How Digital Technology has Changed Photojournalism

What a difference twenty years makes

Let’s take a trip in the wayback machine and look at photojournalism technology of the not-too-distant past, and revel in the progress that has been made.

1990 was the year that Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and a small company called Microsoft released an operating system called “Windows 3.0” at a time when the only people who really knew what an operating system was were carrying their slide rulers in their pocket-protected shirts.
What do all of these have in common? Simple, the photos that the wire services sent out to newspapers around the world when covering these events took 40 minutes to transmit- per photo. The quality was poor, the connections unreliable and 20 years ago photojournalists like me thought it was the bomb. Little did we know that the revolution in imaging was just beginning and a mere 20 years later, those same photos are transmitted in seconds, are full color and of a quality level that kills those 1990 images.
Over the years, the Assignments that a photojournalist shoots remain pretty constant, but the technology has changed from 1990 to 2010 and a photo that once took five hours to send to the wire service now takes seconds. The quality level between those 1990 images and now has gotten remarkably better too.


In 1990, to “cut wire”, or transmit a photo to the wire services, you had to first shoot the image on film, take an hour or so to process and dry the film, then go into the darkroom to edit and print the image, another hour; type the caption on a typewriter using pressure sensitive labels, attach the caption to the side of the image, another hour because it had to be perfect, and “white out” messed up the transmitter. Then transmit the image to the AP, another 40 minutes IF it transmitted perfectly. One little “hit” in the line (black lines that would show up in the image due to analog line noise) and you had to start all over again, because there was no way to correct the image.

Just the time to physically produce the photo and send it on telephone lines was an incredible 3 hours and 40 minutes, assuming the process went perfectly (which, it seldom did). If you include an average amount of time to travel to and from the location and shooting the images, you’ve gone well over five hours to produce ONE image. Yet, at the time, we photojournalists were tickled with the technology.

Little did we know.

Let’s go waaaay back...

I grin now when thinking about this because the first “digital” photography I was exposed to was in 1984, when I was invited as a guest to the photo lab on Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. There, they had film printers that had small TV monitors that showed the image on the negative as a positive. The image could also be color-corrected, and those changes would show on the screen as well. When you had the picture adjusted to your liking, you hit a “print” button and a nice, 4x6 inch print popped out of the machine.

A “Special” photo: Occasionally, other newspapers would request a photo within your coverage area, and this was called a “special” and had to be marked as such, with the requesting newspaper’s name and approving editor. Here is an example of one of these images that I shot during the state basketball championships at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Note too that the caption information is made with a typewriter and is cut from the paper and taped to the photograph to ensure that the information is sent with the photo. On this shot, I apparently mis-numbered this print and wrote the correction in by hand.

Then, the first digital camera I saw was a huge thing that Kodak and the Associated Press developed in the early 1990’s. It was .8 of a megapixel (note the singularity of that word…), weighed in at about 10 pounds, most of which was battery, and took all of the Nikon lenses that most photojournalists used at that time. It also cost about $32,000 per camera.  I was shown the compact flash card and I ignorantly asked the tech, based on my earlier “digital” experience,  “how do you process it?”, not realizing that brown fingernails from photo chemicals was a thing of the past with truly digital images. I had assumed that once the image was made, you had to plug the card into a device similar to the printer on Eglin to make a print. And surprisingly, as stupid as this sounds now, it wasn’t that uncommon in 1990 for a working photojournalist to have a question like this.

I mean, I was tech savvy...I owned a Commodore 64 with the audio cassette tape drive and telenetted into my college’s mainframe server on an 800 baud modem. And at work, we used Radio Shack TRS-80’s (lovingly called “Trash-80’s” by those of us who used them), which you just about needed a PhD in programming to work correctly. Radio Shack is high-tech, right?
Revolution #1: Leafax

Shortly before 1990, the Associated Press introduced the Leafax, a mobile computer system that photographers could take with them. The Leafax contained a scanner, a small 5-inch monitor, and phone connections to allow the digital images to be transmitted. All of this technology was permanently embedded into a metal case that was the size of a small suitcase. The machine could use either color or black and white film, both of which had to be calibrated by using a clear section of that film stock for the scanner to do the calibration before making your actual scans. 

The Leafax also loved underexposed negatives; images that were important but underexposed would be run through a Leafax prior to publication. The system was bulky, even though it was portable. It was also cumbersome to operate and according to my notes, had a total of 18 steps needed to scan an image and transmit it. It was a quantum leap in quality, but the transmission speeds were still quite slow, and most Leafax owners had a “spooler” that worked as a hard drive to save the scanned images to, so that multiple images could be transmitted in succession.

“Hits” in the image due to noise being introduced into the phone line for analog transmission also became a thing of the past because the image was scanned and saved to a digital file. Rather than the image itself being transmitted, the file of the scanned image was transmitted. And while this may seem like splitting hairs, there’s really a significant difference. 

An example of the AP Leafax/Laserphoto- This became the next generation of image from the AP. Note that the caption is made electronically and there’s much more information available to the viewer of the print.

Here’s how to “read” an AP photo:

“TAL109” Stands for the 9th photo transmitted from Talladega. There is a differentiation between the AP images transmitted and those from the local newspaper, The Talladega Daily Home. AP photos always started with the number “100” and increased incrementally while the locally produced photos started with “01”. So, if the Daily Home shot this and transmitted it, it would read “TAL01”

July 25th 1993 the date that the image was transmitted to member newspapers (which wasn’t always the date that the photo was made).

