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An Interview with Derrick Story (Digital Photo Hacker at Large)

by Kathryn Barrett
06/08/2004

When Joseph Nicephore Niepce snapped the first photograph of his courtyard in 1826, it required an eight-hour exposure. Suppose that just after beginning the process, Niepce realized he should have moved the table with the flowerpot a few feet to the left to better balance the photo's composition. The next eight hours would have passed rather slowly. Few things irritate a photographer quite as much as not "getting the shot."

Over the years, photography and the technology behind it have provided plenty of material for inventors and other creative thinkers to toy with, making it a natural fit for the hacker spirit. Today, the arcane knowledge, cumbersome equipment, noxious chemicals, and excruciating amounts of time and planning involved have been supplanted by the digital camera: point -- click -- instant photograph. But rather than signifying the end of invention, digital photography technology continues to make rapid strides forward. Even more importantly, it's given millions of amateur photographers tools to experiment and play with. Now they're discovering for themselves just what their creativity can yield.

Derrick Story, photographer and author of several books, including the recent Digital Photography Hacks, has a knack for bringing together photography, technology, and fun. In this interview, Derrick shares surprising ideas about where digital photography is today, where it's heading, and some of the exciting things regular people can do with digital cameras, from making movies to digiscoping. Listening to Derrick talk, it's impossible not to pick up some of his enthusiasm. The next thing you know, you're thinking about digital photography in totally unexpected ways.

Kathryn Barrett: Derrick, you've been interested in photography since you were eleven years old. You've written books on digital photography, worked for fifteen years as a photojournalist, and run your own photo business. What is it about photography that fascinates you?

Derrick Story: I think photography, and digital photography in particular, is a point of convergence for the analytical and creative parts of my brain. I have to be technical and imaginative all at the same time.

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I enjoy math and science, but I couldn't work in a lab all day. I like writing and the visual arts, but I don't want to starve. Taking pictures, and then writing about what I learned by doing so, has stimulated my mind and paid the mortgage. Or, to put it another way, has allowed me to reside in a two-bedroom home instead of the crazy house.

KB: Where do you think we are today in digital photography's evolution? Seems like at some point we have enough megapixels to get the job done. Is that it, or do you think the future is going a different direction than what we're seeing now?

DS: Well, we're not crawling anymore, but we've just taken our first few steps.

I hear so many people measure the progress of digital imaging by how it compares to silver-based photography, or "traditional" film work. That's not a very good measuring tool for a couple of reasons.

First, they are different media, and beyond picture quality, they are hard to compare. VHS didn't stop people from going to the movie theater, and digital photography isn't going to eliminate film. In fact, we'll soon experience a backlash where film is where it's at. It's just all part of the evolutionary pendulum swing.

Digital imaging, at least in the consumer world, is now becoming "photographic." The JPEGs are better, RAW is more common, and technologies like the Foveon sensor are getting traction. Our digital pictures are looking as good as film. And that's just in the actual imaging.

Because these photos are digitized, with file headers and all the goodies that come with electronic transmission, we're going to see new uses for the traditional snapshot. The Web allowed us to shop for just about any item in the world from the comfort of our homes. Digital imaging was a huge part of that revolution. Now camera phones allow us to exchange visual information that can be used in all sorts of ways -- from shopping for a car to saying hello from the Washington Monument.

These technologies are permeating every area of our lives, from scientific research to buying shoes. We're just hitting our stride.

KB: Now that digital cameras are outselling film cameras, what sort of effect will this have on the state of photography? And what about the computer side of the equation? If computers are necessary, could that hurt widespread adoption?

DS: I think photography is on the rise. It's so instantaneous. You take a picture with your digicam or camera phone, and then you look at it. "Hey, that's great; I'll keep it," or "OMG I look I've just been beat with an ugly stick; trash that picture now!" It all happens within a matter of seconds.

You don't need a computer for digital photography, although I find them quite helpful. But for example, my sister takes photos, puts the memory card directly into a printer, outputs a few snapshots, then files the card away. Memory cards are cheap enough where you can do that if you want. I can't get her to return my email, but she is totally digital when it comes to photography.

