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|| News Item: Posted 2010-10-03

Ask Sports Shooter: How has technology affected photojournalism?
The old vs. the new

By George Bridges, Managing Editor, MCT Photo Service

Photo by Brad Mangin

Photo by Brad Mangin

The Sporting News was the last outfit to shoot film on deadline at the World Series. Here is their setup in Phoenix for the 2001 Series: C41 hand-line kit with tanks, reels and Senrac film dryers.
A question recently was posted on the message board of "How has technology affected photojournalism" with the theory being that technology has removed some of the limitations giving photographers more time to work a scenario and focus on their images before deadline.

As always, a question such as this starts the "back in the day" thoughts and comments from those old enough to remember.

Technology has always resulted in huge changes in photography going all the way back to the days when photographers made the change from glass plates that had to be developed immediately in the field with hazardous chemicals to film slides (then rolls of 120 and 35mm) that could be taken back to the office for processing later - in hazardous chemicals.

With the Canon EOS 1, the first true professional auto-focus camera, being released in the late 1980s, many photographers working today never had to worry about turning a focus ring, but grew up just concentrating on the content of the image.

The revolutionary NC2000 digital camera came out in the early 1990s eliminating film for select assignments. The camera was so large and costly, around $18,000 as I recall, that they were not used at all publications. The Canon 520 and then the Nikon D1 changed all that. Since 1999 (the introduction of the D1 which was within the price-range of many papers) the digital age took over.

So, where does that leave us in comparing old school to new school? I shoot all digital now, will never go back, and don't think twice about what I'm missing in not shooting film. But there are some arguments that can be made for the "old" being better than the "new." And remember, in this case "old school" means we are talking only 15-20 years ago.

Gear Carried
For a standard assignment you carried a lot less gear in the old days. You just had your cameras gear and film and were good to go. For a basketball game, heck for most assignments, a Domke F2 bag with a couple bodies, 3-4 lenses, flash and a 300mm f2.8 slung over the shoulder was all you needed. Rolling case? What's a rolling case?

Today you have that same gear but add in a few pounds and bulk for a computer, power supply, card readers, cables and a cell modem.

Score one point for the old school.

But, when traveling the old school photographer had to add a Road Warrior kit with reels, tanks, DevTec heating element, box of two-step C41 chemicals, dryer, loupe, scissors, negative sleeves and a few other things all jammed into a Cabbage Case. And then to get the images back to the office you needed your 35-pound Leafax and, if you were really cool, a Compander. In later days you got by with a laptop and a Nikon Coolscan, but that still meant another case.

The computer is downright petite and featherweight compared to that.

So that's one point for the new school.

Capturing the image
Photo by Brad Mangin

Photo by Brad Mangin

Sporting News chief photographer Albert Dickson demonstrates how to use a changing bag before Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in Phoenix.
New school rules here. A photographer can instantly review exposure on the camera and can control multiple strobes without moving from behind the camera. Just a few turns of the dial here and there and all is well.

So a point to the new school - but take a half point off if you miss a shot because you are chimping the previous play.

But a half point goes to the old school photographers who were so familiar with Tri-X that no meter was needed to estimate exposure within a half-stop.

And a full point goes to anyone who still owns a hand-held meter and puts it to use. Seriously. Despite all their technological advances, modern camera meters can still be fooled. Until last year I worked in an NFL stadium where late-day games would feature some extreme backlighting. I would pull out my hand-held meter and be laughed at by other photographers, but when it came time to tone they would be cursing the harsh light while my exposures were dead on. A hand-held meter will also cut out a lot of trial-and-error time in multi-strobe setups.

With film you were also limited to 36-frame rolls. That meant when you got to 29 or 30 frames you had to make the call "do I change rolls now or go for one more play?" A lot of great action moments happened on frame 37.

You also were limited on how many reels you could develop at a time. No one wanted to have 10 rolls to process and only an 8-reel tank. I know a lot of people rolled film back-to-back, but I never risked it. So you would have to decide which two rolls were not worthy of being processed.

But that was not all bad. I'll give a half-point to the film days because a photographer had to be more selective. No heavy-fingered machine-gunning on the motor drive. You ran the risk of hitting the end of the roll and missing something. A photographer was more selective. Were some shots missed? Maybe, but not by the photographers who worked at hard their timing. I started with a lever-advanced Nikon FE2 and was able to soon add an MD-12 motor that gave a whopping 3.2 fps, so timing was everything.

Game Coverage
For late-night games the new school once again reigns. The speed at which images can be sent to the office is amazing. With the right connections you can send an image directly from the camera to an editor faster than a photographer could rewind a roll of film, drop it in an envelope and hand it to a runner.

In the "old" days when covering college basketball games that began at 7:35 p.m., I would be heading for the door by 7:50 so I could drive to the office, print a couple B&W images and get them transmitted (10 minutes transmit timer per B&W) before 9 p.m. to make deadlines. When people would ask me the final score of the game I would reply "I don't know, it was 9-6 when I left."

Today, for big events such as the Final Four, cameras are wired into editors who see images seconds after they are shot. The sports desk can receive captioned and toned images of a coach talking to his team before the time out is over.

For day games old and new school are pretty even in ability to provide game-telling images, it's just at the end of the game where digital allows a faster filing time than processing and printing did.

The old and new schools are tied here. Each requires a different set of skills but are equally important.

