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Sports Illustrated's digital workflow - Continued

In 2003, Sports Illustrated's photo department processed 1,028,000 digital photographs shot by staffers or freelancers under assignment. In 2004, an Olympic year, they estimate they will process closer to 3 million. Though a small amount of the work done for the magazine is still shot on film, the vast majority of its photography is now digital.

The switchover began in earnest in the second half of 2002, and it was Canon's EOS-1D that really made it possible, says Phil Jache. That camera provided the combination of framing rate and image resolution necessary for the magazine's day-in, day-out demands, and the large majority of SI's staff images are made with it. The magazine's 19 staff photographers also make heavy use of the EOS-1Ds, and lighter use of several other models, including the EOS 10D, the Nikon D1X and, more recently, the D2H.

Staff photographer Bob Rosato's collection of gear is fairly typical. To a football game he takes four or five EOS-1D bodies and 600mm f/4, 400mm f/2.8, 300mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, and 50mm f/1.4 lenses. For basketball, he adds five or six EOS-1Ds cameras and dispenses with the 400 and 600mm lenses. Of the ten or so camera bodies that he takes to a basketball game, many are of course mounted overhead or around the basket for remote operation.

Rosato controls the basketball remotes with up to ten of LPA Design's Flash Wizard II units, which are designed specifically for syncing multiple cameras to one set of strobes. (He and other staffers still use a few remoted Hasselblads at basketball games and say that nothing else looks quite as good.) For his non-basketball remote setups, Rosato carries eight PocketWizard MultiMAX transceivers.

Staff photographer Bob Rosato prepares his photo gear in advance of a Duke University basketball game on March 6, 2004 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Doug Keese)

One obvious reason why Rosato favors the 1Ds for hoops games is that the penalty for its higher resolution the slower frame rate and more limited buffer is irrelevant. SI shoots basketball almost exclusively with rafter-mounted studio flashes, which don't recycle fast enough for high frame rates. But another advantage, he says, "is the [1Ds] color balance looks more pleasing than the 1D when you're using strobes."

Rosato's current laptop is a Dell Inspiron 8100, but the standard Windows machine that the magazine is now issuing is the same 1.5GHz Pentium M IBM Thinkpad T40 that was used in the Super Bowl trailer. Rosato also carries a 40GB SmartDisk Firelite FireWire external hard drive, at least two Lexar FireWire CompactFlash card readers and a LaCie 4X external FireWire DVD writer. He uses Apple DVD-R media in the writer. Like the other staffers, Rosato has been assigned 25-30 Lexar 512MB and 1GB CF cards in speeds ranging from 24X to 40X (with a few 16X cards still floating around).


Covering Super Bowl XXXVIII: Peter Read Miller, SI staff photographer (kneeling, tan shorts) and Max Morse, assistant to Read Miller (kneeling, blue jeans). (Photo by Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated)

About half of the staff photographers prefer Macs, and the magazine has in the past issued them 14-inch iBooks with 700MHz G3 processors, 640MB of RAM, and 20GB hard drives. Phil Jache says that they plan to switch to 15-inch Powerbook G4s with 1.25GHz processors, 1GB of RAM, 80GB hard drives, and DVD-R/CD-RW SuperDrives.

The magazine expects both staffers and freelancers to shoot in RAW+JPEG mode whenever possible and RAW with cameras that can't shoot both simultaneously. Other recommended settings and practices have been developed in an ad-hoc fashion, says Jache. They include formatting CF cards in camera before each use, setting custom white balance with a gray card, limiting the EOS-1Ds to ISO 800 or lower, and limiting the Nikon D1X to ISO 640 or lower. (The photo department's web site,, offers settings recommendations for several Canon and Nikon digital SLR cameras.)

The magazine also likes both Canon and Nikon cameras to be set for the Adobe RGB color space: Color Matrix 4 on the EOS-1D and EOS-1Ds, and Color Mode II on Nikon digital SLR models. They also recommend normal tone compensation, rather than auto, for Nikon cameras, and sharpening off for all cameras. Many of these settings can be changed at the RAW conversion stage, acknowledges Jache, but he says that setting them correctly in-camera can prevent errors of omission further down the workflow.

SI Director of Photography Steve Fine (glasses, red vest, in the background) on the sidelines of Super Bowl XXXVIII. (Photo by John Iacono/Sports Illustrated)

When an SI staffer finishes an assignment, he is expected to send his entire take, unedited, to the magazine. "We'd almost prefer they don't even look at the pictures," Jache says. For this reason, Rosato's software needs are modest; he burns discs with Roxio Easy CD and DVD Creator 6, browses images with ACDSee 6.0, and uses BulletProof FTP for file transfers.

He says that approximately 75% of the time he downloads his full cards to his laptop, burns a DVD of the images, and sends that to New York by overnight courier. The other 25% of the time, he sends the CF cards themselves, which are downloaded and returned to him.

