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A Digital State of Affairs


Neal Rantoul

Neal Rantoul

For this new column I decided to write about critical issues in the world of teaching digital photography. There are many, of course, so I started asking my students at Northeastern University in Boston what was on their minds. I also talked with my colleagues and to Bruce Hamilton, who’s in charge of our technical facilities, about what our program’s needs are now, and what they will be in the near future.

First: some full disclosure. I am a photo teacher who grew up in a different time. There was no choice of digital in 1973 when I got my MFA. But now in my studio, I have a whole setup in place, with scanners and printers and a powerful computer with a large monitor for viewing. On the other hand, students have a small room in the dorm or apartment and a lab at school to work at—in other words, shared equipment.

Sarah Levine, untitled

Sarah Levine, untitled

My students are concerned with the technology they are dependent upon. Some more than others, of course, but they all are concerned with such matters as what things cost, how quickly what they’ve just bought is made obsolete, where they’re putting their increasingly large files, and so on. All of them are laptop dependent and carry their whole lives on their computers, storing tunes, videos, movies, software, imagery, emails, correspondence, blogs, calendars, term papers, slide shows, as well as a ton of software.

All of them complain about how their hard drives are hopelessly inadequate for the task, and they all want larger hard drives built into their laptops. They also talk about how they are now capturing imagery in larger and larger file sizes, and how that is a double-edged sword. Add several layers to a 12 megapixel file and you could be working on one image that is well over 100 MB. All that adds up to a storage and file management problem.

"You Only See What You Want To See," photograph © Zach Vitale

“You Only See What You Want To See,” photograph © Zach Vitale

Many of our students shoot with Hasselblad cameras our Photo Program provides. This gets them addicted to the square format. However, no one makes a DSLR that allows them to work square. They want an affordable DSLR camera that lets them shoot square without being tethered or paying $10,000 for a digital back.

While we do teach students about the necessity to back up their image files, few seem to really have this together enough to actually do it responsibly. We are now teaching Apple’s Aperture and starting in the fall will also teach Adobe’s Lightroom. These are image management programs designed specifically to address the problem of how to find, rate, backup and organize extensive libraries of image files. I believe that teaching these applications will go a long way towards making sure students get their work organized at the very beginning.

Photograph © Sarah Levine

Photograph © Sarah Levine

One student went on about how the lenses for his Canon camera were either poor quality or too expensive. Perhaps that’s because chips are getting bigger and better, but the optics are not improving enough to keep up. In an analog environment, camera manufacturers have been able to get away with less quality, since film doesn’t have as much resolution as digital. Lenses will clearly have to improve.

"Game Over I Win," photograph © Zach Vitale

“Game Over I Win,” photograph © Zach Vitale

My students do seem to lust after the full-chip Canons, like the EOS 5D. They use their cameras to make every kind of picture, from studio to sports to portraits, snapshots and landscapes. Therefore, they have to be flexible, and produce a big enough files so they can make large, noiseless prints. DSLRs also need to be quick, so they can shoot reactively, and hopefully they will last at least two or three years without becoming outmoded. They need to be sturdy, as our short semesters don’t allow time for a repair job. And students, like pros, often dislike new hardware and software, as learning new systems disrupts their workflow, though, in fact, they are quick to learn new equipment and methods.

Photograph © Sarah Levine

Photograph © Sarah Levine

Our students use various methods, including their laptops, for moving files around and bringing image files to work on in the school computer lab. Some use CDs and DVDs, though they worry about their reliability and permanency (particularly DVDs). They prefer portable hard drives, or their iPods (of course, they all have one), and a lot of them use flash drives because they are cheap and practically universal, though not suited for long-term storage.

A sensible and workable printing strategy remains a challenge for our students and our program. We have recently switched to color laser printing in our intro classes to allow students to make inexpensive work prints for assignments. Final prints are then made through our own service bureau (below). We also have a bank of Epson 2400’s that have proved very good when running, but have needed extensive repairs.

"Please Listen To Me," photograph © Zach Vitale

“Please Listen To Me,” photograph © Zach Vitale

To make their lives easier, many students simply buy their own printer and use it with their laptops in dorms and apartments. This is an ideal solution for them—and for the department. For example, an Epson RX 620 will print beautiful 8 x 10s, and it comes with a set of ink cartridges, for a total cost of $130.00. One set of inks alone for the Epson 2400 is almost $100 and the student doesn’t get to own a printer.

For larger prints, we also function partially as a service bureau. Students can deliver their image files to a trained student technician in the stockroom, where we have an Epson 9800 driven efficiently by an Image Print RIP. Images are then gang printed on 44-inch wide paper, trimmed, and delivered to the student a day later. Our “service bureau” charges $7 per square foot, just enough to reimburse the department for the cost of ink and paper.

Photograph © Sarah Levine

Photograph © Sarah Levine

In our future, I see increased use of laptops as the students’ sole computer, and we are requiring new students to buy one in the fall, with common specs and at an attractive price arranged by our school’s computer store. We will supply a work area, desktop computer, large monitor, scanners, and printers to support the student laptops.

Many students will manage to buy the latest DSLRs, as we migrate to an all-digital program. Right now, we supply most of the film-based cameras for students, as we can’t rely on them to have one anymore, and we have Nikon D70 and D80 DSLRs that students can check out. We are presently about 25% analog, but will eliminate this soon. Conventional black and white photography will still be taught, but will be included in our alternative processes course.

"Sweet Success," photograph © Zach Vitale

“Sweet Success,” photograph © Zach Vitale

Our photography program’s transition from a film-based facility to an all digital system is ongoing, with plans in process to gut our wet labs soon. The photographic industry and professional applications have driven the change, motivated to a great degree by increased profit through new and expanding markets. Our students have been quick to change. But like many photography programs, it’s been a struggle for us to make the conversion.

So many programs are encumbered by darkrooms requiring large physical spaces filled with archaic equipment. It is time to clear out the old, and start anew with modern tools. The craft of photography is almost totally different now. I believe we cannot responsibly launch students into the new environment at graduation having been trained using a photographic infrastructure based in an earlier time.

Photograph © Sarah Levine

Photograph © Sarah Levine

Photograph © Sarah Levine

Photograph © Sarah Levine

Photograph © Sarah Levine

Photograph © Sarah Levine


"The Yolks On You," photograph © Zach Vitale

“The Yolks On You,” photograph © Zach Vitale

Thanks to the following current and former students in preparing this article: Danielle McCarthy, Zach Vitale, Jon Sneden, Jaxon White, Renee Spicer, Julie Schober, Shannon Kelleher, Mike Thom. And thanks to Bruce Hamilton, the master of all photographic tech.

As always, I enjoy your comments and can be reached at: nrantoul@comcast.net.

Neal Rantoul is professor of photography at Northeastern University. He has an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. Last year, Pond Press published Neal’s monograph AMERICAN SERIES to critical acclaim.

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