In the film days a photographer had to know the chemicals, how to set up a darkroom pretty much anywhere, how to find a phone line nearly anywhere, how to run hundreds of feet of zip line for strobes, and if it was better to push 800 a stop or shoot with 1600 film. And numerous other things.

The new school has to know Photoshop, computer networking, disk write speeds, FireWire vs. USB 2.0, wi-fi, cellular connections, RAIDs. And numerous other things.

I would give new school a half point advantage just because you now avoid toxic fumes and fixer spots on your clothing, but I have to deduct that half point because photographers became the on-the-road IT staff for writers who can't figure out how to connect their computer to send a story and come asking "my photographer" for help.

These are photographic skills as opposed to the technology and processing discussed in knowledge.

I'll give the point to the old school on this one. Yes, today a photographer still needs a good eye and still needs to know what happens when you open up the f-stops and when you slow down the shutter speeds.

But, technology has also taken out many factors the old school knew without thinking. Auto White Balance and RAW file formats mean you don't have to think too much about the lighting conditions where in the slide film days you had to make sure your film matched the lighting - which also helped immensely in negative film as well because it made darkroom correction easier.

You also had to know how to follow focus, snap the focus to a set point (such as second base) quickly, "read" the light better because there was no multi-zone metering, know how to load a film reel, watch out for reciprocity failure, know how to strap a hand warmer to your camera to keep the film from becoming brittle and snapping in extreme cold, know how to take the finder off your camera and work in a mirror view for a hail Mary or ground-level shot, etc.

I'm not saying that today's photographers aren't as good as the "old guys," many are better. But modern cameras have taken a lot of guesswork out of the equation letting a photographer focus on what is in the viewfinder more, but in doing so has taken some of the art out of it.

Just as the change from 4x5 cameras to SLR meant no more worrying about dark slides, ground glass focusing, and tilts and shifts, the digital cameras now take out a few factors that were ingrained in the fingers of photographers just 20 years ago.

Yes, I use auto-focus, I use RAW format and in funky lighting I use auto white balance and don't want it any other way. But I do miss walking into a stadium and trying to figure out if the lights are tungsten or mercury vapor and what color cast I'll be dealing with in the darkroom.

I'm not sure how to score this but I think the modern-day photographer has more to pass the blame to, so we'll score this one for new school.

The new school has lots of technology to blame things on: bad AF design, camera and lens not calibrated, corrupt disk, no cell signal, a bad pixel. Many fun things.

The old school pretty much could only had themselves to blame. Out of focus? You missed it. Shoot an assignment with no film in the camera? You blew it (this happened more than you would think since there was not a "no disk error" warning). Poorly developed film? Your temperature was off or the film touched on loading. All your own fault.

That's not to say people didn't try to shift the blame in the film era. I remember one photographer who had very grainy film, all the time. When asked if his temperature was correct or if he over-agitated the film, his response: "Must be a grainy lens." He walked out of the room leaving four photographers with jaws dropping.

The never-ending factors
There are some areas where neither school can win. These are timeless problems that will always be around no matter what format we are shooting, not matter what event we are shooting.

There will always be the sports editor who doesn't know a good action shot and will choose to run a basic quarterback passing shot because it fits the layout rather than the awesome shot of the running back getting his helmet knocked off.

There will always be the reporter who asks you 30 minutes after the game "Hey, did you get a picture of the left offensive tackle? I'm doing a piece on him."

There will always be the people who don't belong blocking your ability to work on the sidelines. Whether it is a trainer, team doctor, friend of the owner, or, like I saw at the MLS All-Star Game, the credentialed person taking pictures with their phone because their other camera is a tiny point & shoot.

There will always be the police officer telling you that press can't take photos even though there are 50 tourists standing next to you shooting the same.

I've lost track of the points but I'll take the new school over old. Being mainly a wire shooter as a freelancer and staffer for the last 25+ years I need modern technology to get images out to my clients quickly for their deadlines and web sites. I need to be able to look at the back of the camera and know that I have the shot before I leave to transmit. I need to be able to file 30 images from a game and be done a half-hour afterward rather than just be pulling the film from the dryer at that point.

But the old school still has its day and thrives. There is a reason why many mourned the loss of Polaroid Type 55 film. There is a reason people still pull out the 4 X 5 or Hasselblad to shoot a portrait. There is a reason people don't worry about the auto-TTL, creative light system strobes and go with manual-dial flash packs for their location lighting. There is a reason why the master David Burnett can be seen with two Holgas, a Speed Graphic, and a Nikon 500mm f8 mirror lens mounted to a Canon digital body along with a couple "standard" digital cameras.

That reason is cameras are just tools. Tools change but rarely become useless. Those old cameras and film can be put to use to express a vision in a way that digital just can't do sometimes. A photo from an iPhone is better quality than one taken with an $18,000 NC2000 just 20 years ago, but that NC2000 revolutionized breaking news photography and signaled a move to better things just as 35mm rangefinders and SLRs signaled a change from the 4 X 5 days.

So lets award all the points to talent and creativity and call it even.

(PS: I've wanted a Nikkor 500 f8 mirror lens since I was 16 and envy David for having one converted to his Canon gear. And I also still carry a Cabbage Case 151 key.)

George Bridges is the managing editor of McClatchy-Tribune Photo Service. You can see his work on his member page:

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