CASE STUDIES - ELECTRONIC PHOTOGRAPHY Panel

Remarks by Stephen Johnson

Seybold Conference, San Francisco
September 1994

Welcome. I'd like to first of all get an idea of who's in the audience. How many photographers are here? Graphic designers? Publishers? Art directors? I might hiss in the direction of art directors. I just had a major photograph of mine cropped pretty drastically in the Seybold hand-out. However, the art director called and apologized, and has promised to print an uncropped copy of it later.

I come here today as a fine arts landscape photographer. That's been my work for the last twenty years. I tend to get involved in very long term projects. The first one was on Mono Lake, the second one was on the Great Central Valley here in California, and that's really what led me into the digital realm. I needed to take a photographic exhibit and turn it into a large format book. I had a 70,000 word text, approximately 250 photographs, and a very serious subject-- the Central Valley of California, which is about agriculture, it's about water use, it's about immigration, it's about the very formation of the state. It's also about how we treat land. And in the process of doing that, it became very obvious that I wanted to use the computer to design the book, specifically to Macintosh, because of the design flexibility it would give me. When I began that process, I really didn't dream that I would be able to bring so much digital photography possibilities to the book as well.

There are no digital originals in the Central Valley book, but what there is is a great deal of Photoshop work on the scanning and acquisition and restoration of historical work in the case of the scans that are in the book. I did half the scans myself in my own studio, which I never would have believed on a 200 line screen fine arts book. And I opened a processed every scan, even from a Scitex CT format, primarily to remove dust, to make sure color was about right, and to make sure horizons were straight, because they often get placed on drum scanners crooked.

That is my background in this process, and because of that very concrete project, Apple's been very supportive over the years, as well as Adobe, who got me involved in the testing of Photoshop before Version 1.0 was put onto the market. One of the things that I lobbied for very early on in Photoshop was the ability to do multiple colored black and white reproductions, or duotones.

As Russell Brown and I sat down with the programmers of Photoshop in early 1990 to lobby for the [duotone] feature, we had fairly grandiose ideas of what we thought might be possible. And when Photoshop 2.0 actually began to get ready to ship, Adobe asked me to write all the duotone curves to ship with it, which, by the way are meant to be points of departure rather than final curves perfect for your image, in case you've had negative results with a particular image. I hope you're using the duotone feature. It's a very powerful feature of desktop design.

What's happened in the last year, because of a camera invented by Michael Collette, that Dicomed is bringing to market, is that I'm now starting to do a lot of digital originals, and in fact, leaving film back home in the refrigerator, which is something that is almost unimaginable to me, after 20 years of photography. The tool that's making the critical difference is a scanning back that Mike Collette developed for any 4 x 5 camera, making 130 megabyte files of 6000 x 7500 pixels in dimensions, making true red green blue scans, separations, on the fly, using a chip made by Eastman Kodak. That's what I brought some slides of here today, so I think I'll go ahead and bring a few of those up.

One of the things we thought we would do when we first took the camera out in the field and were able to do the full 130 megabyte files was just dance around San Francisco a little bit and go to some of those icon cliches like the Golden Gate Bridge, and downtown, and a few places like that, just to see what was possible. Mike Collette, the inventor of the camera and I spent that whole day together, and we joked back and forth about where film was going and where this whole thing was evolving to, and I said, "You know, it ought to be pretty close to the resolution of film." And he turns to me and says, "Steve, look at these files when you get home." And I said, "Okay, Mike. That's fine." He had invented the camera, and I was sure he was proud of what he did.

That first day we shot [E-6] transparencies and Kodak Veracolor negatives at the same time. When I got home that night and started opening up these 130 megabyte files, which was no small task in and of itself, and started looking at them, I was amazed at the detail. It was detail beyond what I had ever seen in a photograph before. And when I got the transparency and the negative film back the next day and started physically to compare the resolution of the two, I was stunned. Because this camera is out-resolving film.

It's also out-resolving film in terms of dynamic range, as well. I've documented an ability to record up to 9 stops of dynamic range, or difference between highlights and shadows. Film can't do that.

There's also another dimension to it that I think is pretty interesting that will emerge as I go through some of these slides, and that is its color purity. Film, for all of its beauty and all of the things we've come to love and be frustrated by about it, is a relatively hybrid technology, when you think about silver light-sensitive metal being used to make color images. It's very elaborate, very chemically intense, and has fought very hard to try and look reasonable. But it has some basic inabilities.

Silver does not react too well to dark greens as a light source and it overreacts to blues. So dark greens have traditionally been something that was very hard for color film to record. We'll get to a slide here in a minute that gets at that. This particular image, and I can't tell how it's coming through on the projector, but up in this archway, there is shadow detail in the digital file that this slide was made from that simply isn't present on the slide or the negative. I'm holding detail I was never able to hold before.