TALLADEGA, AL USA—NASCAR  is the dateline, or location where the image was made, the country the image was made in and a subject “slug” that allowed editors to review images by subject matter.

(AP Photo/ Mark Lent) is the name of the publication or wire service that shot the image and the photographer.

CREDIT: AP by Mark Lent is a request for a mandatory credit line by member papers for that image. In some instances, the image would read “MANDATORY CREDIT” and “Out” specific publications, such as magazines or television. There were differing reasons for doing this, most often to protect the publishing rights of the publication who produced the image.

SLUG: Neil Bonnett is an additional slug used for persons of interest within the event. In this case, it was NASCAR driver Neil Bonnett’s first race out of retirement.

(SJN DFM) SJN is the initials of the photo editor in Washington, D.C. who reviewed the image and DFM is the initials of the photographer who sent the image from the speedway to Washington, D.C.

APLEAFDESK Means that the image was generated using a Leafax and sent digitally to the national photo desk and retransmitted digitally to member newspapers via satellite, where it showed up on the “picturedesk” computer at each members location.

Is a “registration mark”. Note that there are four within this image. This was used by the press department at each publication to line-up the Magenta, Yellow and Cyan printers (AP didn’t transmit a “Black” printer on Laserphotos). Each of these images was placed onto a different negative and had to overlap each other when printing in order to make the color register and look correct. While the marks were helpful, they were often too crude to ensure proper registration and technicians who were known as “color strippers” would drop the image negative onto the pressroom page negative and match the images up using a magnification loop.

“Magenta” is the designation for which printer that image was. Normally, full-color printing at newspapers is known as “four color printing” and means that the image has a plate for Yellow, Magenta, Cyan and Black to make a full color image (Those images were also printed lightest ink to darkest ink as well and where the term “CMYK” comes from. The “K” for black actually stood for “Karbon”, a super-black ink in the early days of printing that was carbon-based.

The gray scale on the image was also used by the press department at each newspaper to ensure that the full tonality of the image was being produced. Press departments would often use densitometers to measure the gray scale to ensure that the image was producing all of the needed tone information.

Revolution #2: DSLRs

By the mid 1990’s most newspapers had the ability to receive photos from the Associated Press digitally by satellite, and editors could view, manipulate and publish these images without making a print of the image. Local images, though, were mostly being shot with traditional film cameras because the technology was still very expensive—a good digital SLR was upwards of $10,000 and didn’t have a quality level that matched film. Most newspapers compromised and shot film, then scanned it with Kodak and Polaroid film scanners on Macs. At that time, a PowerMac with 40MB of RAM, a 4MB, 24 bit “true” color graphics and an 80 MgHtz processor with a 1 GB hard drive would set you back about $6,000 and was a smokin’ hot  Photoshop 2.0 machine.

I’d shot film for several years after this, but in 2002, I read an ad for the new Nikon D100 digital camera, an amazing 6.1MP SLR that was a mere $1,700. I had to have one, and when it was delivered, I felt as if I had the Holy Grail itself in my hands. It amazed me so much that I shot over 1,000 images with it the very first day I had it. I quickly learned though that I needed to shoot those images judiciously, because after shooting, I still had to edit and print… and going through 1,000 images takes a while!

The mechanics of digital imaging in photojournalism have been hammered out, though, and what seemed almost science fiction in 1990 is now common for the working photojournalist, who can transmit “full frame” images from camera to laptop while they’re shooting. The laptop images can be automatically placed into a que and transmitted to the publication almost instantly via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and the Internet. Within a minute of being shot, a photo editor can look at images and make decisions about photo play and coverage while the photographer continues to cover the event. Images can also be sent to the publication’s web site, where they are automatically uploaded to a page that’s created on-the-fly using ASPX and AJAX programming.

Fast Forward

In the past 20 years, the abilities of the working photojournalist have changed almost as much as the technology.  What editors once considered a “low-tech” job has become one of the most technically demanding positions at any media outlet. The modern photojournalist must be an IT manager, writer, videographer, video and photo editor, webmaster, and computer repair technician…and oh yeah, they have to be technically accomplished photographers, too. Since photographers often work alone and away from their offices, having all of these abilities becomes crucial because you can’t send for the publication’s IT staff 250 miles away when you’re having issues with your laptop, Internet, or workflow.

Educational requirements have changed as well. I was 16 years old and in high school when I started my first job as a photojournalist, and one of the editors snidely commented that “trained chimps” could go out and “take pictures” (rather than thoughtfully making them, which is the way I prefer to look at this. Even at 16, I found his ignorance for a profession that he worked so closely with amazing). Now, media companies require a minimum of a college degree and many prefer a graduate degree as well.

Photographers used to major in photography or photojournalism and minor in history, government or political science. Now, they minor in programming, telecommunications and film (engineering track) or computer science.

In spite of all these changes, the core of the profession has remained the same: to record the human condition as openly and honestly as you can. Photojournalism is more than megapixels and binary ones and zeros with digital signaling. It’s a process of thought and emotion from people who are not only trained in all of those technical aspects, but are caring and involved documentarians who identify and capture the essence of their subject in many different types of media with many different situations on a daily basis.


How has technology changed how you work? Share your story in the comments!

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