Stephen Johnson and digital photography breaking new ground ? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Stephen Johnson wrote: " I'm recording color in my photographs that escape film. Highlights are holding and shadows are opening up like never before. I am making the first archival color photographs of my career. Grain has vanished.". Judging by his photographs of the national parks, do you think that this has resulted in any good images which wouldn't have been possible before digital ? One situation where an extended dynamic range would be useful would be sunset landscapes where a grad filter is needed. Interestingly, looking at Johnson's photographs, I notice none of these.

Generally speaking, do you know examples of digital capture (I am not speaking manipulation) which has produced outstanding imagery which couldn't have been done on film before ?

-- Q.-Tuan Luong (, October 26, 2000


Have you also noted the length of the exposure times?

-- Ellis Vener (, October 26, 2000.

Yes, I know of one type of image done by digital backs that hasn't been done by conventional. The long scanning times for some of these backs have resulted in images with 'variable' blurring. This results as the scan takes a few minutes to create the exposure. With conventional films the lens is open for long exposures and we know blurring occurs, depending on what is moving in the breeze, water flow or whatever, on the whole image the whole time the film is being exposed to light. With digital scannnig backs, the scan is moving line by line and the blurring one sees with conventional film is impossible. You get 'jaggies' with these pixel by pixel as the back scans. If you use a one shot back you can't do a long exposure with the digital stuff.

-- Dan Smith (, October 26, 2000.

On the contrary, I only see a *lack* of photographs which would *not* be possible with digital. Can you imagine lugging a 7lb Powerbook in addition to all of your LF gear. Together with the inability of a scanning back to capture long exposures, LF digital has a long way to go. I recall seeing this website sometime last year and being very unimpressed. He does not seem to have added much since then. I wish those companies had sponsored me to bum around the NP system for 5 years!

-- Richard Ross (, October 26, 2000.

What does this guy mean by archival color? There is no such thing for color inks. Pat

-- pat krentz (, October 26, 2000.

I agree with Richard, I doubt there is anything LF digital backs can do, that film can not...yes, you may have to use negative film to match the exposure lattitude if desired. And like Ellis mentioned, the exposure times are outrageous... when I investigated 4x5 digital backs around 6 months ago, exposure times for outdoor scenes in bright sunlight were 5 minutes, and sunrise shots, about 30 minutes. In my opinion, taking 30 minutes for an exposure will produce an image that is very unlike what the viewer actually saw at the site. To me, this is similar to shooting film, scanning it and manipulating it in Photoshop. If you notice, he does shoot a lot of stationairy objects.

But if he is actually selling those prints for between $2 - $4k like he has quoted on his web site, then maybe someone should investigate why people are paying so much for them? I have not personaly seen any of his work, I would like to the comments of someone who has.

-- Bill Glickman (, October 26, 2000.

As a process, digital capture, plus post capture manipulation might offer a better solution to mixed lighting situations which might come up in interior photography. Of course there are always "analog" ways of solving the problem, but in this case, digital capture may be superior. No guessing on the film's response to funny light. Probably some advantage in being able to manipulate color channels independent from each other in this case. It might be better to think of digital as a new workflow to an end result. In this way, I don't believe it's fair to divorce the backend process from the capture. The other consideration is that "captures" will get smarter, and move some level of "manipulation" into the capture. The new Fuji pro SLR (S1?) tries to guess at a bunch of stuff (e.g. white balance) based on the capture.

-- Larry Huppert (, October 26, 2000.

I saw his prints at a gallery a couple of years ago. They looked somewhat different because of their low contrast and saturation (maybe that's the more accurate colors ?), and the fact they were printed on watercolor paper with the Iris gicle process.

By the way, my question is about the benefits of digital, not its current limitations, which are well known and might change in the future.

-- Q.-Tuan Luong (, October 26, 2000.

Yes, he's breaking new ground. The color "that escapes film" is so wondrous and new, it's like a color photograph has never been taken before. And, since we all know that sheet film enlargements are so grainy as to be barely readable by the human eye, we must praise digital for bringing us recognizable images. Get my drift? Egads, there's a place for digital, of course, it has many uses. But this? Come on guys. . . what sort of insanity is taking place that the minute gains in color accuracy (which, by the way, I'm not convinced about-what about all the variables in capture chips--->the monitor used to process image----->inks used to output) and shadow detail are thought to outweigh the advantages of sheet film's short exposure times and, AHEM, yep, LONG RECOGNIZED SERIOUS PROFESSIONAL IMAGE QUALITY???? Honestly, this is turning a molehill of digital "progress" into a dubious mountain of results. I guess I'm now supposed to look at my big 20x24 on the wall, from color neg 4x5, and suddenly convince myself that it's A) Not sharp. B) Grainy. C) Has no shadow or highlight detail. D) Pales in the face of the wondrous leaps and bounds that digital scanning backs have accomplished. Hmm. . .it's not working. . .

-- Josh Slocum (, October 27, 2000.

Stumbled into this discussion, but I do have some thoughts on Steve Johnson's work. I first saw his images in a magazine a couple of years back, and I thought they were stunning. The images on his website perhaps a bit less so, but it's quite impossible to present a 300 Mbyte image file as a tiny 30 Kb JPG.

It's not a matter of whether his prints are better than than those made by "analog" capture. It's the mere fact that he's working with a purely digital process, starting with a very high resolution digital capture, and doing so in the great outdoors.

I for one am impressed and excited by this pioneering work. Film still reigns, for now, for professional work, but it would be foolish for any serious photographer to believe that this will remain the case forever.

I've actually considered a low-cost version of this same scenario, using a Leaf Lumina. The main thing that kept me from pursuing that was the need to lug around a laptop and power source for the Leaf. (The Lumina is a scanning back for 35 mm format that gives a 27 Mb file and uses Nikon F-mount optics.)

