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PORTRAITS: SWITCHING
FROM FILM TO DIGITAL
Jim Doty, Jr.

PORTRAITS WITH NEGATIVE FILM

For years I did seniors pictures, weddings, anniversaries, and other portrait photography on professional color negative film.

One of the advantages of doing pictures with negative film is the turn around speed. Drop off the film at your favorite lab and go back later to pick up the prints. Quick and simple. All is well and good unless you have a client who wants to order enlargements. Then the process gets much longer and more complicated.

Shoot the pictures, drop the film off at a good professional lab for professional processing and printing, go back several days later and pick up the proofs. Now label the back of each proof, (or the "label space" on each page of the proof album). Let the client know the proofs are ready. (I never liked doing the labeling which took a lot of time.)

When the client is ready with the order, each negative to be enlarged is individually cut and taped on a "crop card" over a light table (a fiddly operation at best).  Directions for the lab are written on each card as to how many enlargements are to be made in each size. Each crop card is also labeled with the client's name, the roll number, and the negative number for filing and future orders. (I never liked doing the crop card thing, which also took a LOT of time.) Take the crop cards to the pro lab. Go back again to the lab to pick up the order. By the way, if your lab doesn't print enlargements from crop cards, consider finding one that does. It is one of the best ways to determine the exact crop from the variety of crop cards available.

Come to think of it, maybe film wasn't so fast with all the labeling, cutting and mounting on crop cards, more labeling, and trips to the lab. The actual portrait session takes a fraction of the time that everything else takes.

SWITCHING TO DIGITAL

After months of using both film and digital cameras side by side (and getting comfortable with the digital technology), I did my first all-digital shoot about 2 1/2 years ago and have been digital ever since. Despite what it says above, I didn't make the switch because labeling and crop cards are annoying to me (which they are). I switched because of style and control.

SHOOTING STYLE

I shoot part of many portrait sessions in a classical style, with camera on a tripod, carefully arranged formal poses, lights arranged just so, and "turn your head a little more to the right" instructions, but it isn't my preferred way to do most of my shooting. I prefer a more casual, informal style with a hand held camera, and with natural lighting. I do a lot of work outdoors on "cloudy-bright" days (great light for portraits). The style is more relaxed, easy going, and rapid fire - almost photojournalistic. I chat with the client and shoot while we talk. I take a lot of pictures. Even in my film days I would shoot 200 to 300 frames of film in a single portrait shoot. The less formal style means a lot of "less than prime" photos, but it also means a lot of wonderful moments and expressions get captured.

So I've gone all digital for most of my portrait sessions. It  suits my style and I don't have to worry about how many rolls of film I am shooting.

DIGITAL CONTROL

But a better reason for the switch is control. With negative film, the final look of the photo is determined by the person at the lab who is doing the printing. The lab determines the exposure and color balance of the final print. If you don't use crop cards, they also determine the crop. I've written this elsewhere, but you can test this yourself by taking the same negative to 5 or 6 different labs (make at least one a pro lab with a good reputation) and have each one make an 8x10 print. You will discover that some labs do much better than others. If you pick a really good lab and take the same negative in on three different occasions, you will still get some variation in the look of the final print.

I decided I wanted more control, so I went digital. The cost, unfortunately, is a huge increase in time over shooting with film (even allowing for labeling and crop cards). I gain a lot more control over the final prints I give to my clients.

It takes time to edit and label (alas, there is no escape from labeling) several hundred digital files and pick the best to post in a private album on the internet for the client to look over (I provide digital proof prints for clients that don't have internet access). When the client makes their final selection of photos, each file is digitally optimized, an essential process that takes about an hour per photo. The optimized files are posted in a public album for the client (and family and friends) to order prints. The order is printed with on archival digital printer on archival papers with archival digital inks. The prints will last longer than any traditionally produced color analog print.

Digital also means I can do some retouching when needed, or switch easily from color to black and white (see the flash movie below). I can crop the print any way I want. It's how I like to work. For several years I scanned film to create a digital file. With the dramtic increase in digital quality in the last few years, it made more sense (at least for me) to shoot digitally to begin with.

So I traded a time consuming process with negative film for a much more time consuming process that provides all the control that digital imaging can provide.

A STYLE FOR YOU

One morning last week I was lured into Kim Cessna's studio  by all of the black and white prints on display in sizes from 8x10 to 20x24 inches. I had a nice visit with the photographer who works exclusively with 35mm black and white film. Kim's work is beautiful. I asked if she does her own printing. She said "I work with a master black and white printer. He is my secret." It works for her and it works very well. To each his own.

I used to spend hours in the black and white darkroom at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, dodging and burning prints. But I prefer to do this for my personal landscape and still life work, not for portraits. Again, to each his own.

Whether or not you do portraits for yourself and family and friends, or on a more commercial basis, You need to pick the style, equipment, and methodology that works for you.

The original file in color and the digitally
 optimized and retouched file in black and white.

June 1, 2006

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