Other staffers send CF cards more often and burn DVDs or CDs less, but it's rare for any of them to transmit images electronically. That's partly because the magazine's deadlines are rarely tight enough to warrant it and partly because SI wants the entire take anyway usually too much data to transmit efficiently. There is no formal requirement for the photographer to back up his images before sending them in, but Jache points out that this is no worse than the risk the magazine took for nearly 50 years when shipping film.

Still, says staff shooter Bill Frakes, "I'm fairly convinced, because I'm pessimistic, that the cards are eventually going to get lost. So when I ship the cards, if I can download them before I send them, I do. But you may not have time. If I have an afternoon game in Nebraska and a noon game somewhere on the east coast the next day, I've gotta' roll."

When CF cards or DVDs arrive in SI's New York office a process very similar to the one set up in Houston begins. Sam Greenfield's application is used to retrieve the images and make them available for cataloging by SI's image database, which is built on a suite of applications collectively called SCC MediaServer.

After JPEG/RAW pairs are cataloged by MediaServer, photo editors can copy the JPEGs from a particular assignment and browse through them with ACDSee, which they use because of its ability to very quickly display full-screen images or show them at 100% magnification. After cutting the raw take down to a group of selects, editors retrieve the original RAW/JPEG pairs of the selects and give them much more extensive captions that include player names and other information about the picture content. The captioning is done with MediaGrid, the desktop client application in the MediaServer suite, and MediaGrid writes the caption information into MediaServer database fields as well as the images' IPTC fields.

IPTC captioning window open in SCC MediaGrid

"Do I like having to use two tools? No," says Jache of this two-application approach to browsing and captioning, but he can't find a single application that combines ACDSee's display speed with good captioning features.

Final decisions about which photos will run in the magazine are made during "color shows" groups of five or six editors crowding around one of SI's Sony CPD-G520 monitors and almost always looking at out-of-camera JPEGs.

Ultimately, a copy of each image is burned to two separate DVDs, where they are still accessible via the MediaServer database. As of this writing, both sets of archived DVDs are located in the New York office, but Jache plans to move one set of backups to the magazine's Tampa, Florida data center in the near future, ensuring the survival of the images even if a catastrophe strikes the Manhattan office.

SI's photo department currently burns and stores DVDs using two Disc NSM 7000 DVD jukeboxes, each of which holds more than 500 discs. Jache says he will have two more jukeboxes by year-end. In all, the magazine uses more than 100 servers and possesses 30 terabytes of hard drive storage capacity as well as 24 terabytes of near-line DVD storage.

For the photographers, shooting digital forced some of the same adjustments that their wire service and newspaper brethren had already made. "The shutter delay is definitely greater on the digital cameras," says staff photographer Damian Strohmeyer. "You know you're shooting the quarterback as he cocks his arm, and you think you've got it, but you look later and say 'where's the one with the ball in his hand?'"

Strohmeyer also says that the EOS-1D's RAW file buffer depth forced him to rethink the way he times continuous sequences. "With film, when it's getting down to the nitty-gritty, you make sure you've got enough shots left by just reloading every camera with a fresh roll. With digital you're always stuck with the 14-frame buffer."

The photographers interviewed for this story spoke of the focal length conversion factor of cameras like the EOS-1D and the Nikon models as a necessary adjustment but not a problem. For football, in fact, most said they find it helpful.

Bob Rosato highlights one other change that digital brought to his life. "We used to go to the airport and ship film, and we're done. Now we have post-production. Downloading the images and burning DVDs."

From his editor's chair, Steve Fine noted the shutter delay and buffer depth adjustments. "It took the guys a year to re-time themselves," he says. On the office side, other issues surfaced. "The first thing we had to deal with is 'where are the pictures'. Before it was possible to misplace a slide or a negative strip, but you had physical film somewhere. Now, we're creating folders and file systems on a computer. If you're not careful you can lose track of a whole take. And captioning was a big issue here. We shot 16,180 pictures at the Super Bowl. If our selects are properly captioned, you can type in, say, 'Tom Brady', and you'll get fifteen results. It's easy. If we don't caption, then you're looking at searching through 16,000 pictures. Who's going to do that?"

Fine has seen no real problems editing from unmodified JPEGs. "But we've learned not to throw away too many shots that don't look exactly tack sharp, because when they make the conversion from RAW, they often can save a picture make it sharp enough to print."

The pictures themselves, Fine says, have changed the look of the magazine. "For years [with film], we've been fighting a battle between sharpness and grain, especially in low-light shots. You try to sharpen and you just end up building more graininess. I'm amazed at the quality we're getting in low-light shots off our digital files. We're running [low-light pictures] up to two-page size that we could never have done before. Sometimes [digital] looks like it's underwater, a little bit too smooth. A strobed basketball game on a Hasselblad has a sharp line and a punch that digital doesn't have. But we don't have grain anymore. In really poorly lit situations, the ability to make a clean picture far outweighs the downside."

Staff photographer Bob Rosato sets up a Hasselblad film camera in advance of a Duke University basketball game on March 6, 2004 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Doug Keese)
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