Photojournalism at the Dawn of Digital
You may be unsurprised to learn that news photographers and photojournalists didn’t all switch to digital overnight, but it’s fair to say that within two years of the launch of the first viable DSLR that didn’t cost an arm, a leg and a left kidney, most (not all) photojournalists had made that switch.
For the sake of this article I will differentiate between news/press photographers whose work generally involves daily or breaking news and photojournalists who tend to work on longer articles and features. It’s not a perfect definition, but the best I can do within a single paragraph and I make it so the article makes more sense.
Up until those first usable, affordable (sub-$3,000) cameras came on the market, most photographers working in news and having to transmit their results were having to process their film, scan it and wire it using a laptop, a mobile phone and some peer-to-peer software.
My particular set-up was a MacBook 1400c, a Canoscan 2700F, a Nokia 6310 and some software called Microphone Pro, which connected my phone to the picture desk modem and handled the file transfer.
To be fair, this was all rather clunky. The files had to be small, the phone line or the software could easily crash and it still took nearly 10 minutes to send a file of a few hundred KB in size. And that was even after you’d found somewhere to get your films processed in a hurry.
On the whole it was still easier to just drive back to the office and put your films through the mini-lab there.
Then in the year 2000 the Canon D30 came out (not to be confused with the 30D). At around $3,000 or less, this camera changed the whole game.
It wasn’t perfect (slow to focus, short burst rate, slow motor drive, limited file size), but it foretold of what was to come.
For the first time a news photographer could take a photo and have it on their laptop before their film counterpart had battled their way to the front of the queue at the high street one-hour processing shop.
Certainly by the time the analogue tog* had got their film off the machine, their digital competitor would have edited, captioned and sent a few vital frames to the picture desk and be resting up in the nearest cafe with a greasy tea and a sticky bun to refuel their energy.
My own digital eureka moment came when I was sent to cover Princess Margaret leaving King Edward VII hospital in London after she’d suffered a stroke. She was a Royal with an interesting past and there was a lot of affection for (and interest in) her from the public.
I hadn’t told the office I’d gone digital, I wanted to test it quietly first.
There I was, surrounded by Fleet Street’s finest photographers amongst which were at least two of my colleagues who I knew were shooting film. As the princess emerged, I got a few shots between her exiting the hospital doors and entering the car which would take her home. Thankfully the D30 hadn’t decided to hunt focus this time and I got a small selection of images as she smiled for the press.
As quickly as I could I dashed to my car, popped the IBM Microdrive card into the PCMCIA slot of my MacBook, then edited, captioned and wired my selection over. I beat my colleagues’ pictures back and I got the spot in the paper.
I’d saved myself the bother of battling through London traffic back to the office, I’d beaten my colleagues’ pictures to the desk and to top it off I was able to claim a wire fee, a small bonus allowance to help pay for the laptop, phone etc.
The picture editor soon twigged I’d gone digital and I don’t think it was too long before my colleagues also got tooled up with the kit. My advantage was gone, but I was well and truly on the digital path.
By the time the Canon 1D came out the following year, few news photographers weren’t shooting film any more, the change was that quick. I bought one as it launched and the difference between it and the D30 was astounding. It was like going back to my EOS 1N, but with the simplicity of digital.
The shift from film to digital was rapid and profound. Some photojournalists continued with film for many years after the revolution began, some still shoot film to this day preferring the predictability to which they are accustomed.
Apart from those covering breaking news events, it was football and rugby photographers who found digital the most liberating. Armed with a laptop and phone they could wire images from pitch-side which had its pros, but also cons, chief of which was trying to operate a laptop in the rain and cold of a British February evening match.
Digital changed everything for the working press photographer and photojournalist and we’re still seeing the consequences today; some good, some not so much, but where the working press photographer is concerned, there will never be a return to film.
*Tog = photographer. Most press photographers prefer this term to the more widely-used and slightly derogatory term ‘snapper’.
All images ©Tim Gander 2017. All rights reserved.
Tim Gander started shooting for his local paper, The Bath Chronicle, in 1987 from where he went on to work for The Portsmouth News as a staff photographer before leaving to go freelance in 1998. Over the next few years Tim freelanced for regional and national papers on the South coast of England and London before moving back to Somerset, where he changed direction to concentrate on corporate communications work for business clients.
Tim now splits his time between his commercial/corporate work and personal projects, for which he favours shooting film again.