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The Revolution Will Be Digitized (Like It or Not)

Nine-year-old Timmy McNair does a back flip off the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach in Queens, N.Y. Nine-year-old Timmy McNair does a back flip off the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach in Queens, N.Y.
© Jessica Brandi Lifland

In newsrooms across the country and at photo agencies, photojournalists have taken to digital cameras like teens to cell phones.

The digital revolution has changed the face of photography and photojournalism, allowing unprecedented speed in delivering photos and, many say, superior quality.

Last January, at Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, Sports Illustrated went 100 percent digital, declaring that the time had arrived. SI often sets the standards for photographic image quality, so the switch was considered nothing short of historic for photojournalism.

But the switch has not been easy, and many shooters are still hanging onto the romance of the darkroom days. To check the pulse of photojournalists in the dawning digital age, PhotoMedia spoke with photographers and editors from Corbis, Polaris Images and The Seattle Times about the pros and cons of the new technology.

The advantages of digital are many. The mystery is taken out of shooting. Photographers now can use one camera to shoot any assignment. They don't need to get special film. They no longer have the expense of buying film or processing, or the hassle of going through the X-ray machines at airport checkpoints. Also, the speed is incredible. Photographers can download photos on a satellite phone from almost anywhere in the world.

There are some drawbacks, too. While prices generally are coming down, most professional-grade cameras remain very expensive, with some topping out at more than $10,000. Photo editors lament that photographers using digital cameras on breaking assignments are asked to send their two best images immediately, and the images they send are not always the best choices.

Editors coming around

Photography editors tend to be a stubborn bunch, but some say that the many benefits of digital are winning them over.

Seattle Times photo director Cole Porter said that the switch to digital, overall, has been a positive change. "The upsides far outweigh the downsides," he said.

Now, Porter said, when photographers have to shoot a University of Washington football game that begins at 5 p.m., they can spend more than 15 minutes of shooting because they don't have to worry about processing their film.

One of the indirect problems with digital imagery has been more psychological than technical, Porter said. Days can go by before a shooter comes into the newsroom, he said. In the old days, four or five photographers would be in the darkroom every night, swapping stories and creating professional bonds.

To try to rekindle that sense of camaraderie, the Times tries to schedule regular staff meetings with the shooters. Every photographer has been given a desk, and they are clustered together to resemble the way they used to gather around the old darkroom sink. "It's our electronic version of a darkroom," Porter said.

In some cases, control of the digital images is more in the hands of the photographers than the editors. J.P. Pappis, who opened the Polaris Images photo agency in New York last year, said that he has had to ask photographers to keep sending more pictures so that he could be sure to get the right image.

Polaris photographers cover both breaking news and in-depth features across the U.S. and overseas, and Pappis said that editing long projects is much more tedious with digital.

"I do miss editing on a light table," he said. With a light table, editors could look at 500 or more images at once. Now they are limited by the size of the screen and can see just 32 or 64 images at one time.

Economics is on the side of digital, however. "At the end of the day, it's cheaper to shoot on digital because you don't have film or lab expenses," said Pappis.

Not so fast . . .

Just because digital cameras offer photojournalists unbelievable convenience and speed does not mean that everyone is using them — yet. Going digital is not as easy as leaving the vinyl albums behind. Many still are holding out for film, including Condé Nast, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and many of the top-rated Magnum photographers.

According to Sue Brisk, editorial director at Magnum, the agency is not requiring any of its photographers to shoot digital. Of Magnum's 53 photographers, maybe 10 are shooting digital exclusively; others may use digital cameras but haven't bought the equipment, she said.

Often, the decision to use digital cameras is affected by the assignment. While covering the fall of Kabul during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, Magnum photographer Luc Delahaye chose to shoot digitally due to the extremely remote location. This year, during the war in Iraq, the greater accessibility to the outside world allowed Delahaye to use film to cover the conflict and send his negatives to Paris for processing.

"He chose not to go digital or bring one as a backup," Brisk said. "He tends to be more traditional."

Brisk likens the debate over digital versus film to whether people prefer drinking coffee or tea. In this digital world, Magnum definitely would be more of a traditional tea drinker. "Each photographer chooses their own way they prefer to work and, although more photographers are becoming interested in digital, many will remain true to film and the darkroom," Brisk said.

