Art Enabled: The Tech Behind the Curtain

May 10, 2012

Tags: Photography, Art, Technology, Studio business, HP, E-Publishing, Pentax 645D, Creative Suite 6, Pentax K5, HP Workstations, HP Designjet Z3200 Printer, Adobe, Photoshop, Lightroom, InDesign, Illustrator, HP MagCloud, Amazon, American Hands, Photo lighting, Hewlett Packard, Dreamcolor, HP, Adobe, Digital Publishing Suite, Soundbooth, Adobe Audition, CS6, Amazon, Smashwords, CreateSpace

by Sally Wiener Grotta

A number of years ago, Daniel and I were doing a series of profiles about professional photographers for the Lexar Media website. We had quite a good time meeting, interviewing and photographing some really fine artists and craftspeople. Mostly, we explored how they approached their subjects, the philosophy behind their work, the meaning that it had for them, and other concepts that defined the heart and soul of their pictures.

At an industry event, one of our associates told us that we really should include a certain photographer in the series. (I'll refrain from divulging his name to avoid embarrassing him. So, I'll just call him "John.") We didn't know John's work, but he was at the party, and our mutual friend introduced me. After a pleasant few minutes of introductory chatting, I asked, "John, what do you shoot?" Of course, I was looking forward to hearing about his passion for whatever subject was his focus. Instead, he launched into a technical diatribe about his camera equipment. I find such conversations quite boring, and when he finally took a breath, I excused myself to go join Daniel who was having a fascinating discussion with another photographer about, if I remember correctly, the famous Stalin-era photographs that had coarsely cropped out politicos who had fallen out of favor. (Stalin would have loved Photoshop!)

Needless to say, we never did write about John, and I'm still not sure what he considers his pivotal, most important work as a photographer. Perhaps, he has expended so much passion on the technology that he has nothing left for the art. Or, maybe I'm being unfair. Some people are better at creating than talking.

I am told no one has any doubt what my passion is as an artist. People and the connection that we are privileged to make with each other through art is my entire raison d'etre. This is true regardless of what form my art takes: my photography (as is evident in the narrative portraiture of American Hands), my storytelling and fiction , and yes, even my tech reviews. For me, the whole meaning of life (and art) is about people.

Technology is merely the means to an end, in the same way that tubes of paint or types of brushes are. A camera doesn't create a picture; the heart and eye of the photographer does. However, years of experience, of developing mastery over the process and tools, is key. When the camera is transparent, an instinctive extension of the photographer's mind and hands, then the photography can take flight.

Having said all that, I am often asked what tools I use. So, here's a quick rundown of some of the tech in my studio and camera bags:


  • My primary camera is a Pentax 645D *. The superb medium format optics provide an order of magnitude of quality above any DSLR. What's more, it gives me the amount and quality of image data that I need to produce the rather large (up to about 40" x 120") exhibition fine art prints that I create on my 44" HP Designjet Z3200 Photo Printer *. Mostly, it's a camera that fits me and the way I like to work. (My backup camera is a Pentax K5.)

  • What I'm enjoying about the HP Z3200 printer is that I can print on just about any material. Many of my American Hands exhibition prints are on canvas, but I'm experimenting with other media, such as spun silk. The Z3200 is a clear case in point where the tech under the hood is enabling the art. That's because it has a built-in color calibrator that automatically creates custom color profiles of any paper or media I use. The end result is that I get the colors I expect without the old frustrations of tweaking and reprinting . That means I can focus on simply making the pictures I have envisioned.

  • I use HP Workstations * with Dreamcolor monitors to process my pictures. (An HP Z800 and a Z400 in the studio and a portable HP Elitebook when out on a shoot.) Given the fact that my exhibition prints often approach a gigabyte in size, I need the workstations' powerful multi-core speed and tons of memory. However, my assistant Jake Rae (whose prints are much smaller) has admitted that, after using my workstations, he finds it very hard to go back to his common slowpoke desktop. The problem is that his desktop computer can't keep up with Jake and forces him to pause between brush strokes or other edits, while it crunches away at applying the previous task. As Jake has quickly learned, there's a lot of creative freedom when a computer simply and reliably performs faster than anything you can throw at it.

  • I am in the process of changing my lighting system, and once I settle down on a specific one, I'll get back to you on that. What amazes me is how compact transportable lighting is nowadays. What used to require lugging around enormous metal boxes (necessitating also having a strong assistant to help with the lugging) can now be packed away in a shoulder pack (long enough to accommodate three umbrellas and light stands). The small size of everything is also a big help given that I'm often shooting in cramped artisan workshops. What's more, the strobes communicate wirelessly with my camera, giving me easy control over light and shadow on a frame-by-frame basis.


  • Of course, I use Adobe Photoshop CS6 for preparing my images. But more and more, I tend to use Adobe Lightroom as the first step in my imaging, which gives me a quicker, better workflow. What's particularly valuable about Lightroom is that I am working on the RAW data that defines the image before it is converted to the pixel data of PSD, TIFF and JPEG files. (If you don't know the differences among the various file formats, I'll discuss that in a later posting.)

  • Though I test and write about quite a lot of imaging plug-ins (third party software that "plug into" Photoshop and Lightroom), only a handful of them make it to my own imaging workstations. The one that I can't do without is Nik Software Silver Efex Pro, for the precise, professional control it gives me over conversion to black & white and duotone images.

  • For creating DVDs of my photography (typically for grant committees and possible exhibit venues), I use Photodex ProShow Producer. However, my assistant Lori Ryan is now using Adobe Premiere Elements to create my American Hands slideshows that we will be posting on YouTube. What I find interesting is that though she is using the consumer version of Adobe's video editing software (rather than the professional version of Premiere), she is using Adobe's audio software Soundbooth for editing the voiceovers. Daniel and I will soon also be using Soundbooth to record our audio "chats" that we will be posting. (Or, we may upgrade to Adobe Audition CS6, because Soundbooth is being discontinued.)

  • I produce quite a bit of supplemental print and ePublished material, using a variety of software and services:

    • I work in Adobe InDesign and Illustrator almost as much as Photoshop. Specifically, they are the programs I use to create most of my exhibit signage and promotional material for American Hands and my photography master classes. I also use InDesign and Illustrator in the production of, postcards, trifold brochures, posters, flyers, etc., as well as to layout and prepare the glossy magazine-style American Hands Journal . The Journal (which is a print-only publication) is currently available via HP's MagCloud site, but I am preparing another version so it may be sold also on Amazon.

    • Initially, the first issue of American Hands Newsletter was published as an HTML email using However, Lori used Adobe InDesign to recreate it as a PDF that could then reside on my Website.

    • For preparing our novels and short stories for ePublishing and print-on-demand, Daniel and I write in Microsoft Word, and use the online tools from Amazon, Smashwords, CreateSpace and Lighning Source to do the eBook and print conversions. However, we are looking at Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite for publishing our how-tos on photography, imaging, printing and publishing as Apps.

In other words, it takes a lot of technology to run a creative studio and business. I insist that any hardware or software that interrupts the process of creation because it requires attention or is slow has failed and has no place in my life. In the end, all successful tech is about people, too enabling us to do what we envision.
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* Note: Pentax and Hewlett Packard are sponsors of American Hands, providing the equipment mentioned above in support of my narrative portrait project. Of course, those of you who know me realize that, no matter how generous a company is, I have no time for equipment that doesn't do a great job.