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THE DIGITAL ORIGINAL

Sep 1, 1999 12:00 AM


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Digital technologies have an impact on all markets--from toys to television. For a few hundred dollars you now can purchase a hand-held digital camera that will allow you to take a snapshot of the grandchildren, then e-mail that photo to the whole family within minutes. But digital cameras aren't just consumer playthings. They are moving from novelty into more "serious" markets, finding their way into the camera bags of photojournalists and the studios of professional photographers.

At the high end of the photographic food chain, catalog photographers, fine art photography studios and graphic arts firms are employing digital cameras where conventional film and scanners have been used in the past.

The graphic arts industry began its move away from film in the mid-1980s. We started to use PostScript imagesetters to build complete pages, eliminating multiple layers of film and handwork. Step-and-repeat machines also took a bite out of film sales and use.

As technologies have marched onward, computer-to-plate (CTP) systems have taken another large segment from the film market, leaving imagesetters as the o nly significant consumers of film. Now digital cameras of all types are encroaching further on the domain of film in our industry, taking more of the original imaging from chemical-based films and moving it into silicon chips that deliver complete digital files without processing.

Eastman Kodak, the firm with the most to lose if and when digital cameras succeed, began early to provide digital cameras to the professional marketplace. Certainly Kodak should be the supplier of a replacement for film as a hedge against this technological change. The firm's microchip manufacturing division was among the first to produce high-quality two-dimensional CCDs (charge-coupled devices) for capturing photographs as pixel data instead of latent images on photographic film. Today, Kodak remains one of the major suppliers of these sensors to the industry.

Kodak is not the only film-based company to recognize the trends. Both Agfa and Fuji have joined Kodak in its diversification into the digital camera market.

But while these cameras have provided government, military and newspaper photographers with instant-access digital files, they have not been accepted widely in the field of graphic arts for one major reason--file size. The best camera in Kodak's line-up, for example, produces a file just over 17 MB in size (22 MB when converted to CMYK). That file translates into just enough resolution to fill a standard letter-size page at the resolution printers want in a digital file.

Despite the file size, however, the quality of the images from these digital cameras is impressive. Over the years, it has become easier to manufacture CCD sensor arrays and harder for the human eye to see a difference between a scan from film and a directly captured digital file.

In the field of studio (non-portable) cameras, several manufacturers provide what are called scanning camera backs. These are essentially digital camera inserts for conventional studio view cameras. These scanning backs allow a photographer to capture stunning images at resolutions adequate for huge reproduction sizes.

In addition to the portable digital cameras and scanning backs, a third type of digital camera is the high-resolution clip-on camera backs that attach to medium-format cameras such as Hasselblad and Mamiya. These cameras create large digital files in a single exposure (as opposed to scanning the image) and are tethered to a computer to control and output, leaving them in the photographer's studio for most purposes.

Makers of the high-resolution digital cameras include Better Light, Dicomed, Phase One, Scitex (Leaf) and Megavision.

If we look around the graphic arts for potential beneficiaries of digital camera technologies, we don't have to look further than catalog production to see the greatest potential for the use of the high-resolution digital cameras. Why shoot film, process the film, scan the film and color-correct the images if we can just shoot a digital photograph and go directly to press with the resulting image?

Graphic artists who use the services of digital photographers are excited about this exact scenario. Marvin Plummer of Sessions Sportswear (Scotts Valley, CA), uses Thomas Burke, a commercial photographer in nearby Santa Cruz. Burke uses both digital and film cameras in his studio and finds the demand for digital photography growing.

"I can see that we have the right shot before leaving the studio," says Plummer, speaking of the digital photography process. "There is no need to look at rolls of film, selecting the right frame and then sending it out for scanning. I know it's right when I see it on the computer monitor."

The camera used by Burke for this type of work is a conventional 4 x 5-inch view camera with a digital-scanning insert made by Better Light. The camera produces a huge file for reproduction--as much as 127 MB in RGB format (182 MB when converted to CMYK). Though his clients only occasionally need this much image resolution, the camera is fully capable of creating such files.

Saving time with digital photography translates into saving money. As the photographer hands the client a computer disk instead of film, at least three steps are eliminated from the process of getting the image from the studio to the printed page. Gone are the processing, selection and scanning steps in production. Those who use the technology are proud of foregoing these steps. They usually crow about the quality of the resulting images.

Steve Johnston, a partner in Red Fish Publishing (West Palm Beach, FL), claims that his digital files have far more information than photographs on film. The company specializes in digital photography of fine art. Images from the firm's digital camera, Johnston asserts, are "at least 50 percent better when printed in a brochure, and for posters the color and quality are vastly superior. Every brushstroke is captured. It's really a first-generation image when you realize it hasn't been through processing and scanning to get to the digital stage."

Red Fish has built a custom camera room fitted with a set of floor rails on which the digital camera stand rolls. The rails are precisely square to the copy board, whose capacity is 7 x 12 ft. The rails run almost 50 ft. from the wall to photograph very large originals. Illumination is four banks of eight fluorescent lights in custom-built arrays.

Onto this copyboard Johnston mounts original paintings--usually a painter's canvas--with no glass. Johnston's fluorescent lights do not allow for polarization, so his lighting arrays are not filtered. The occasional reflections that result from the lighting of paintings are corrected on the computer.

The company's Better Light scanning camera insert generates files up to 137 MB, necessary for the firm's primary output--artwork printed in limited editions for sale in art galleries. Red Fish uses Epson 600 inkjet machines, capable of output up to 66 inches in width and essentially unlimited in length.

Many of the images the firm makes also find their way onto artists' websites and into commercial printing that is used to promote the sale of these fine art reproductions. The digital files Red Fish provides to printers usually are subsampled images taken from the large master scans.

