A Workshop Experience
by Dan Pimentel

Like a surfer riding the absolute edge of a giant wave, digital photography is now perched out there squarely at the end of the technology envelope, riding a crest of rapidly-changing innovation that shows no signs of slowing down.

The speed by which digital photography is evolving keeps every person and company involved scrambling on a daily basis for bigger, better, faster, more. Not even a great racehorse could keep up. For the uninitiated, it can appear to be pure gibberish, but for those who want to learn more, there are some very good sources available.

Somewhere mixed in this exploding storm of digital imaging are two distinct types of photographers. The largest of these two groups are the millions of consumers who are trying to sort out the flood of "one-shot" digital cameras. This group far outnumbers the number of serious digital photography pioneers out there pushing the very latest in digital camera and backs to high resolution levels that were nothing more then fable only a few short years ago.

Taking this high-end digital photography all the way to a sophisticated art form is Stephen Johnson of Pacifica, California. Involved in digital photography's development from the very early days, Johnson is best known for his ongoing project "With A New Eye", in which he is photographing America's National Parks using the best trilinear-array scanning back digital cameras available.

With the price and quality gap between consumer-level digital cameras and high-end equipment so wide, Johnson has chosen to share his knowledge of his craft in the form of two-day workshops designed to help beginning to advanced digital photographers better understand how to capture light electronically.

I recently completed Johnson's workshop, held in lovely Pacifica, along the California coast just south of San Francisco, and only steps from the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean. After 20 years as a film-based photographer, the call of digital photography is almost erotic, pulling me into its fold at a rapid pace. As a professional graphic designer, I use digital images on a daily basis, but as of yet had not made the leap into actually producing them with a camera in my hand.

Johnson's workshop takes place at his very-well equipped studio/gallery. On every wall are examples of his exacting digital landscape photography, and on every tabletop are parts of an endless network of computers, monitors, film and flatbed scanners, digital cameras and studio lighting that is all part of an active, working digital production facility.

What is exciting about the setting is the very high-end nature of the equipment being demonstrated. Overwhelmed at first with $30,000 camera backs and $15,000 film scanners, the student soon relaxes to get an close-up look at what the very top of the craft looks like. While not really a "hands-on" workshop, Johnson makes sure each student at some point gets some quality time holding his $30,000 Kodak DCS 460.

In early June, Johnson held class for seven mesmerized students of varying skill levels. There was a Bay Area Cinematographer who wanted to make the leap from film to digital still photography, along with a journeyman-level aerial photographer who was there to see if high-end digital photography was possible while hanging out of the side of a Cessna.

This workshop is apparently growing in popularity on both coasts. Joining the small, eager workshop student group from California was a long-time commercial film photographer who flew the redeye in from New York City Friday night, and then stayed glued to Johnson's every word during the weekend workshop. He then planned to make the daunting eastbound overnight flight back to the Big Apple, arriving at JFK at 7 a.m. just in time to rush to work Monday morning.

From a technical standpoint, this workshop is a must for anyone who wants to get a fast, sure grip on the basic theories of digital photography. The material that is offered is far from beginner-level, but Johnson goes to great lengths to adapt the curriculum to each student's skills and understanding of photography. While not recommended for complete novices, one student who had substantial photography experience but only two months of computer imaging time had no problem keeping up with Johnson's eloquent presentation.

This is not a photography class, plain and simple. You will not be taught about f-stops, nor will the student have a better understanding of composition or focus issues. While Johnson does touch upon the similarities between digital and film photography, this is more of a computer imaging workshop, centered around Adobe's very capable Photoshop editing application, the Macintosh operation system, a number of scanning and printing applications, and some very impressive digital camera and backs.

Making digital images that compare to the industry standard quality that film delivers still requires a substantial checkbook, I am sorry to say. Learning about the high costs of the equipment needed to achieve comparable results was quite possibly the most shocking information presented.

But if the need to know is stoking your fires about digital photography, this will be $450 very well spent. Aside from spending two great days immersed in the beauty of the rugged California coast, you will leave Stephen Johnson's workshop with a very clear understanding of digital photography. You will learn what this popular medium is capable of achieving, and also what kind of limitations the medium and technology will have to overcome in the years ahead.

Back to Workshop page

Last updated on August 14, 1999. Mail comments to: sjphoto@aol.com
Copyright ©1999, Dan Pimentel. All Rights Reserved.