There are some disadvantages built into this process. It takes a period of time to make this photograph because it's scanning back. The shortest exposure that's now possible for a full 130 megabyte resolution file is about 2.5 minutes. Rocks are good subject matter then. Wind is your enemy because not only will it blow objects in the landscape around, it will also blow the camera around. I was just up at Mount St. Helen's last week. I was only able to make one photograph because the wind was blowing so hard that the camera would have moved during most of that exposure. So there's some interesting parallels there that I'll touch on in a second.

This is the first photograph we made that day in San Francisco; the Conservatory and Golden Gate Park. I went there because I knew it would be a challenge. The white building and the dark green trees. Although the E-6 transparency on its own looked pretty good, when I looked at the digital file and saw the level of difference between the two, I was really quite amazed. This slide is meant to get at that a little bit. What you have on the top are a scan of the E-6 transparency and the digital file paired with it. I think you can see that there's a bit of a difference between the two. Is that coming through, even in the back of the room?

Which one is which? That's your film. That's the digital file. The difference in the ability to penetrate into deep greens. The ability to render color neutrally and without overt bias is stunning. Much like video cameras today, I can do a custom gray balance on the spot. In other words, I can custom balance my camera film, so to speak, to the lighting condition that's present at the time. That's something photographers have dreamed of as long as I can remember. Many photographers carry very elaborate sets of color correction filters and a color temperature meter to try to achieve just that goal with conventional film.

The difference between the two window sets, I think, is maybe a little less obvious. The one on the top is the digital file. The one on the bottom is the film file. Where you'll see the most profound differences are in these areas right in here where you see a level of color saturation in the stained glass and clarity that is simply getting lost in the film file.

This was the first photograph I made with the camera that I was really happy with as a photograph. Most charge coupled devices as sensors are very infra-red sensitive. Most of the digital cameras that are now being brought to market have an infra-red cut-off filter laminated to the CCD. That's not the case with this particular sensor from Kodak. You have to put a blue-green filter behind the lens to cut off the infra-red or some of the infra-red in order to make a normal color photograph. But when you take that infra-red cut off filter off, you have an infra-red sensitive camera. And the ASA of the camera jumps from 100 to almost 1,600.

This happens to be an infra-red photograph of a marine reserve right near my house on the Pacific coast. I was happy with it because I began to get comfortable enough with the camera that I could start to work with it to put a composition together. I began to see some design implications with this resolution that simply wasn't possible with a grain-based image. The infra-red stripped down to black and white also offered a whole level of possibility that I just hadn't really dreamed of previously.

The Digital Pond and I are now routinely making 30 x 40" IRIS prints from these and 8 x 10" film transparencies. I decided in the process of thinking through what I'd seen the previous few days at the Photoshop conference in January. I was sitting and listening to a talk. I was thinking about the photographs I'd made the last day or so. I thought, well, maybe it's appropriate to think very seriously about taking this into the field and make a whole digital National Parks project around it.

The history of photography is tied up with the history of the park system pretty dramatically. The early survey photographers' work were used to lobby Congress and President Lincoln for the Yosemite Act in 1864 and later, for the passage of the National Park System Bill. I decided to call a press conference in Yosemite in cooperation with the Ansel Adams Gallery. I did this on June 17th. I went up the weekend before to see if I could make a few photographs. I'd sort of put my name on the line. I was calling this press conference. I damn well better have some images to show.

In two and a half days, I'd made a set of photographs that I was fairly pleased with. Since then, the project has taken off in a variety of different directions. This is an infra-red from Glacier Point looking at Half Dome. Although it's not coming through too, too clearly in this slide, I'm holding very delicate, highlight detail up in here and a lot of detail on the Valley floor as well. Some of that is simply not coming through in this digital file, now reduced back to transparency film.

I'm also noticing the dynamic range in some very contrasting subjects where you would expect them. I'm holding detail in the base of these burned black trees, on the charcoal and in the highlights of the sky. The color accuracy of the camera is stunning. I continue to be amazed at how far things have come so quickly.

However, time has its role. This is a photograph of lower Bridalveil Falls, with the wind whipping the falls back and forth. A three minutes and 45 second exposure and we have a digital interpretation of a waterfall. Where this is interesting is right back to the 19th century idea. These photographers were making their film on the spot, using the wet plate collodion process. They were making the exposure and they were seeing the results on the spot.

I'm setting the camera up, connecting the PowerBook to it, and I'm looking at the image on the spot. I'm not even carrying a light meter lately because I have this preview and a histogram of the image right there on the spot. If I choose, I can open, although with a little bit of wait involved, 130 megabyte files right there in the PowerBook on the spot. The camera is still set up. If there's been too much wind movement, I can see it. If my focus and depth of field was less impressive than I might have desired, I can re-shoot. I can re-align the camera. If I don't like the color balance, I can take a gray card out, point the camera at it, and neutralize any bias to the way the censor happens to be calibrated right there on the spot.