Jon Hope, a freelance photographer for Polaris, does a lot of commission magazine work, but has yet to plunge fully into digital. He still looks at digital as being more for the news market rather than for editorial or advertising work.

 Given a choice of what to shoot, Hope said that he still prefers film. "I don't like being too reliant on technology," said the San Francisco-based shooter. "I've shot in remote places, and if the camera goes wrong, there's nothing I can do."

Probably 30 to 40 percent of his business is digital this year, Hope said, which is about the same amount as last year. Many of his corporate clients want him to shoot digital and gladly will pay for the rental gear because they are saving so much money on scanning and post-production fees. This way, he said, he can use the latest technology. When 50 percent of his work goes digital, he will buy his own equipment, he added.

Loyal converts

Other shooters — even some old legends — absolutely love the new medium. Douglas Kirkland, a veteran Look and Life magazine photographer who rocketed to fame more than 40 years ago with his photos of Marilyn Monroe naked between white sheets, has become almost messianic about digital, saying that the latest high-end digital technology can exceed the technology of film.Although more photographers are becoming interested in digital, many will remain true to film and the darkroom.
— Sue Brisk, Magnum

"If I take my best 35mm picture with optimum film and put it aside with an image from a [Canon] 1Ds camera and blow it up 600 percent, the digital picture will be superior. It doesn't have noise. I never thought we'd arrive at this point," said the Los Angeles-based photographer, who works with Corbis for his many stock images.

When he is given a choice in his work, to shoot film or digital, Kirkland said that he chooses digital. He even takes a digital camera on vacation for his personal use. Still, when asked whether he'd take a digital camera to the jungles of Cambodia, he replied, "I'd have to think about that carefully."

Expense vs. durability

The issue of durability with today's digital wonders still seems to be in doubt for some shooters, especially considering the higher price tags. For struggling freelance photographers, the expense still is pretty daunting. Jessica Brandi Lifland, who quit the Evansville Courier & Press in Indiana to live in San Francisco and freelance, said that she shelled out $8,000 in one day buying her digital Nikon cameras and lenses.

"My fear is of trashing [the digital cameras]," said the Polaris photographer. "I can't afford to repair one. . . . If it's pouring rain, then I'm not shooting." Nor would she ever take her digital cameras white-water rafting.

Although more photographers are becoming interested in digital, many will remain true to film and the darkroom.
— Sue Brisk, Magnum

Recently, Lifland said, she was using a digital camera to shoot a homeless couple in Golden Gate Park, but wanted to use her Leica so that she could be less obtrusive. Yet, she's definitely a fan of digital imagery. "I've been converted," she said. "There are just times I wish I could have my little Leica on my hip."

Alan Berner, a Seattle Times photographer for 21 years, also said that he has to baby his digital cameras more than his film cameras, making sure that they don't get wet or dusty. When it rains, he keeps an umbrella stuffed down his jacket that he can open up to protect his Canon EOS 1D.

While he saves time in the darkroom, Berner often invests that time archiving and captioning his digital images. "The whole process of captioning and archiving takes as much time as film," he said.

Although he has had little problem with digital cameras, he still likes to shoot black-and-white film for his personal use, Berner said.


Choosing between film and digital may become a moot point in the near future. Some say that it's just a matter of time until all photographers are forced to go digital.

At Corbis, with its cadre of 1,000 photographers, the news photographers all have gone digital and the stock photographers are making the transition this year, said Carl Gronquist, editorial director of stock photography. "We are doing what we can to go fully digital," he said.

Corbis is gearing up by sending its stock photographers to digital workshops in Santa Fe, N.M. "We are trying to make the transition easy for our photographers," Gronquist said. "The whole industry is moving that way and we want our photographers to be ahead of the curve."

Stock photographers are just making the transition now because the new cameras that came out this year made the move worthwhile, according to Gronquist. "Eventually, a lot of magazine assignments will be shot digitally," he said.

The Times' Berner said that the impetus for his conversion to digital can be summed up as, "Evolve or die." On Martin Luther King Day two years ago, he was handed two digital cameras and two lenses. "I didn't miss a beat because that's the way it was going to be," he said. "It's just an evolution of a tool."

The need to make compelling images — "the photograph with soul" — hasn't changed, Berner said. Only the camera body has.

Bobbi Nodell
Story Author: Bobbi Nodell

Bobbi Nodell, formerly with MSNBC.com, is now a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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