How the Pros Do Digital

Digital photography has revolutionized how professional photographers and photojournalists capture and document the world around us. Popular Science talked to three award-winning photographers about their switch to digital.

onClick="window.open('','popup1','height=549,width=290,scrollbars=no,resize=no')"
target="popup1" class="sidebar">How he got that shot: Steve Starr

Photojournalist Steve Starr, a 1970 Pulitzer Prize winner, had been contemplating a slow transition away from traditional SLRs before ultimately deciding to simply jump off the pier and into digital photography.

"The big question in the industry was, 'When is it going to be as good as film?' It is already; I'm getting superb shadows, exposures, everything as good as with film, or better. It's amazing."

Starr uses the Canon EOS D60 (now replaced by the Canon 10D--see specifications), which, with its 6.3 megapixels and myriad manually controlled features, allows for professional-level control over image production and film-like image quality. This newfound creative power, however, comes at a steep price: Starr estimates that the initial investment for a photographer switching to digital is between $10,000 and $15,000.

"I have two D60s, which, at the time, ran about $1,500 each. I also had to buy a new laptop and computer, along with Adobe Photoshop 7, the industry standard, for editing. High processor speeds and lots of memory are must-haves for photo editing."

So what led Starr to take the plunge?

"Shooting with digital is much like shooting with traditional cameras: you still have to pay attention to lighting and technique. The biggest difference is how much more control I have over my images afterwards. After a shoot, I can go home and tweak my images or adjust exposures; the ability to do th!
is is am
azing-career saving."

This added control, however, is a catch-22: he usually spends between eight and sixteen hours after a shoot working on his images.

"First, I transfer the images in the form of RAW files to my computer, then edit them using Adobe Photoshop 7. We all thought that digital photography would make things simpler--in fact, it's made my work much more complicated."

In the two years since Starr started working exclusively with digital, it has fast become the industry standard.

"Editors want images on CD. Almost all of my clients have embraced it and request it. The only time I use traditional cameras is on those few occasions when my client has not yet made 'the digital switch.'"

Starr advises consumers looking to make that switch to research more than just pixels.

"Pixel size is important, but overall camera design, software, lenses--all of that is important. I would stay with the majors--Canon or Nikon, possibly Olympus, when looking for a camera."

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target="popup1" class="sidebar">How he got that shot: Jack Richmond

Jack Richmond, a professional photographer and recipient of a Kelly Award in 1995, switched to digital a year and a half ago. He has done only one job on film since.

"I watched the field of digital photography for several years, studied the technology and software involved, and waited until it was on par with what I was shooting on film."

Now, using his Hasselblad with an attached Phase One H2O single shot direct digital imaging system, Richmond can quickly capture difficult motion shots in less time and with more control--all without sacrificing image quality.

"Before, I'd go through tons of rolls of film while shooting something falling through the air, or someone jumping, to!
make su
re I got the shot. But that's the beauty of digital: you can see the shot right after you take it, like a Polaroid, but with sharp colors and accurate lighting."

Like Starr, Richmond points to his ability to control his final product as a key impetus behind his decision to go digital. He emphasizes that having the power to edit his own images--rather than sending them to a lab--allows to him to retouch, edit, and perfect them however he sees fit.

onClick="window.open('','popup1','height=523,width=700,scrollbars=no,resize=no')"
target="popup1" class="sidebar">How he got that shot: Joe McNally

Joe McNally, who has worked with celebrities such as Steve Martin, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer, began working with digital about two years ago-and in a big way. Using Nikon's consumer-level Coolpix camera, one of Steven Spielberg's dinosaurs from Jurassic Park 3 and a faux jungle background, McNally created the world's biggest digital print, roughly 65x43 ft.

Despite his splashy introduction to digital (the dinosaur image was displayed in Times Square), McNally's initial interest in the medium was as a potential teaching tool.

"I teach workshops on lighting for photography, so I thought that digital photography would be a good way to show, instantly, the effects of different lighting techniques."

When McNally finally decided to experiment with digital photography in his professional work, he used last year's Kentucky Derby as a test case.

"I wanted to test the camera's ability to shoot a fast event, to test image quality and to see if I could rely on it completely, without film."

After stellar results from his Nikon D1x, McNally was assured that digital photography could deliver the same quality as traditional cameras.

He then went on to use his digital ca!
mera to
shoot what will be National Geographic's first all-digital mainstream coverage. Though he can't yet discuss the details of the story, he stresses how much more involved the shoot would've been with a regular film camera.

"Instant viewing, on location, allowed me to see whether I got the shot I wanted...And my camera (a Nikon D1X) is very intuitive...it made the transition to digital practically seamless. It has good digital features, but isn't overloaded with useless ones."