Spring into Digital Photography (Interview)

Rip Noël & Joe Jaynes. [Photo courtesy of Abacus Arts.]

Joseph Jaynes and Rip Noel are partners in Abacus Arts, Inc., a boutique web development and hosting firm that also offers high-end digital media production. The two have collaborated on a book called Spring into Digital Photography, where Jaynes “mostly did the writing” and Noel “mostly did the shooting.” I interviewed the authors about their thoughts on the digitalization of photography and the skills that aspiring photographers need to acquire.

Wayne: You seem to be broad ranging in your book: from principles about composition, lighting and colors to thoughts about printing and image manipulation. Additionally, the way you organize it seems to encourage readers to use and keep it like a reference. What concept for the book did you have when you were writing it? What need in the photography book space were you trying to fill? Can you talk about how you two came to partner on it?

Joe: Our book is part of the “Spring Into” series from Addison-Wesley, and as such follows the design guidelines and editorial goals of the series. Topics are presented in short, easy-to-follow segments (or “chunks” that reduce the issues to their core components and get you working immediately.

Our target audience is broad: from novice photographers who need to begin with photography fundamentals (Section 1), to more experienced photographers who may have been shooting film for quite a while and are making the transition to digital. The chunking approach makes it easy to consume topics you need, and skip those you don’t.

Most other books on digital photography miss the “big picture”: namely, that getting the results you want is more about process than it is about gear (whether hardware or software). That’s why we cover how to shoot well first; how to manage digital color; how to optimize for screen viewing and for print (which are entirely different beasts); and how to manage your digital workflow. It’s not about what camera you use, or what version of Photoshop you have; it’s about using your tools wisely from capture to optimization to display to archiving in ways that yield great results.

Wayne: In what ways has the move to digitalization renewed interest in photography and image capture? How has digitalization improved the photography of the average consumer? How has it made it worse?

Joe: Digital photography offers at least three compelling advances over film that has re-energized public interest in photography. First, it provides immediate feedback on your shots, so you know instantly whether or not you “got the shot” that you intended. Second, it dramatically reduces the cost of consumables during shooting: it costs no more to shoot ten shots than it does to shoot one as long as there’s free space on your memory card. This encourages creativity and experimentation. Third, digital photography puts amazing creative power within everyone’s reach during post-production. The “digital darkroom” is open to anyone with a computer rather than being limited to those who could afford the time and expense to operate their own wet-chemistry darkrooms.

The downside is that some photographers may feel they spend more time at the computer than behind the camera. We think the tradeoff is more than worth it for the results that you can achieve, but not everyone agrees.

Wayne: With sections like “Artistry Requires Mastery” and “Visual Pushups,” you seem to encourage practice in the pursuit of perfection. Some photographers like to teach their students to shoot “loose,” meaning intuitively. When is it helpful to think more intuitively versus making your practice more structured? How should new photographers push themselves out of their comfort zones in order to acquire new skills?

Rip: You must be able to shoot instinctively, without having to think in detail about what you’re doing, if you ever hope to produce art. Otherwise, the mechanics of the process get in the way of creativity. So the purpose of practice and doing pushups is to develop sufficient skill with your tools that you can then use them without thinking about using them. That’s the only way you’ll ever be free enough to “shoot loose.”

In addition, practicing when there’s no pressure to produce something significant helps you develop an instinct for knowing when you’ve “got the shot” and when you need to keep shooting. That only comes with experience, and it’s much easier on the nerves to gain that experience when there’s no client, deadline, or budget to worry about.

Wayne: Can you talk about how you use photography to complement your ability to market your writing? How possible is it for someone to be good at both writing and photography, and what kind of “growth plan” would you recommend for a writer/photographer? Anyone you admire who you think is great at both?

Joe: Our book and our business flow from a collaboration of complementary skills: by and large, I write and Rip shoots. In my experience, individuals who excel both verbally and visually are very rare. We both benefit from bouncing ideas about writing and images back and forth, and the end product is stronger as a result. If you can find a collaborator who complements your skill set, then that’s the ideal arrangement.

If you write and shoot alone, then I recommend finding a great editor as the next best thing to having a co-author. A second pair of eyes always makes things better. And expect to re-write and re-shoot to refine your work. You never get it right the first time. Ever. The old adage about writing is true: “If I’d had more time, I would have made it shorter.”

Wayne: If you could have added more to your chapter “Expanding Your Vision,” what other principles would you have added? Are there certain photographers you admire whose collections you think would be useful in educating the eyes of new photographers?

Rip: Familiarize yourself with the work of giants like Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Edward Weston, Irving Penn, etc. Find photographers whose work you love, and look long and hard at their images. If you can find a way to work with them, take advantage of it. Photography is an art, and art is best learned by apprenticing for masters. Look for visual mentors whose vision resonates with your own – not to copy them, but to see how they see. Stay in tune with current trends by subscribing to publications like American Photographer and Photo District News (PDN).

Wayne: I enjoyed reading your equipment (camera, printer, lighting equipment and computer) recommendations, especially how you and Rip made recommendations for different “growth paths.” Why did you suggest the Nikon Coolpix 5700 as a camera for the serious amateur? The Nikon D100 for the professional?

Joe: The gear-bag appendix gives readers a look at what we owned when we wrote and shot the book. I don’t “recommend” the Coolpix 5700, it’s just the camera that I own, and Nikon has stopped selling it now. Rip has since upgraded to a D2X since we wrote the book. But the general principals about what equipment to invest in remain constant.

Serious amateurs should look for a camera that captures RAW files, not just JPEGs, since JPEG compression results in loss of image data, regardless of how “fine” a quality you select. They should seek a camera that offers substantial optical (not digital) zoom if they don’t have the option of changing lenses. They should seek a camera with writes to memory cards quickly and has a big buffer so they don’t miss shots while the camera is saving images. They should look for a camera that has a hot-shoe for supplemental flash, to avoid the problems and creative limitations that most on-camera flash units create.

Anyone who is serious about getting great results also needs to invest in color management: first, a calibrator for your monitor, then ICC profiles for your printer and your camera. You can’t trust your eyes until you get all the devices in your workflow calibrated and profiled.

Lastly, you need to own, and more importantly, to USE, asset management tools. It’s just too easy to become overwhelmed with data if you don’t deal seriously with asset management from the get-go.

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2 responses to “Spring into Digital Photography (Interview)

  1. Nice interview Wayne ! These are well posed questions which feed right into Rip and Joe’s ideology.

    This has whet my appetite and now I’ve got to read this book.

    Thanks,
    Bart

  2. It seems everyone who publishes a book for beginners starts with “It’s not the equipment” but turns around and concentrates primarily on technology and technical processes.

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