Magnon cave drawings and Egyptian hieroglyphics, which have survived pretty well over the years.) Other manufacturers have since developed pigment-based bubble-jet printing for their top photographic printers, but Epson is still the only serious player with its line of wide-carriage printers, which even prints to large, fine-art roll media. I do run some non-Epson media with my printer, including some atypical fine art papers and MIS Pro inks. I of course have to do my own color management when taking this route, so as to ensure that all the colors are correct. I do this with the XRite ColorMunki system.

The up-shot of all of this is that a large, fine-art print from my wide-carriage printer is light years beyond what the $50 inkjet printer bundled with your last computer can produce, with the smoothness and depth of tone of a quality lab print, sizing options well beyond 8 1/2" x 11", the availability of media such as watercolor paper and canvas, and the archival properties that will have the print looking just as good for your great, great, great grandchildren as it does when you first purchase it. This of course doesn't come easily. There's even a somewhat mysterious French term for such a print -- a Giclée, meaning a print made with sprayed ink. Yes, it does technically mean "inkjet." but the term implies a professional standard of printing, with the use of archival media and careful color management. (Now when you see the term used, you'll know what it means.) Epson wide-carriage photographic printers are of course not easy machines to use. They often wear names of endearment, such as "the beast" and "my clog monster," but my own printer's name is "Lucille." They are stubborn, cumbersome, enormously expensive, and somewhat mysterious beasts that require constant fussing and maintenance. (Read here about my experiences unclogging my Lucille.) It's taken me a while, but I feel I've really mastered mine. I think it's a love/hate sort of thing with any photographer, but nowadays the printer is every bit as much at the heart of a photographic business as the camera, if not more so.

Finally, all of my prints are top-coated with Lacquer-Mat fine art lacquer to inhibit oxidation. I ship my prints rolled up in tubes. I've found that's the safest way for them to travel. Once you receive a print of mine, you'll need to have it framed...

FRAMING: At one time I would mat and frame my prints for you, but I've decided I don't want to do that anymore. Frame shops are better set up for it anyway. I'll point out the obvious here: If you buy one of my prints, you need to frame and mat it properly to protect it. Use only acid-free, archival materials. That includes the foam core backing board. The frame has a few essential components. First is the glazing (glass or acrylic), which protects the print from everyday corrosive gasses and from UV light. Acrylic is clearer and whiter in appearance than glass, and it is far more effective in blocking UV light than even UV-blocking glass, but it is also more delicate and prone to scratching. The mat and backing board isolate the print from the glass and frame. Contact with the glass could otherwise eventually result in sticking and damage to the print. Finally, any good frame shop should put a craft paper dust cover on the back of the frame. This keeps dust and insects out, and it also mostly blocks the passage of corrosive gasses to the print. It is important for it to be a paper backing. Plastic backings can trap moisture, while paper backings exchange it.

Above all, as with any other piece of artwork, find a place to hang the print where it's not sitting in direct sunlight. It can take a little sunlight, just not a lot of it. The hard truth is that any image will fade over time, no matter how printed or painted. That's why museums are darkened and why flash photography is prohibited. Archival, pigment-based prints are among the most fade-resistant media available, but they, too, will eventually fade (maybe just not in your lifetime). You can base your expectations of print longevity on the following: These media have been rigorously tested using accelerated UV exposure techniques, and they have been estimated to fade no more than 5% over a 100 - 200 year period when properly framed and hung in average interior conditions. I think that's pretty good!

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