In general, we don't write letters anymore, we hardly know our family history, we don't sit around the dinner table and tell stories, but we do like to take pictures. And thanks to the metadata embedded in the files, those pictures are our living history. Photography is going to become more ubiquitous than ever before.

KB: I'd love to know what your favorite cameras and the software you use. There's so much to choose from out there; it really gets confusing. What advice would you have for someone about to purchase a new -- even a first--digital camera?

DS: Ah, there are so many ...

I enjoy playing with cameras from all of the major players. Each of them has a slightly different feel.

But when it's time to spend my own money, I usually buy Canon, Contax, and Olympus. I seem to resonate with cameras from these three companies. My current Digital SLR is the Canon EOS 10D. It's great. I really like its feel and the image quality is terrific.

In the midsize realm, the Olympus C-5050 was a great moment in Olympus history. It's built-in zoom lens is a fast f-1.8 on the wide end, it takes three different types of memory cards, has great image quality, and feels very good in the hand.

There are two compact cameras that I'm currently hooked on. The Canon Digital Elphs are phenomenal machines. I have an S400 right now, and it is so compact and versatile. When I'm traveling, I feel very confident having that as my only camera in my backpack. It's that good.

I'm also liking the Contax SL300 RT*. This little guy is totally addicting. Not only does it take great pictures, it is very responsive and shoots full-frame, full-speed movies until the memory card fills up. Incredible. When I travel with it, I put a Palm Tungsten T2 in my other pocket, and view the pictures from the Contax on the Palm. That's because of the SD memory card that is compatible with both devices. It's all way too much fun.

Derrick Teaching
Derrick teaching at a digital photography workshop.

I also use the Contax for QuickTime movie making. I just finished a piece that I'm going to show at the Digital Storytelling Festival in Sedona, Arizona called The Potting Bench. I shot all the scenes with the Contax (at 640 by 480) and recoded the audio with an iPod configured with a Griffin iTalk. Even though the Contax records audio too, it's too noisy for my taste. I then synched the iPod audio and Contax video. The short movie turned out quite well. A whole movie rig that fits in my two back pockets!

As for software, well, I'm a Photoshop CS, QuickTime Pro, and iPhoto guy most of the time. I can do just about anything imaginable with these three applications.

KB: Do you print your own pictures? And if you do, what do you use? Or better yet, if you don't, how do you get prints of the pictures that you want to display outside of the computer?

DS: To tell you the truth, I hate printing pictures. And I never know what to do with them afterward. I usually end up stuffing them in an envelope and sending them to someone else.

When I do print, I use a Canon i80 inkjet or send them off to Shutterfly or Ofoto.

But I'd rather show you what I've just done on my 17" PowerBook screen. The colors are outstanding, and I can add transitions, music, and organize the images in a number of compelling ways. Plus, my desk stays nice and clean and I don't have all of this paper lying around.

I truly enjoyed the darkroom earlier in my career. And despite the brain cells I sacrificed whiffing Rapid Fixer all day, I learned volumes about how to manipulate photographs. I can apply that knowledge to Photoshop, which was created by two brothers who had an extensive darkroom background. I'm right at home with all of the metaphors, such as dodging and burning. But now, to tell you the truth, give me a comfortable couch and a PowerBook, and I'm a happy guy.

KB: Your latest book is called Digital Photography Hacks. Most people think of "hacking" as something computer-related, that is, something you do with code or computer hardware, but it's usually not associated with digital photography. What gave you the idea for Digital Photography Hacks and what sort of hacks are involved?

DS: Well, I'd love to take credit for the notion of digital photography hacks, but that belongs to Dale Dougherty and Rael Dornfest, fondly referred to as the Dale and Rael Express. Rael called me about the book, and I'm glad he did.

"Hacking" is really nothing more than creative problem solving, and there's room for lots of that in photography. I loved working on this book. It satisfies my boyhood craving of figuring out how to stick stuff together to make something new.

In all honesty, I'll be very surprised if people don't have a ball with this book. It covers everything from wild ways to capture images, to processing tricks, to putting them in motion. If I saw this book on the shelf, I'd buy it.

