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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Gerd Ludwig - At The Heart Of The Matter

Prominent photo ­­­journalist Gerd Ludwig embarks on a digital journey—and takes us with him

Instead of periodically sending unprocessed film back to the Geographic while in the field, Ludwig compiles all of his RAW images onto a LaCie Porsche 250 GB external hard drive upon his return. After writing captions, he sends that drive to National Geographic to be downloaded to their server. From there, the workflow follows a similar path that film editing took, but the technical aspects differ.

The old way of editing at the Geographic meant using a Garrett box to view slides. Developed by Bill Garrett, a former National Geographic editor-in-chief, the device is essentially a wooden box with a series of mirrors inside that project an image onto a small screen. It basically looks like a small, wooden television with a Kodak slide projector sticking out its side. Outs would be returned to the boxes, and first, second and third selects would be set aside for further editing.

I spoke to Ludwig during his first all-digital edit with the Geographic, and he described the new setup. An Apple Macintosh G5 with two 17-inch screens replaces the Garrett box. Using iView MediaPro editing software, a color-coded system separates first, second and third selects with the click of a mouse. “It's fantastic,” Ludwig declares. “It's so much faster than editing slides. Viewing and organizing the material is a lot easier.”

The selection process is repeated over and over until the 15,000 images are whittled down to 45. From there, additional adjustments are made to the final edit. “Sequencing the images to create a story is a challenging process,” he says. “It's like creating a piece of music.”

By playing a slideshow via iView MediaPro, Ludwig and the picture editor watch the flow of the story and continue to make changes. Images are ordered differently, and some are taken out and replaced. “We often go back to the second and sometimes third selects to find an image that works better,” says Ludwig.

Those 45 images then go into a projection room and, again, further changes and adjustments are made. When Ludwig and the picture editor are satisfied, they reach “the moment of truth,” according to Ludwig. “I have about a half-hour presentation to give to 10 to 15 editors and heads of departments,” he says seriously.

For each image, Ludwig gives a brief explanation of what it's about and how it relates to the overall story. “From this presentation, they determine whether I successfully covered the assignment or whether it was a wash.”

You'd imagine that after 15 years of working for this publication, Ludwig would be used to delivering these presentations, but as he speaks, the significance of this part of the process is detectable in the timbre of his voice. “These editors look at about 20 of these presentations a month, from the best photographers in the world, so you have to be prepared to make an impact.”

Following that examination, the images are assessed even further for the layout process. Ludwig continues to play an integral role in developing this with the picture editor. All the images are printed, posted on boards and put up on a wall. “Then you do a wall walk, and more people come to look and comment,” he explains. “From the 45 images, typically 12 to 15 run in a story.”

“It's a great process,” he continues. “There are usually other photographers there working on their presentations and wall walks, so you get to see your peers' works in progress.”


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