Andrew Rodney claims that certain high-end area CCDs have better dynamic range than Ektachrome. I'm not quite so convinced of that. Even so, I envy Steve Johnson those digital captures... imagine not having to deal with the vagaries of film processing, wet chemistry, spots, scratches, dust, and film that won't lie flat in an enlarger or scanner. I'm looking forward to it, myself. But not exactly holding my breath.

-- Rafe Bustin (, October 29, 2000.

Apart from wide-area survey problems like chest X-rays and star catalogues, digital has completely taken over scientific photography. This is partly because of digital's convenience, but mostly because digital is linear, is easy to calibrate, and when the chip is cooled has enormous dynamic range. In technical and scientific photography it is trivial to find photos which could never have been taken before the advent of digital imagers.

In photography, sensitometric accuracy is not a major issue, but the ability of 16-bit digital to handle and portray high-contast scenes, and the ease and precision with which you can control highlight and shadow detail during printing, gives you a lot more options than dabbling with the toes and shoulders of silver-based materials.

Digital also frees you from the spectral response of sensitising dyes - although the science of those is also changing fast just now. Bye-bye colour crossover, hello bluebells which actually look like bluebells. Photography with non-visible light is much easier with digital: you can actually see to focus.

Traditional photographers tend to grump (or is it whine? :-) about the shortcomings of digital, and forget that they have simply got used to the shortcomings of film. It is also easy to forget that you are comparing a very mature technology with a very young one, even if you don't make the mistake of thinking the products in the photographic marketplace represent the digital cutting edge. If you want a crystal ball, take a look at the imagers on the Keck telescope, browse the photonics magazines at your local college library, and, if you're feeling brave, buy shares in polymer-based electronics.

-- Struan Gray (, October 30, 2000.

Just shot a commercial job with the old 8x10. An after sunset shot that required balancing the artificial lighting of the building, watered wet drive in front of it and the interior lighting as well as the light through the translucent awnings. I had a 2 minute window of light from the afterglow of the sunset where the sky did just what was wanted to balance & offset the black roof edges right above the translucent awning. I shot three negs of the building and all three looked good. The print for the clients wall is a 30x40 inch straight print.

If I had to wait around for a digital back to do the job I would have been lost. I shot it on 8x10 for two reasons. First, the large neg gave us the quality needed in the final image. Second, the 120 wide angle was the only lens I had that would give me the full building and sign.

Digital? Why would I spend all the extra for no gain? What would I have gotten for the $20,000 plus that I could not have done with the 60 year old wooden view camera & a few holders?

Just as we shoot what works, avoiding buying 'new & improved' just because it is 'new & improved' makes more sense to me. Why buy digital when the tools I have now are excellent and produce images to match? Buying new stuff just becauese it is new is as stupid as expecting people to be impressed with our images just because they were photographed with a big camera. It is still the images we show that count and no matter how much pleasure and satisfaction I get from the process & procedure involved in using LF, I still use 35mm for other things because it will do the job I want.

Right now I don't see anything Digital does that we cannot do with a 'real' photograph.

-- Dan Smith (, October 31, 2000.

This discussion raises a number of questions and comments.

The dynamic range is limited in a print. Film already captures more dynamic range than can be printed by any method, so what is the point of using digital to capture even MORE range, if it indeed is capable of that? We use processing controls (a part of the zone system) to compress the dynamic range into that printable on paper.

I believe that the even the highest resolution scanning backs don't begin to approach the resolution achievable with large format film and lenses. Don't even begin to argue that a digital process is going to give more detail.

Grain might be reduced because there is no grain. If the pixel is much much larger than the grain structure, as it is, then all of the grain variations are integrated out (averaged) over the pixel, and the pixel is printed smooth. Although at lower resolution.

I can think of no technical reasons why digital would be better as in most of these claims. The color response might be different, though. Though perhaps not necessarily better.

I think it is a long long time until film is replaced by imaging arrays. It is just too dense a recording medium. I do, however, think the wet darkroom for printmaking is quickly going away. I'm hanging onto mine, and still upgrading, for now and for some time, as a wet darkroom can be built much more inexpensively that that fancy computer, scanner and printer are going to cost.

-- John H. Henderson (, October 31, 2000.

I've looked at his web site and am singularly unimpressed with the images. I see little that is about the qualites of light much less dynamic range. Most of the color photos appear to be done between 8:00 am and 4:00 pm in fairly flat lighting. Everyone needs a gimmick, and if being a "digital pioneer" is his gimmick, more power to him. Haven't seen an image on his web site that would make me part with $$ to own it. The hook of being made totally in digital format really doesn't convince me to part with $$. I care about interesting images - not how they've been made. OK - the lone bush in Death Valley is nice, the rest? Yawnnnn....

-- steve (, October 31, 2000.

re: "What does this guy mean by archival color? There is no such thing for color inks."

Anyone have experience with the new Epson pigment printers like the 2000P? Epson claims their inks are archival.

From the Epson website they say: "Lightfastness rated 200 or more years before noticable fading occurs, in normal indoor flourescent lighting, under a glass frame, when using Geniune EPSON Archival Inks and compatible EPSON matte type papers. Under the same conditions, lightfastness rated at 140 yrs when using EPSON Premium Semigloss Photo Paper and EPSON Premium Luster Photo Paper. Results will vary depending on lighting conditions, humidity, color intensity, color range and print media."

If this is true, it has better archival properties than traditional color photographic processes. Didn't someone say in a post that the wet darkroom is quickly going away. Can't wait to see samples of prints done with this technology.

-- Larry Huppert (, October 31, 2000.

I certainly hope the photographs are not archival -- they're pretty boring.

-- Bill Mitchell (, October 31, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