Whenever I spend time making photos with a Sigma camera, like the new dp2 Quattro, for example, it makes me slow down, think a little bit more about the overall composition, framing, and aesthetics of the image. In short, the nuances and quirks of the Sigma cameras helps me fine-tune my vision, and I strive to make each frame count. And the end result images are always a sight to behold, first on my monitor, and preferably, printed out in large format. It is a process that takes time; but the results are well worth it, thanks to the overall quality of the images.
That same feeling of value, permanence, and overall material importance is likewise encapsulated in my personal images made with DSLRs and interchangeable lens compact cameras in general. I choose to capture almost all of my images of family adventures on dedicated cameras with bigger sensors because these are moments that matter to me. And for me, the long-term image quality matters significantly more than the instant-sharing capabilities of a smart-phone snap.
And of course, with such a great variety of lenses available for DSLRs, there’s always a fresh perspective to be captured, from ultrawide, to supertelephoto, wide open for gorgeous background separation and bokeh, or stopped down for telephoto compression, or any of the many other at-capture effects and stylings possible with sharp lenses on big camera sensors.
I’ve been a photographer a long time and I’ll tell you flat-out: there’s never been a better time to create personal documentary photos with serious staying power. Even today’s entry-level DSLRs and ILCs—which can be found on sale and close-outs for just a couple hundred bucks—create images that blow away the results of pro-level DSLRs from the early ’00s that cost upwards of ten thousand dollars at time of release.
It is very easy to get caught up in the immediacy offered by pocketable gadgetry for snapping, tinting, and instantly sharing on social channels. But imagine, years from now, having to explain to your grown child that, yes, you wholly had the means to make, print and preserve high-resolution, high-quality photos of your time together during life’s greatest milestones, but instead, all that remains is a scraped and cobbled set of low-resolution cameraphone snaps with a bunch of tinted filters hastily pulled down off social channels after losing your smartphone where all the photos of your child’s first year were stored with no backup. Your moments matter. And so many of the moments worth making should be printed, framed, and used for personal photo books and projects, as well as shared socially on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. (And of course, backed up, and archived for long-term preservation.)
Over the years, I’ve made a ton of photos, both for my work, and of my personal journeys through life. And while my work photos matter to me somewhat; my personal photographs truly matter to me on a much deeper level. These are the places I have been with my family and friends, things I’ve seen and experienced, and the personal milestones we’ve celebrated: skiing in Big Sky and snowmobiling in a blizzard in Yellowstone, a honeymoon in St. Lucia, staying cliffside in Negril, helicoptering around Kauai, exploring historical towns in Portugal, whiling away lazy afternoons in the Burgundy vineyards, many visits to Cape May, NJ; the birth of my daughter, and every amazing step of the journey with her since.
And this is why I choose to make almost all my personal images with cameras with big sensors and sharp lenses. These moments matter to me, and I want images that will look fantastic not only on a tiny screen tomorrow, but also printed large five, ten, or twenty years from now. And this is why we have a regular editing, printing, and archiving regimen here in my family. Keep in mind that this is my workflow, and it works for me. Feel free to adapt or adjust to fit your life; but whatever you do, make sure you’ve got some sort of system of backup in place, because the memories and moments captured in your photos are worth it.
Raw plus JPEG, instead of Raw versus JPEG
Starting in camera, I always choose to shoot in RAW, plus highest-quality JPEG, as the image type and sRGB as the color space. This offers the highest quality ready-to-go images straight out of the camera for both quick web/monitor viewing, plus the flexibility of RAW image processing for advanced toning and adjusting when it’s time to edit and prep the selects for printing. (My local lab, like almost all consumer-oriented labs, works in 8-bit sRGB color space, so that’s the working color space for RAW images as well during toning and print preparation in Adobe Camera Raw and/or Photoshop.)
Some may argue that shooting both JPEG plus RAW is redundant, but I firmly disagree. JPEG is a universal file format for images, and it is viewable on almost any device with a screen now, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Most RAW formats are proprietary, and require specialized software for toning and conversion to more universal filetypes. As a long-term archiving strategy, it’s probably best not to have all your images in a filetype that may only have limited conversion and toning support some day far down the line.
When importing the images from the camera card, I use Adobe Camera Raw photo importer, and add descriptors to the filename, as well as applying some keywords and descriptions to the metadata, and import into a folder with a descriptive name. Again, redundancy in naming, tagging, and keywording is a good thing for cataloging/indexing/and keeping track of images. Lightroom, Aperture, iPhoto, Photoshop Elements and most other photo management/editing suites also have renaming/keywording/tagging options on import or during selection. (When I’m using my Sigma Cameras, I use Sigma Photo Pro for RAW Processing and export 16-bit TIFFs to the same source folder for final print/web toning and optimization in ACR, since the X3F RAW files are only compatible with Sigma Photo Pro.)
