Many years ago I was running a regional advertising agency and our biggest client was a company called, BookStop Bookstores. They were the first, serious category killer in the book business. A forerunner in the merciless slaughter of small, independent book stores. As they grew from a local, Austin retailer to a national chain with over 100 locations, our little ad agency grew along with them.
Bookstop's main value propositions were the facts that each store had large inventories (over 100,000 books in stock!!!) and lower prices (20 to 80% off, everyday).
When we were busy running an agency I didn't have time to photograph the books that needed to be photographed for cooperative advertising and marketing in general so we subbed that out to various photographers. Eventually the chain became large enough to become a juicy (and very willing) takeover target for a bigger fish; Barnes and Noble. In the matter of a few months we said goodbye to our client and, after careful introspection (prodded by a downturn in the Austin economy) we decided to shutter the agency and move on.
I moved into commercial photography and started my business in the deep economic trough created by the mid-1980's real estate free fall engendered by the savings and loan bust. Fortunately the design work for Bookstop ended up at a design firm run by a good friend. As the book business (and the inflow of new capital) improved the designers seemed to be churning out three or four newspaper co-op ads per week and some sort of four color catalog or flyer at least once a month. And since the account originally got steered to them by our referral I got the lion's share of the photography work.
It was a two edged sword. On one hand my business was in the black from the very start but on the other hand I spent the better part of two years shooting hundreds, maybe thousands of books. In those days a fair amount of the book advertising, running full page or double truck in newspapers, was done in black and white. This meant that I'd shoot the books, soup the film and print a final reproduction print under a nice, tight deadline. Sometimes we'd get the books in the late afternoon and the final prints would be due the next morning....
In the process I learned how to shoot for white-against-white and how to shoot dark, glossy covers (which reflect like mirrors). I learned which few transparency films could handle certain shades of green inks (very few) and how to make a book in a dust jacket lay perfectly flat. We photographed stacks of books. We photographed best sellers surrounded by props (which we also sourced) and I learned to photograph books in the hands of their smiling authors.
I thought I'd finished with that when BookStop was finally totally ingested by B&N but recently I came across a new client who publishes many, many books and course materials about real estate. Now we're doing book shoots again from time to time but now it's much harder.
What the hell?? Harder to shoot digital than film? Am I nuts? Well, here's the crux of the whole matter: In the days of old we shot the books with 4x5 inch view cameras and we were able to use the tilts and swings to provide enormous amounts of in focus area even though we were using "sensors=film" that had 20+ times the surface area of today's "full frame" cameras and the lenses were much longer with much more limited depth of field. Knowing how to implement the Scheimpflug theory by altering the planes of the film and the lens allowed me to alter the way focus was distributed across an image while still allowing the use of an optimum f-stop to ensure the sharpest results.
Now we have tilt/shift lenses for the Canon and Nikon Cameras but we can only effectively tilt in one plane. And we have a limited number of focal lengths from which to choose. It's just not as flexible or exacting. We don't have the tools we need to do the same kind of work so we punt by trying to estimate exactly how far into the composition we need to put the point of sharpest focus so adequate focus falls in front of that point and also behind it in the right measure. A rule of thumb tells me that depth of field extends one third in front of the point of sharpest focus and 2/3rds behind it. And then we have to factor in the smallest aperture we can use without introducing sharpness killing diffraction effects. It all makes me want to reach for my old copy of the Kodak Photo Data Guide to I can use the depth of field calculators again.
Depending upon the final deliver size and whether or not the image will be printed or just presented on the web I can choose from a number of compromises. I can have more megapixels but the smaller sensels will bring diffraction in quicker. I can use a full frame camera but I'll need to stop down more to get depth of field coverage. I can use a smaller sensor size but I risk the same issue of pixel/sensel density and diffraction effects. There is no "right answer." For me the sweet spot is probably a 12 or 16 megapixel (not 24!) APS-C sensor with a sharp macro lens.
Many years ago an English company made a 35mm view camera with full movements. Might be time for someone like Alpa to do it again. But, of course, who would pay tens of thousands of dollars for that system?
So, while we had the books in hand the art director and I started playing with layout designs and pushed to the edge of acceptable technique. It is important to understand that not all of mankind's design and photography problems have been cured by the introduction of bigger, better sensors and faster lenses. There are still many applications where a well corrected lens trumps a fast one and where bigger sensor pixel wells trump massive resolution. Give it one more generation and we won't have to worry about any of this. It will all be done with CGI..... Or we'll shoot one book and have the PhotoShop squad endlessly composite and distort it. Interesting how it all changes.