KB: The Hacks books in general seem to be written for power users and people that are somewhat technologically savvy. Do you have to be a digital photography expert to get something from Digital Photography Hacks?

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DS: No way! But I recommend that you have a playful spirit and a desire to create images that are more interesting than those from your peers. All you need is a camera and some time to play. This book will send you on your way from there.

KB: We've talked about the different kinds of digital cameras out there, including your favorites. Does your book pertain to only certain makes and models of cameras? And what about software?

DS: Well, let's start with software. This is a truly cross-platform book (Mac/Windows). So the software we use works equally well on both platforms. We focus on Photoshop Elements, Photoshop CS, and QuickTime Pro. All work great on Macs and PCs, and you can exchange their files across platforms. I do introduce some shareware here and there. But I didn't want to spend a lot of time saying things like, "If you're on a Mac do this, and on Windows do that." As a result, this book gets down to business quickly, and it doesn't make any difference which of the two platforms you prefer.

As for the cameras, it's all over the map. We love 'em all!

KB: You've told me that Digital Photography Hacks will show people how to extend the life and functionality of their existing cameras, but that almost sounds too good to be true. To what extent can this book really help people with older cameras? Is there a certain point when they just need to bite the bullet and realize that they need a new camera to get the kind of functionality they want?

DS: New cameras are always fun, but sometimes difficult to justify. So while we're scheming on getting the latest and greatest, we still have to move our craft forward. And that's where hacking comes to play.

Let's say, for example, that you want a new camera because you need more megapixels to make bigger prints -- a perfectly legitimate reason. But since the boss has been a bit tardy with the big promotion, you have to get by with your current three-megapixel model.

In the Hacks book, we spend a fair amount of time showing you cool ways to seamlessly stitch multiple pictures together. So by combining four three-megapixel images together to make one print, you've really extended the capability of your camera. That's cool.

KB: You've brought up camera phones a couple of times in our conversations. I know you dedicated an entire chapter to them in Digital Photography Hacks, but I'm not sure why. Seems to me like they take pretty bad pictures. What's the big deal?

DS: The best digital camera in the world is the one you have in your pocket when you need to take a picture. And more often than not, that's going to be a camera phone. Plus, their picture quality is just going to get better and better.

In the meantime, the trick is to squeeze every drop of quality and versatility out of these devices. And that's what we show you how to do in the camera phone chapter.

They're actually quite fun once you hack on them a bit.

KB: You sound like you really enjoyed writing this book. What part turned out to be the most fun?

DS: I had a great time with the entire project. But surprisingly, I think I enjoyed writing and editing the Photoshop chapter the most. So often, digital photographers have to endure all sorts of stuff they don't care about when studying Photoshop. That's because graphic designers, web producers, and people in a host of other skill areas use this application as well.

But in Hacks, it was all digital photography. Fun stuff like how to straighten slanted horizons, brighten teeth, and hand color without slopping outside of the lines. There are 13 hacks in the Photoshop chapter, and I think each of them is very useful and way cool.

KB: While you were writing this book, did any hacks emerge that took you by surprise?

DS: I think the one hack that just amazed me was how to use the History Brush in Photoshop to create a Marshall Oils look. A friend who was in a college Photoshop class turned me on to this hack. And I still remember the night when I first tried it and exclaimed out loud, "Dang, this is cool!"

KB: And along those lines, do you have any favorite hacks?

DS: I'm excited about the QuickTime hacks, because I want people to know how to better manage that part of their digital photography. I've wanted to write a QuickTime book for some time, but haven't got one off the ground yet. So I put some of my favorite things, such as using your digital camera as a camcorder, then post-producing the videos later in QuickTime, in this book. I have a real fondness for that stuff.

KB: You also mentioned that many of the hacks in the book involve hooking things up to a camera? Can you give us some examples? What sort of unusual sorts of attachments or hacks would we find in your camera bag?

DS: Readers are going to learn about the fascinating world of digiscoping. And I'm going to leave it at that :)

Kathryn Barrett is a founding member of the O'Reilly PRBGs (don't ask) and guest FYI blogger.


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