In addition to the digital camera, Johnston's studio includes a Macintosh G3 computer with an Apple 32-inch display, 48 GB of data storage and a massive 1 GB of RAM, "which isn't enough!" comments Johnston. "We have to write files to CD-ROM every day to keep space open on the system."

When asked how much retouching is done to get the images ready to print, the exec comments that it is "actually quite a bit of work in Photoshop. Image levels are very close to our desired values, but we adjust the curves slightly and then adjust the saturation. "We also select a particular color, then change it as needed [with PhotoShop's Selective Color control]. We do a lot of computer work to make sure the piece is as close to the original as possible," explains Johnston.

Another seasoned user, Minneapolis-based Professional Color uses a scanning camera back to prepare digital files for photographic processes and for printing on its Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press. The firm has retired its conventional copy camera and installed a digital system in its place.

Pro Color's Tom Moran was responsible for the set-up of the digital camera system. Moran has installed a Dicomed scanning camera back on a conventional 4 x 5 view camera. He also has selected Broncolor HMI lighting arrays to provide the illumination for the copy work the company is doing. "It's hard to get enough light on the originals with the lights available," says Moran. "I recommend that you get the best and brightest lights you can find."

Pro Color's copy arrangement allows for the digital photography of virtually any flat art--from artist's canvas to engineering drawings. "I have photographed a number of different originals in our digital studio," continues Moran, "and the results are visibly superior compared to the same images on film."

On the receiving end of the digital files is a Macintosh G3 computer with 256 MB of RAM and a variety of storage options. The Pro Color camera operators scan to disk, then write a CD for delivery to the customer. Charges for the service are based on the file size, measured in resolution along the long dimension of the final image. Pro Color's clients include major advertising agencies, printers and photographers whose work is seen worldwide.

The only difficulties reported by Pro Color's Moran are with reflections. His lighting is carefully polarized, as is the lens, to reduce glare or reflections. "We hold the artwork to our copyboard with magnets," says Moran. "Our camera is consistent and our lighting is consistent. The only thing that changes is the surface quality of the originals, and some of those cause problems. We work to eliminate the problems, and we deliver clean digital files to our customers."

Moran reports that the reproduction quality of the digital files is much better than similar shots made with film. In fact, Pro Color has been testing a variety of flat-field lenses to find one that matches the superior quality of the scanning camera back. "Film was very forgiving," comments Moran. "We hardly noticed it wasn't perfectly sharp edge-to-edge on film. But with the digital camera, lens imperfections are more evident. We have worked hard to fix that problem with the best lenses we can find."

David Chmielewski of Art Press (Los Gatos, CA) also photographs fine art, but uses his skills as a traditional photographer to raise the level of work from what he calls "copy work" to fine art with a digital camera. Known by the moniker "DavidC," he uses an array of lights to illuminate paintings and other art to accentuate their three-dimensionality. Chmielewski's attention to lighting and color allow him to make superbly accurate reproductions of originals for any print purpose, though his specialty is printing on inkjet machines in small editions. His favorite trick, on completion of a photo project, is to tear sections of an inkjet proof and do what he calls a "lay-over." He places a randomly torn section of the proof on top of the original and it "disappears" into the original. These layover proofs are a subject of great satisfaction to the purist photographer and to his clients. The printed results so accurately represent the original that there is essentially no difference--except the substrate.

"The ability of the digital camera, the low- and high-end densities of the camera, exceed film by at least 20 percent. You can open a shadow yet still hold the highlight. You can't do that with film," asserts Chmielewski. "With the digital camera you have the flexibility to control the midtones, the high- and the low-end --all independently. You are not only telling the chip how to see these photons of light, but you can tell it how to process for a certain type of output.

"In fine art, each piece and each color in each piece is scrutinized. You have to push and pull color around to get it right. Some [originals] are all highlights, some all midrange and some have both, but you need to keep it all. With the digital camera we are able to do that," claims Chmielewski.

Flat subject photography is not the only area in which digital cameras are finding their way into the graphic arts. Some of the happiest beneficiaries of this technology are catalog photographers whose tabletop set-ups work better with digital imagery than with conventional photography.

Karlen Design (San Luis Obispo, CA) uses a digital camera to photograph still-life catalog shots of clothing and other gear for the youthful surfing and skateboard markets. The firm's camera is a Leaf Lumina from Scitex. This camera is capable of creating images up to 19.5 MB as it scans across the tabletop scene. Small enough to be treated as a medium-format camera, the device makes reproduction-quality images of files intended for the printed page to about 5 x 8 inches.

Paul Karlen, principal of the firm, says that shooting with the Lumina camera saves time and money and gets his catalogs to press sooner. Set-up and photography are much faster than with film, claims the exec. "Under tungsten lighting, a scan takes about one minute," he explains. "Subtract the time it takes to send the film out for processing, and you have shaved hours off the production cycle of a catalog.

"And those savings start to add up as our deadlines approach. Last-minute changes can be made easily, and our customers see what they will get in print sooner. The whole process makes sense for the work we do," concludes Karlen.

Are digital cameras the perfect solution to photographic work for the graphic arts industry? Yes and no. Digital cameras deliver excellent images in less time than other approaches. The savings in time-to-print can be impressive. But digital cameras often carry with them a steep learning curve and a level of computer complexity reserved for those committed to making digital photography work. The copy board, reflection control and computer issues require real dedication to success with this technology.

"I don't recommend anyone get into digital photography unless they're 500 percent computer literate," comments Johnston of Red Fish Publishing. "It represents a lot of computer time with lots of critical computer work." Yet, the rewards are there. "It's new, it's exciting, it's a new challenge everyday," concludes Johnston.