Keeping Photography Imaging Fresh in the Digital Age

Digital is a funny animal. It certainly took a while for it to look as good as its analog ancestors. But it does… looks as good now, in my opinion.

It has come in very tiny steps though and will probably continue to evolve in ways we can’t imagine. Those steps can be a bit challenging as photographers and digital artists continue to migrate forward in quality and way we present our work. Nothing can replace the beauty of a fine photographic print on a wall or the tactile sensation of a well printed portfolio on lush thick paper, but more people are looking at our images in some kind of digital format than on paper these days. The web, iPads, phones and other digital devices are the only galleries many people will see our work. Quality analog printing isn’t dead, it’s just vastly outnumbered.

Back when I was shooting only film and printing in my darkroom, image resolution really wasn’t an issue. Whether I was shooting 35mm or medium format, the film negatives and transparencies were rich with resolution. A 35mm film frame was larger than 5k (5000 pixels) in todays digital terms. Medium format film was exponentially larger than that.

When I made a print in the darkroom, the print was equally detailed. It could be blown up quite substantially and still look beautiful. Days in the darkroom were long and solitary, but there was never any question of am I getting everything bit of resolution from my negative? As long as I had the negative properly focused in the enlarger, I knew I was.

The internet arrived and with it, the first true need to have our photographs in a digital format. We all began to scan our negatives. It was painfully slow if you did it yourself and frighteningly expensive if you used a scanning service to do it for you. And if you did do it yourself, for scanners individual studios could afford, you were at the mercy of the technology of the day. Which was a little underwhelming.

I began scanning my own negatives with my first film scanner in the mid 1990s, and the quality was marginal, even for the web, but it worked. My negatives were now digital files. I remember the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how high a resolution scan I needed to display on the web. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my own personal prelude to what immense amounts of storage I would need for digital files in the future.

Old Woman - Mykonos, Greece - 1994

Looking back on it, I have to laugh. I actually remember considering whether I had enough hard drive storage to save scanned files of… gasp… up to 5MB each! No, I thought, certainly I could get by with a smaller scan of a 2MB JPG per image. That was about 1996.

A few years later when ink jet printing was being born, it was clear that those 2MB files were not going to be high quality enough even for the muddy state of inkjet printing at the time as I began to explore non-darkroom methods of printmaking. Basic web, yes. Printing, no. Hard drives were getting cheaper every year and so I began to re-scan my negatives to 10-15MB TIFF file sizes which seemed to be good enough to make small prints from.

And to complete the scanning trilogy, this year the negatives were unvaulted once again (yes, I do actually keep them in a safe), as the hardware and software of scanning technology have continued to reach a level that finally do the negatives justice outside of a scanning service. My 35mm RAW scans converted to DNG are now 70MB at about 6k of resolution.

The medium format negatives scan in at about 10k RAW making for single file sizes of 750MB or larger! Now I am truly squeezing every last pixel out of the negatives. They look great. It’s been fun to work with those old friends again. Finding detail in the shadows and highlights that I haven’t seen since my darkroom days.

1997 Scan

You can see in these example frames I’ve posted here, the new scan from a photograph I made of an old woman in Mykonos Greece. I’ve blown up the frame to show the detail of the old woman from the original scan  in 1997 and the one made this year to show you the difference. It’s really significant.

Some of these film images I’ve never really seen big before either. When I originally shot the film, I would make contact sheets of each roll and look at the tiny one inch large images through a magnifying loupe. The ones I liked, I printed. The others were never seen in any way than through that tiny magnifying glass.

Now, by re-scanning everything, I can finally see these old film friends big and bright on my computer monitor. I can see things I never noticed before. It’s like seeing these shoots from all over the world for the first time. Really wonderful.

2010 Scan

Even my more recent digital RAW camera files are experiencing an upgrade. The new version of Adobe Lightroom has a RAW file engine that really pulls out so much more information than it could even a few years ago. I’ve been going back and updating a lot of my digital camera files as to take advantage of the new updates. It really makes a difference, especially digital camera files from about five years ago. Images I thought were a bit flat from 2005 can be helped out significantly. Pushing digital pixels this time, just like we used to in the dark, burning and dodging under the dim orange-ish glow of the safe light.

So why all the rescanning and re-editing? Partly because I have been wanting to revisit some of my old shoots to look at them with fresh eyes to see what I may see with the objectivity that time and distance sometimes brings.

But more importantly we’re also in the process of creating an online archive of my photography that will be available for print sales to the general public. And the images will be able to be licensed for usage by ad agencies or whoever has need for photography in their work. All in one convenient place.

It’s been great to go through to the close to 100,000 images that I’ve made in the last 20 years looking for the ones that really stand out to me today. Many old favorites that haven’t seen the light of day in more than a decade will get new life. It’s been very exciting. Hard work certainly to shift through, prepare and remaster so many images this year. But it’s also been quite rewarding on a number of levels.

Being digital has opened up a wide world for my photography over the years. I remember getting my first email from another continent back in 1996 from someone on the other side of the world who had seen my work on one of my early websites and took the time to write me about it. It was an powerful feeling that suddenly anyone, anywhere could see my work, not just those in my physical vicinity.

We’re now able to combine the best of the analog and digital worlds merging art and commerce. It’s a great time to be a photographer.

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