For my recent book, "Building a PC for Beginners" I would have to supply more photos than I ever had for a project. My initial estimate was for somewhere around 100 illustrations. By the time I was done, the number would balloon to 155. The book only had 128 pages. For the first time in my life, a book I did would have more photography than text.
This did not particularly faze me. Actually, I love taking pictures, and consider 35mm film to be an art medium, much the same as paint and canvas. While I am no great practitioner of the craft, I feel myself competent to illustrate magazine pieces I've done, always giving editors a good supply of shots to select from.
But the number of photos this would require worried me. You see, this would not be a matter of just taking 155 photographs. That would only be 5 or 6 rolls of film. When you look at a book, or magazine article, for every picture used, dozens are culled. Some photographers consider getting 4 keepers out of 100 exposures to be a good ratio.
Now, that's general magazine photography. Illustrating a how-to book is much more efficient, because all the shots are posed, and the lighting is controlled. If you bracket your shots for safety's sake, and do each shot from at least two angles, you'll probably get a usable picture. That would mean shooting at a 6 to 1 ratio.
A little math led me to a frightening conclusion. 100 photos in the book would mean 600 exposures. That means 17 rolls of film at $ 5 a roll. Getting local processing, so I know my negatives will not be scratched, is $ 12 a roll. That adds up to $ 289.
But, of course, that would not have been the actual bill. To get the 155 pictures I used would have necessitated 930 exposures at a 6 to 1 ratio. That would have me laying out $ 442 dollars for filmstock and processing.
Like most other folks who write, I've accepted that the wordsmith's life requires a vow of poverty. Actually, with me it has required a second job. The idea of spending hundreds of dollars on a book I had not yet sold was worrisome. I felt I was sure to get it back, but I did not know how long it would take. Plus, I really wanted to maximize my profit on this project.
In my heart, I knew what that would lead to. I'll shoot less film, and run more risk of not getting a good shot. I'd lower my standards for some of the pictures I selected, and quite possibly run the quality of the whole project down. My finished work might be unpublishable. As we all know, even if the quality of our prose sparkles, bad photos will kill a sale.
Lower quality was unacceptable. This was a how-to book. Pictures had to be sharp, and show the reader exactly how each step should be performed. Further, I did not want to reduce the overall number of pictures because of the subject matter. Building a computer for the first time is a daunting proposition for most people. I wanted no uncertainty in the reader's mind. More pictures mean more security for that first time builder, and less doubt as to whether they could finish the project.
Also, if the book looked easy to follow, there was a better chance of them carrying it up to the cash register, and plunking down some bucks. Think about it. What do you do when you go browsing through a bookstore? I bet you look at the front and back cover of a book, read the flap copy, and if that is good, read the first page. Then, you scan through the pictures.
The cover and the flap get you interested, but you make your decision based when the author can write clearly on the subject, and if the pictures bring out points you needed answered. If both jobs are done well, there's a good chance you'll buy the book. If one or the other is suspect, then you'll probably put it back on the shelf.
My writing may not win any awards, but I can tell how to connect part A to part B as good as the next fellow. Photography would make or break the project. I needed to find a way to do the job right, at a price I could afford.
Of course, the answer was fairly obvious. I needed to get a digital camera. Previously, I'd thought of buying one, but they seemed terribly expensive for cameras that I saw as having a limited capacity. To my mind, they were a rich person's toy, a glorified snapshot camera that could never give the results of film. Furthermore, they seemed fragile, with complicated circuitry, lenses depending on servos, and batteries that were drained after 50 shots.
I was tired of buying gadgets that broke down and had to be fixed. Computer repair is no problem for me, but cameras are a different world. If it went bad, all I'd be able to do is take it back to the store.
Perhaps, I'd never have "gone digital", were it not for one additional advantage these cameras would give me. If the shot was good, I'd know it right then. There'd be no waiting for film to come back from the lab. Through foul experience, I knew that even with bracketing my shots, and covering each step from two angles, mistakes could happen. An important part of the procedure might be blocked by someone's hand. A shiny surface might create a "hotspot" that would go unnoticed until too late. All kinds of things could go wrong.
I could redo blown shots later, but they'd require a lot of work. My plan was to do all the shots in sequence as each step in building the computer was performed. What if a shot of one of the early steps was botched? Say the pictures of mounting the motherboard in the case were bad. Everything that I installed in the computer after that point would have to come out. The hard drive, CD / DVD, floppy, cabling, all of it would have to be removed to re-create the shot I needed.
In all, it looked like time to go to the camera store. Fortunately, there was a sale on. There was a 3.4 megapixel Fuji available for under $ 100. The price seemed okay, and it did have a feature I wanted very much, a ten second timer that would allow me to hop in front of the camera, and get in the picture.
Do not get me wrong. I'm not some kind of egotist that wants to be in every picture in one of my books. But my hands would have to be. One problem of doing a how-to book is finding someone to be a hand model, performing the steps. This way, I would not have to rely on anyone else. I could set up a shot, and with the camera on a tripod, go ahead and do whatever step was called for, knowing that in ten seconds the shutter would click.
My first day with the camera went well. It was a bit of a challenge, getting used to a new piece of gear, however I did have the comfort of seeing those finished shots right away. They seemed good, but I knew the real test would be when I downloaded them to my computer, and got a look at them on a big screen.
The camera came with a program called FinePixViewer for downloading. I moved the shots from it to an older version of Corel Photo-Paint that I like to use.
When I opened the first shot, I was in love. Detail that I've never thought possible was there. I could read the tiniest print on the motherboard. Colors were rich and vibrant. Ideas for cover photos began to dance in my head.
The next test was to try them in black and white at 300 dpi, the way they would appear in the book. While I believed they would do well, experience has taught me to check everything, check it thoroughly, and check it early. Sometimes, richly colored photos turn a bit dark when converting them to black and white, but these were fine. I was really onto something.
My little camera hurt up saving me over $ 300. It performed exceptionally well throughout the project, and seems tough enough to handle many more, allay concerns I'd had about fragility. Every photo used in the book, plus the cover shot, was taken with the camera.