After import, we review the images, and make a set marked with Five Stars and other labels in Bridge, which will then be toned and exported as highest-quality JPEGs to be uploaded to the photo lab’s site and printed at 4×6 to be included in the current photo album.
This folder of print-ready images is saved both to the Main Family Photos folder on my computer, and is also then sent to my wife’s computer (usually on a USB drive) for her own set of final versions of the images for crafting into special photo projects including books, calendars, personalized Christmas cards, and so on.
And then, every few months, the most recent set of photo folders, both full takes, and the toned and print-ready select sets, are added to an archive drive that lives in the safety deposit box at our bank a few miles away from our house.
Now, you may think this is overkill, but I will tell you that despite having several external drive crashes as well as total computer failures over the past decade, I’ve lost very little in the way of personal photos and files along the way.
And even though the finished set of photos are stored on the Photo Lab’s server in an album, this isn’t a true online backup strategy, as there’s no clear way pull down the source files directly from the interface. So this is more of a service site, and a last-ditch recovery method, should all other backups collapse simultaneously.
In the past few years Cloud storage has seriously exploded in popularity. There’s a whole variety of service providers ranging from huge to niche: iCloud, Amazon Cloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, and many more that are custom-tailored to photographers and photo storage. Many offer robust add-ons like photo projects, web galleries, virtual storefronting and print fulfillment, and such; but as a back-up plan, should you choose a Cloud-based provider, the single-most important detail is that you can easily pull down your original files when you need to.
You should also research what happens to your data should you miss a payment or have an account enter a long dormancy period—sometime life gets crazy, and when it does, it’s too easy to miss a reminder email that your credit card on file has expired and the auto-draft hasn’t been applied, or you haven’t signed on for thirteen months (because how did that year go by so quickly!) and then what happens? Is there a grace period? A recovery period? How long before they consider your account abandoned? What happens should your Cloud password be hacked and all your files are maliciously deleted before you recover control? What sort of back-up of your online back-up does your Cloud provider offer?
Cloud computing and storage is great in many ways. It makes it very easy to hop across devices to work on images. But, it requires connectivity. When there’s network downtime or you’re otherwise offline, you just don’t have access to your data.
And while it’s easy enough to forget, while it is working perfectly, that Cloud really boils down to “your stuff stored on someone else’s servers, accessible only through a network connection”; when it doesn’t work, it can be frustrating, and even heartbreaking.
What to you may be several year’s worth of memories are just a series of blips and beeps to be wiped clean should your account payments not be kept up with your Cloud provider, or if you don’t log in for extended periods of time, or if someone else gains access to your Cloud password.
And even if you keep up with your end of things perfectly, be mindful of who you are entrusting with your data. Cloud Storage providers are a business, and businesses sometimes fail swiftly and without warning to customers. This last example really happened in terribly dramatic fashion to a company called Digital Railroad in 2008. Some photographers lost their entire archives in the process, as everyone was trying to salvage their data from the system at the same time!
In a nutshell, any backup plan is better than having no back-up plan; having a good mix of data redundancy and geographic separation ensures that should one plank of a backup path break, there will be others in place to neutralize or minimize the net data loss. If you’ve been talking about setting up a backup strategy but haven’t yet, find the time and get going with it!
Prints, Projects, Books, and Beyond
It is the greatest time ever for personal documentary work. Personalized photo books are easy to design and assemble based off templates or custom designed themes, and the printing and binding process of a carefully curated set of images with thoughtful words really elevates the presentation. The key to projects such as this is in the curation part—don’t try to cram every single image from the past two years into a photobook—think in terms of a narrative flow and choose images that hit the highlights.
And of course, Canvas and metallic prints offer alternatives to the traditional photo print, and look great hung on walls and displayed in large format.
And for video capture, the quality of footage captured through an HDSLR is usually leaps and bounds beyond what you’ll catch on a smartphone. (And of course, the native capture aspect is wide, not tall, when using an interchangeable lens camera!) Personal videos incorporating stills and video footage are a fantastic surprise element to celebrate a special milestone. iMovie, Adobe Premiere Elements, and many other free or economical movie editing programs make video and slideshow production a breeze.
Again, curation is the key—it isn’t necessarily about looping several hours of raw video footage and every single image in a library—find the key moments of both stills and video that best tell a story. An audio track can easily be assembled with Voice Memo clips from any iPhone or Android device to personalize the narration track. And the results when captured on a big sensor through sharp lenses will look fantastic on screens big and small.
There is so much creative power in our hands, thanks to incredible artistic tools for combining stills, video, and our imaginations. For example, each year I challenge myself to create a new video Christmas card for friends and family, and this one below, is still one of my favorite personal projects, combining time lapse and frame-within-the-frame effects. Having the flexibility to use a variety of lenses and focal lengths for this time lapse project really helped realize my vision.
The point I’m hammering home here is this: The better quality images you make, the more you can, and should, and will want to do with them. Today’s cameras, lenses, and editing tools make it the greatest time ever for making and sharing photographs that will last the test of time. Your moments matter. Make the most of them.