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Joey Terrill: from Hasselblad film to Canon digital
Sunday, July 24, 2005 | by Eamon Hickey

Although he is the guy who advertised it, sold it, packed it up, and shipped it, Joey Terrill still doesn't quite believe he dumped all his Hasselblad gear.

"I never dreamed in a million years that a Hasselblad camera might one day be a novelty," he said late last year. "I think that people who shot that camera for a number of years are, very much like me, having trouble swallowing it. It hurt."

It's not that Terrill is surprised that he's shooting his commercial and editorial assignments with digital now. He knew that would happen. What really surprises him is the camera he's using–a Canon EOS-1Ds rather than the Phase One P25 digital back for his Hasselblad that he was one day away from buying. How Terrill ended up with the Canon is the story of how a sudden impulse can save a man US$22,000.

Terrill's history with digital cameras goes back to a Nikon D1 that he bought at the end of 1999, but by then he had already been a professional photographer in Los Angeles for more than 15 years. He had originally intended to become a photojournalist and shoot for newspapers (his brother Mark is a staff photographer for the Los Angeles bureau of the Associated Press), but by the late 1990s advertising and commercial work for clients such as Coca-Cola, Bose audio, and Mattel toys had come to dominate his business.

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For Golf Digest. Nikon D1, 1/100, f/9, 14mm lens (Photo by Joey Terrill)

Although it paid well, this kind of shooting wasn't making Terrill happy, and in 1997 he decided to attend the Photography at the Summit workshop in Jackson, Wyoming where he shot a series of portraits of cowboys over the course of the week-long seminar. "I discovered what I would do even if nobody paid me," he says now. "In my heart, I'm really a portrait photographer. So I made a conscious decision to mostly get out of corporate and advertising, and become more of an editorial photographer."

Although he still does some advertising work, he now spends much of his time shooting editorial feature pictures for magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest–often the double-truck portraits at the beginning of articles profiling people in the sports world. He also shoots a lot of celebrities from other fields–Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Ellen DeGeneres, to name just a few–and many of these pictures are syndicated through WireImage. He shoots a great deal of his work on location.

Like most photographers with a client list like his, Terrill shot with multiple film setups, including a 4x5-inch Sinar F system, a Fujifilm GX680 system, and an extensive Nikon 35mm system. But he shot the majority of his work with Hasselblads–a 553ELX, a 500CM, and five lenses from 40 to 350mm.

Terrill's first digital camera, the D1 that he bought at the end of 1999, was purchased for one specific job, and he shot a few additional quick-turnaround jobs with it over the next two years. It saw much more use as a proofing device, completely replacing Polaroids in his workflow.

In 2003, a sharp upsurge in client requests for digital images convinced Terrill that he would soon need a digital back for his Hasselblads. But none of the backs then available worked well untethered, which Terrill, at the time, deemed a necessity for his style of shooting. To bridge the gap while he waited for an untethered back to hit the market, the photographer bought a Nikon D100, which he used for as many as forty jobs that year.

Joey Terrill, before his transition to the EOS-1Ds

Though the camera did its job well enough, Terrill wasn't particularly happy with the ultimate quality of his results with it. "It was more me than the camera," he says now, citing his own ignorance. "All along through my photography career I had always felt, you know what, I know everything I need to know about a particular subject. I wanted to be the same way with digital imaging, and I wasn't anywhere near there. So I said, well, I just have to get there."

So Terrill spent much of 2003 immersing himself–obsessively, he says–in Photoshop ("every book and CD I could find"), color management, and RAW format shooting (he had been shooting some TIFFs but mostly JPEGs previously). Among the most useful resources he found was the book Real World Color Management by Bruce Fraser, Chris Murphy and Fred Bunting. He also singles out a workshop called Digital Imaging for Photographers, whose faculty included a long roster of digital imaging heavyweights, that was touring U.S. cities in those days.

In 2004, Phase One unveiled the P25, a version of the H25 22-megapixel digital back but designed for compact, self-contained, untethered shooting. "As soon as the P25 was announced," Terrill says, "I was committed to that back."

In February of 2004 Terrill went to the Photo Marketing Association trade show in Las Vegas to see the P25 demonstrated, and then he arranged with his local camera store, Calumet, to test the very similar H25 against film, using his own Hasselblad camera and lenses. He shot identical images, essentially just switching the digital back with a film back. He had the film drum scanned at a well-respected pro service bureau, BowHaus Digital Imaging in Los Angeles, and then compared the files.

"I said if the back could do as well as the film, I would buy the back," Terrill remembers. "Well, it did that well and then some. It was basically a shot of a guy from head to belt, and I could zoom and zoom to literally just his eyelashes, and it was so sharp and so crisp I couldn't believe it. After doing that test, I said, 'that's it.'"

Thus convinced, Terrill began the multi-step process of arranging the financing and delivery of the nearly US$30,000 P25 system. But that steep price tag understandably gave him pause, and that's when his sudden impulse struck.

"On the eve of actually signing the deal to buy the thing," he says, "I had a moment of, I guess, inspiration, to call a friend and say, 'you know, I've heard such great things about the [Canon] EOS-1Ds.' I [knew I wouldn't] be really satisfied spending $30,000 if I didn't know what an $8,000 camera looks like."

The friend was beauty photographer Bill Knapp, who provided an EOS-1Ds, which Terrill used to make an image very similar to his test shot from the P25.

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For Golf Digest. Canon EOS-1Ds, ISO 100, 1/45, f/11 (Photo by Joey Terrill)

"What I was looking for," he says, "was how does it handle the transition of tone from highlight to shadow, how does it handle deep, deep shadow, what does it look like sharpness-wise. The Phase One was better. Any photographer who doesn't think so is fooling themselves. [But] to my eye, it wasn't $22,000 better. The question [I asked myself] was: Ultimately, will you see a difference on the printed page when this is turned into dots and ink? And the answer was, no, I would not. That was the deciding factor. If money were no object, I'd be a back shooter. But [money] is a thing.

"The very next day, I called all the people I was dealing with surrounding the Phase and told them that I was going to hold off. The next week I bought the entire Canon system I have now."

That system comprises an EOS-1Ds, an EOS 20D, an EOS 10D, a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L USM, an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, a TS-E 24mm f/2.8L (tilt-shift), an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, and an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM. He also has two Canon Speedlite 550EX flashes.

In part to offset the cost of the Canon equipment, and in part because he no longer needed them, Terrill eventually ended up selling all of his Hasselblad, Sinar, Fuji, and Nikon (both film and digital) systems. He kept only his Leica M6, which he uses for pleasure shooting.

Somewhat to his amazement, he hasn't shot a frame of film for a job since he got the EOS-1Ds in April of 2004. It has done the work for which he formerly used three different 35mm and medium-format systems and even, to some extent, that of a large-format system.

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