Doing Photography By The Numbers

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Jeff Huyck, a professional commercial photographer, recalls a funny thing happening when he and Susan, his wife and business partner, were pouring over the books at tax time last year.

Amid many triple, quadruple and quintuple-digit numbers in corporate expenses was an item for $5.97.

"What the heck is that?"

"Dunno. Let's check its code number."

It turned out to be a single roll of 35 mm color film — the only film Huyck Photographic Imaging used the entire year.

Huyck told the Business Journal he bought the film to take a few color shots which technicians could use in calibrating a new scanner for his studio at 968 Cherry SE.

But other than that, Huyck grins, he has no more use for film or photographic printing paper than for a coal scuttle. That's because in 1994 he and Susan took the firm into digitalized photography while most of the rest of the industry marked time.

Considering that the Huycks are parents of four little daughters, it must have seemed like diving into ice water. "Obviously I was more comfortable with film," Huyck said. "That's what I had been using for 15 years. So it took some adjustment."

It also took about $60,000 to acquire the necessary hardware and software, but he's happy now that he took the gamble. He said he and the firm have grown with the technology, so much so that competitors on occasion use him as a consultant to make the transition — a transition which is far less expensive today than in 1994.

"But you've got to keep updating," he said, noting that the firm soon will move into a fourth generation of equipment and software while opening a fresh avenue of promotion and advertising.

Huyck illustrates the new venue by furnishing visitors and clients with a CD-ROM disk.

The disk places a PC viewer in front of Forest Hills Central High School. From there, the viewer enters the building by clicking on one of several virtual entrances into rotating high-definition views of the computer lab, the pool complex and so forth. The viewer uses a mouse to control the full-circle rotation of each scene.

"We think something like this would be very useful to a developer who is marketing a condominium," Huyck said. He explained that the unit cost is well within any corporate promotional budget because, once photography and processing is complete, one can burn a CD for about $3.

Another feature swivels a chair on its base so the viewer can examine it from all angles. Yet another mouse trip takes the viewer step-by-step through the assembly of a studio camera — a feature illustrating how the process could be a guide for a self-assembly consumer product.

The computerized processing behind the CD . . . well, that's what's really new.

Now when we take in a roll of 35 mm film for one-hour processing, we're paying for the ultimate refinements of Matthew Brady's Civil War photo technology.

Huyck and others like him use a much newer process. To be sure, a digital studio's lighting and horizonless backdrop is the same as any other studio's. Too, the camera is a high-quality model with top quality lenses (Huyck says the digital cameras for sale in most department stores are at the point-and-click level of the industry).

But the studio camera has a blocky fitting connected by cable to a PC at the back of the room.

Huyck lights and shoots the subject, walks 10 feet to the computer table to call up the image and a light analysis chart on the PC screen. Within seconds he determines whether the shot is too light or too dark. If either, it's back to the camera for a second shot.

Using film for high-quality photography, Huyck explains one usually must take perhaps a minimum of a dozen shots and then wait hours or even days for the film processing. Only then can one take the negatives into the dark room and make test strips to determine their worth.

But Huyck explains that digital photography simply bypasses film and darkroom printing. "The client saves on the cost of film," he said, "but the real savings is in the cost of time."

The major expense in traditional top-notch photography is the time a craftsman spends in the darkroom producing the finished print. But at Huyck Photographic Imaging, the image goes direct from lens to PC screen.

"In the case of a few photos, the savings may not be that much," Huyck said. "But when you're shooting a thousand-item catalogue, the savings might make the difference about whether the client even can consider doing the project."

He did the photography and design for Klise Manufacturing, a company that produces an immense variety of wood molding. The catalogue contains 2,500 photos.

Huyck explained that because the client wanted to stress molding patterns, it was necessary to mute the color contrasts between wood types which meant custom treatment of each. "Dark room processing would have taken forever," Huyck said. "Without digital equipment I wouldn't have considered the job. And the cost probably would have been prohibitive for the client."

As it was, Huyck was able to program his software to do much of the muting automatically.

Computerization also lent the project a huge administrative time savings. Traditionally, catalogue layout involves many hours of shuffling photos, each with its own ID tag or identification scrawled on its reverse side.

But as Huyck processed each photo he simply saved it to disk with its own title and number, thus establishing a database from which he could work in laying out the product. No scribbling, no shuffling, no mismatched products and descriptions.

He taught himself this aspect of catalogue work earlier in his digital career when helping Amway produce foreign language product catalogues.

But even though photography has become highly technical, Huyck says it still is very much an art.

In fact, the Carson City native earned his bachelor's degree in fine arts from Alma College, though he stresses that, at best, he was a reluctant student.

"I saw no point in taking painting or sculpture," he said.

"At the time I just wanted to be out using my camera. I already could take pictures and that's all I wanted to do.  I wanted to get out of the program."

He stayed very reluctantly only at the strenuous assurances of a gruff old dean who told him it would all be very useful to him.

"He was right," Huyck grins.

He said the design elements of the curriculum have been invaluable to him, he said. Likewise, learning to see light and color through a painter's eyes. "Even the sculpture helped," he added.

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