Diving into Digital

Sarah Coleman

Lisa Wiseman captured this portrait, titled “3.31.08, Erica,” at night in a San Francisco park.

Last June, photojournalist Jeff Hutchens was deep in the heart of the Congo, shooting a story for CNN about the deadly monkeypox virus. The area was remote and lawless, with a crumbling infrastructure and cars that were “more rust than auto body,” Hutchens recalls. Yet within 24 hours, CNN had its images, thanks to Hutchens’ digital camera, portable satellite terminal, and the program Photo Mechanic.

Hutchens, who shoots regularly for CNN and the National Geographic Channel and who is one of this year’s PDN’s 30 “new and emerging photographers to watch,” didn’t always shoot digitally. Eight years ago, when he started his career, he did all his work on chrome slide film. He made the switch in 2005, he says, to gain the speed and convenience of transmitting work from the field quickly—and also because of the control digital technology gives him. “Shooting digitally allows me to more clearly realize the image I was envisioning in my head,” says Hutchens.

Even though he abides by journalistic ethics of not altering an image beyond basic contrast adjustments and some dodging and burning, Hutchens says that being able to handle his own post-processing helps him enormously in creating the “mysterious feel” that gives his images their unique look. “Before, when I was shooting film for magazine assignments, I’d just shoot the film and send it off,” he says. “I didn’t have that control.”

Like Hutchens, many young photo-graphers experiment with both film and digital technology, and although film has undeniable attractions—“You often have to drop down a level in quality when you start shooting digitally,” Hutchens says—more and more emerging photographers are opting to shoot digitally. Most choose to do so for the speed, efficiency, and creative control, even if they don’t have to transmit fast-breaking news stories from some far-off region of the world. We talked with Hutchens and three of his fellow PDN's 30 honorees—Toni Greaves, Corey Arnold, and Lisa Wiseman—about their experiences on the digital frontier.

TONI GREAVES STARTED shooting digitally in 2003, when she got the opportunity to photograph male rites of passage in the Samburu tribe of northern Kenya. “I’m not sure why I went with digital—I was probably just keen to try it at the time,” she says. However, now that she’s doing a lot of editorial work (she’s recently completed assignments for Time.com and Fader), she finds the digital workflow essential. “I love film, but I’m aware that if I was to shoot my stories with film, I’d have to deal with the time and cost of scanning my selects, removing dust spots, and so on,” she says. “And, really, clients expect work very quickly these days.”

Before submitting their work, both Greaves and Hutchens import their images into a photo-management pro-gram—Greaves uses Adobe Lightroom, while Hutchens prefers Photo Mechanic —where they make tonal and color adjustments and edit the shoot down to a couple of dozen “selects” before transmitting images to the client via FTP. “My clients generally give me an FTP address to upload the work to, or for smaller jobs with single images, I might just email them or use yousendit.com,” Greaves says. “I also have my own server and FTP access that I can use if necessary.”

For Corey Arnold, speed and creative control are only part of his motivation for shooting digital. Arnold, who also works as a commercial fisherman, start-ed gaining attention when his gritty, humorous photographs of the fishing industry were published online in 2006. “When you’re on a boat and you’re bouncing around, with salt water spray-ing everywhere, it’s good to be able to shoot a lot of frames without changing rolls of film,” says Arnold, who has recently shot assignments digitally for Outside, Men’s Health, and the Discovery Channel, though he still shoots most of his personal work on film. All of these photographers admit that digital technology comes with its own set of challenges. “You really have to be on top of your archiving process,” says Hutchens, who travels with two LaCie 320 Portable Rugged hard disk drives, mirrored so that whatever he backs up on one is automatically backed up on the other. Arnold says that, until recently, he was unhappy with the color sharpness and cast on his digital cameras. The latest cameras, though, “can duplicate the look of my medium-format film camera a bit better,” Arnold says. “The contrast is better, the colors are sharper, and there’s something special about how they throw the focus out in the background.”

Keeping up with the digital environ-ment doesn’t always mean updating to the latest professional gear, though. Recently, photographer Lisa Wiseman generated buzz in the blogosphere when she Web-published a series of photos shot on her iPhone camera. Taking the iPhone’s fixed size and resolution and “unique chromatic aberration” as a challenge, she produced a meditative series of neutral-toned shots in which light plays gently off sky, water, and textured flooring. She credits this series as one of the things that landed her recent Newsweek assignment to shoot U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan.

Hutchens has also experimented with nonprofessional equipment. In 2005, he shot a series of images about monsoon season in India with a point-and-shoot camera, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W7. His images held up against work by other pro shooters, winning an award in the White House and being hung in a show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. As he travels around the world, Hutchens has also been exploring digital video, trying to capture what he calls “the emotional intensity of constantly moving through different landscapes.”

THESE FOUR EMERGING photographers also use social media as part of their digital arsenal. Wiseman, Hutchens, and Arnold all have blogs on their Web sites, and Arnold and Hutchens have written guest blogs for other sites. “Blogging is really what’s driven my success,” says Arnold. “I’m kind of amazed by it, I didn’t realize the power of blogging and links. Now I often tell people that all you have to do is come up with one great project, then let the Internet do the rest.”

Wiseman, who also writes a blog, says she often uses Twitter to direct people to her site. “Twitter is the prime digital technology right now, so it’s a great tool,” she says. In his blog Dealing With Vagaries, Hutchens will often run his favorite outtakes from a published photo story. “With assignments, it’s so rare that the images you want to run are chosen,” he says. “With blogs, you can put up all your own favorite stuff. I love it!”

And although all four believe that digital technology has given them an edge, Hutchens, Greaves, Arnold, and Wiseman are also quick to point out that great technology is of little use without a creative vision. “The equip-ment is one thing, but ultimately, it’s about the image itself,” says Hutchens. Greaves agrees. “There’s no clear route to success in this business,” she says. “You have to figure it out your own way. Don’t be afraid of that. If you have a strong sense of vision and plenty of determination, you’ll find your way.”



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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