Goin’ Digital.

I love photography. I have since I was a kid. Back then, the big barrier to entry was the hassle and price of developing film and getting prints. This struck me this morning, because I was asked by my daughter to take pictures of her for a school project. She protested a couple of shots, feeling as if she wasn’t ready for the shutter to snap. I explained to her, that it didn’t matter – I could take as many pictures as we needed to get the right shot – the bad pics would simply be deleted.

Think about that in terms of film, and you’ll understand why digital photography is such a market-changing thing. With film, I would have to carefully set up each pose, and cross my fingers that I got the picture. If I wanted to be sure, I’d have to bracket (take several snaps of the same pose, with some slightly over- and under-exposed). Then, I’d be paying to develop ALL the pictures – good and bad – and then pick the ones I thought were good (based on a contact sheet of really small pictures). Bottom line, I’d spend a lot of money, with no immediate feedback as to the success of my photos.

Now consider digital. I get virtually instant feedback, on my little LCD screen. If I blow a shot, I can delete it at any time, and take another picture. My camera (a really nice prosumer Fuji) takes pictures that I can blow up to almost poster size without any loss of image quality. I can color-correct, image edit, or clean up each image on my computer in ways that would have cost a fortune just 10 or 15 years ago. That’s nothing short of amazing.

A few years ago (okay…in the late 80s) I was working on a poster for my then-employer, Micrografx. The shot featured a CRT and keyboard, with a mechanical hand reaching out to grab a real, live mouse, who’s tail morphed into a computer mouse’s cable. Today, I could do that all in Photoshop, inside about an hour. Back then…

I went down to our freelance photographer’s studio. He had a beautiful, big, ground-glass bellows camera, set up for studio work. He did a lot of photography for big catalogs, like Pennys and Dillards. We set up the monitor, keyboard, and mechanical hand on a continuous background (a sheet of Formica) on a couple of sawhorses. He had to take a long exposure of the screen with the lens open – no other lighting present – just to get the image on the screen to register on the film. Then it was time for the flash photo, to get the monitor bezel, the keyboard, and the live mouse on the film. Only the mouse wasn’t buying any of it. Every time that flash went off, that mouse got that “deer in the headlights” look and made a run for it. After blowing about 12 pieces of expensive, 8 x 10″ film stock, the photographer said, “Okay. This isn’t working. We’ve got two choices. We can either flash-freeze the mouse, or we can try an anesthetic.”

I asked about both processes. He replied, “With flash-freezing, we dip the mouse in liquid nitrogen. He comes out frozen. The advantage is that we get a solid pose. The disadvantage is that if he’s posed the wrong way when he’s frozen, we can’t repose him. He’ll break.”

I asked, “but how do we fix that? Won’t the mouse be hurt?”

He replied, “Yeah…he’ll be dead. But it will happen so fast he won’t feel a thing.”

Not a good plan. So I asked about the anesthetic. He went back into the darkroom, and came out with a brown paper bag and an object that looked suspiciously like a joint. He lit it, put the mouse in the bag, and blew smoke into the bag for a couple of minutes. Then we went to shoot again.

When the flash went off, the mouse looked up with this weird expression on his face…if I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn that he was thinking something like, “OH, WOW, MAN…the COLORS…Yo! Dude…do that AGAIN!” We took several shots, and in each the mouse was completely mellow, and staggered through the scene like a Barrymore.

[On a sadder note, our production assistant/mouse wrangler took the little guy home for the night, with the intention of taking him back to the pet shop, along with the mouse “habitrail”  she’d rented, to get our deposit back. She put the mouse in the habitrail and set the contraption on top of her refrigerator. The next morning, the habitrail was on the floor, and the family cat was smiling contentedly, with little tufts of mouse fur strategically positioned around his mouth. I couldn’t help but think that, if the mouse were still under the effects of the “anesthetic,” that at least his end wasn’t too traumatic.]

After the shoot, I had to take the chromes to a photo-editing house, where they scanned the image on a big drum scanner, then input the image into their Scitex machine. This forerunner of Photoshop cost a King’s ransom to own – and they charged a pretty penny to edit with it. The entire process took days, and cost hundreds of dollars.

To do that same shot today, I’d find a stock photo of a mouse (which would cost somewhere between $10 and $100) and probably do the same for the computer monitor/keyboard. I’d take my prop mechanical hand and shoot that with a digital camera. I’d import all the images into Photoshop, and add some artwork for the computer screen. After manipulating the layers with a Wacom tablet, I’d be done – in about an hour or so…two or three if I wanted to be really anal about the whole thing.

The bottom line here is that digital technology has given me a lot more direct creative control over my projects – and has allowed me to spend less time on the craft and more on the creative. From a marketing point of view, many things are changing in this same way. Cell phones make us all instantly accessible. The Internet has put an entire research library at our fingertips. Webcams make the video teleconference a reality. But along with that change comes a price. The market for pay phones, brick-and-mortar libraries, and conference centers is down. Way down.

So…what’s it like in YOUR industry? Are you about to see a pardigm shift take your market away? What plans do you have to evolve your business?

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