There's another interesting element that harkens back into the early days of photography and that's the amount of time it takes to make the exposure. Early films were slow. It took a minute or so to make an exposure. Well, so I'm taking that a bit further and we're seeing two minutes and two and a half minutes. One of the things that I think is interesting about this is we've come to think of photography and photographic time as being representative of the way we see things, but it's not. We've gotten accustomed to a thousandth of a second exposure as somehow or other related to reality and what photography must be about.

Well, it's what photography is largely about but it's not at all about what human experience is about. We see time evolve through our eyes and through our memories. Well, in a way, this camera does something similar to that, too. It's the accumulation of little split seconds of time. We start to record time in a whole different way. I hope one of the results of this very narrow window where this technology is probably going to be the best that we can throw at digital field cameras is that we start to break down some of our notions of photographic time as being sacred in some way. Because film is not sacred either.

In fact, for all of my love for film, I've been saying lately to some hate looks from photographers that film really is kind of funky. We've learned to live with some of those disadvantages and we've learned to try to take advantage of them. But they are pretty severe, both in terms of color accuracy, dynamic range, the fact that the image is always based in that silver grain, which gets in the way of the image. I'm used to trying to make the sharpest prints I can make so I'm focusing that grain as sharply as I can on the photographic paper. But let me tell you, it's like being liberated from this sand paper, to suddenly make grainless images.

It's a whole new way of thinking about photography and I think that's one of the real compelling aspects of where digital photography is going. There's also one other issue, especially with regards to color. If I make a color negative or color transparency, I am putting a life attached to how long that image will live. Color film fades. Color dyes fade. Digitally recorded red-green-blue color separations made up of ones and zeros plated onto a gold CD-ROM does not fade.

I'm making digital archival color for the first time in my career. In fact, I could make even a broader statement. I'm making the first archival color of my career and it's a perfect copy at any point in time that as this storage media may tend to deteriorate, I copy it onto a newer medium, it's a perfect copy. We know about digital. It's a perfect copy every time unless your system is fouled up in some way. So I've got the ability to replicate things over time.

I've got digital archival color. And with the National Parks Project, we're adding one other computer-based dimension. We're carrying a Global Positioning Receiver so that every photograph that I make during the course of the project is going to have longitude and latitude data attached to it to increase the value of the archive we're creating in the process of doing the project. So the whole re-photographic process--100, 200, or 500 years into the future--will be made much, much easier than some documentarians task today to try and go back and relocate scenes from the 19th century.

There are some challenges. It's an extraordinary amount of data to try and move around. The camera itself is expensive. It's $22,000. I really shouldn't say the camera, actually. It's the scanning device and storage device. The camera is the 4 x 5" I've always used. Although because the digital file is so sharp and so clear, I'm starting to see that some of my lenses that I thought were really pretty good, aren't nearly so good as I thought. I discovered one wide angle that has a severe chromatic aberration problem on the edge that simply was almost invisible in film and is standing out almost like a misregistered digital file on the digital photograph.

Machines fail. That's also an issue. You go out in the field and something goes wrong in the writing of the file and you may have lost the file. Of course, if you take time to open it, you're sure that it didn't fail. Of course, film gets misprocessed too, doesn't it. The time period it takes to be both an advantage and a disadvantage--it can go both ways. In the case of this photograph that we also made during that press conference on June 17th at Yosemite Falls, we ended up with a diagonal waterfall. This doesn't exist in human time but it did exist in scanner time. We end up with a hybrid of our experiences in some way and I think that's really an interesting result.

Water is definitely a challenge. But in this case, of this photograph of Point Lobos, I decided it was worth trying anyway. Although there are some artifacts from the movement of this little bay, it recorded the greens and blues I've been so used to seeing but never able to record on the film in a way that actually surprised me to the point that we're now putting it up in the Ansel Adams Gallery in Carmel next week.

The amount of press that's come out of this one press conference has been stunning to me. We knew when we said we were going to use Ansel Adams darkroom to open and print the first digital view camera photographs of Yosemite that we'd get some attention. But we've had magazine after magazine call and do feature articles. It's been a real boost to what is going to be a real challenging, about 18 month long progress to go out and try and look at the National Park System. By no means comprehensively, but to try and get a feel for the Park System and to make this archive.

It's definitely an interesting time to be involved in imaging. I think that's what I'd like to leave you with more than anything else, is that I'm more excited about photography now than I've been in many years. And I haven't been unexcited or uninterested in photography throughout my whole career. But this is a real kick in the ass. This is unbelievable change.

Photography is opening up in ways that we never would have believed possible in a short period of time. I think that especially when you talk about digital originals and the kinds of possibilities there, rather than a lot of the digitally composited junk that I see, I'm really excited by where photography is going. Thanks for being here today.

Transcription by Seybold Seminars


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