Michael Melford

A photographer who specializes in taking pictures of people, Michael Melford knows that getting someone to relax and feel comfortable in front of his camera is often a challenge. He has also found that digital cameras help him better interact with all sorts of subjects.

The reason is the instant image displayed on the LCD monitor. Photographers can take pictures and show them to their subjects, who can quickly see that they're not being embarrassed or anything like that. They begin to trust the photographers.

"Strangers who don't know you can be especially reluctant to have their photographs taken," Melford says. "They might let you take one photo if you're persuasive, but then they're done. Now, you take a picture, they see the photo on the back of the camera, and they're ready to do more. They gain confidence in you and get into the process. It becomes a great way of engaging subjects as you photograph them."

Another big advantage of digital is the ability to see right away that you've got the shot. This can be great for average people who aren't used to being photographed. They get tired and impatient with photographers who take a lot time shooting extra images for protection, something one often had to do when shooting film.

"With film, you had to meter, shoot Polaroids, and bracket like crazy to get the shot," says Melford. "Now you know from the first shot if everything is working. This is especially helpful when you're shooting strobes and mixing light sources. After just one photo, you know what needs to be changed. You do it, and you're done. It's a huge time and stress saver."

Michael Melford has been working with digital cameras for several years, but the first big professional project that he shot totally with digital was a story on San Diego for National Geographic Traveler in the early 2000s. Since working with a medium-format camera was a big part of his professional work, he shot this project with a Contax 645 and a Kodak digital back. Now his digital work is done mainly with a Canon EOS 1Ds. "I shoot a lot of wide-angle views, so having the full-frame 35mm-size sensor of the 1Ds is important to me," he explains. Most other digital SLRs have smaller sensor sizes so the wide-angle is cropped; you don't get the whole coverage of the lens.

He really got started with the digital process when he took a Photoshop workshop about ten years ago. Still, Melford does not consider himself a computer expert. "It's taken me years to get comfortable with the computer," he says. He adds that he relies on a computer guru, Don Landwherle, for a lot of the technical details.

For Melford, the biggest challenges to digital photography are editing and organizing the photos on the computer, and learning to make the digital images look the way he expects them to look based on this experience with film. "In some ways, digital images are better than film because they have more latitude for tonal details," he says. "But when the photo ends up in a printed piece, I don't always get the results I expect. I find the whole process of printing is hard...it's a learning process for all of us."

Overall, though, Melford finds the technology exciting. He says it makes him feel as if he's discovered photography all over again. "I feel like a kid in a candy store, with new stuff every day," he adds. "And the quality is amazing. The photography is always key and the eye of the photographer's vision is still very important. But I think my wife is getting annoyed with how much time I spend in front of the computer!"

—Text by Rob Sheppard, from Photography Field Guide: Digital Photography