By now one would think that I should have become the most wondrous butterfly on this planet, considering how many metamorphoses that I have been through. I mean, if you look upon all the years that I've been in photography, one could assume that I began as an egg, hatched into a larval grub, transmogrified into a pupae and emerged as a full blown butterfly of the species Press Photogrophus Americanus.
But, I am still shedding my previous skin and growing another. Perhaps the analogy is wrong. I should be comparing myself to a snake, not a butterfly. Jeez!
If there is one truth that I have learned in 40 years as a news photographer it is that you can't stand still. If you do, you're dead meat. The craft is ever changing. And God knows the tools and the technology have always been in transition from the beginning. But the changes are coming so fast and so furious lately, that it requires a constant rethinking of the way you operate. And you have to. Rethink, that is. Learn the new technology or flip burgers.
I started my photography with my parents' old Kodak Brownie Box Camera. When I was a high school Sophomore my parents got me my first adjustable camera. A 35 mm Argus C-3. After high school, I went to a commercial photo school in New York City where I learned to use large format cameras. Eventually, I purchased an old 4 X 5 Anniversary Speed Graphic from the school, which I would use for a number of years, even when I first got into press photography. Now there was a lesson in discipline. Automation had not yet reached the science of photography. Every function of taking pictures with a 4 X 5 had to be thought over and carried out manually. This kind of equipment required that you know what you want to get before you press the shutter release. There was no motor drive. No autofocus. No built in exposure meter.
I used a Speed Graphic throughout my four years as a Photographer's Mate in the Navy. And when I was a civilian, once again, I used it when I went to work for a freelance photo service that did commercial, news and insurance photography. At about that time, photographers started using 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 twin lens cameras like the Rolliflex or the Yashica. These cameras were lighter and faster than the bulky 4 X 5's. They used 12 exposure rolls of 120 film and they had film cranks which advanced the film and cocked the shutter at the same time so you could shoot faster than ever. Film speeds got also got faster so that you could make photos with less light. And, if you had to use flash, there were electronic flash guns that didn't necessitate changing bulbs with each exposure. New technology. New thinking. The result was that you didn't have to spend so much time composing your photo before you fired the shutter. You aimed and shot and aimed and shot again. And somewhere in those 12 exposure rolls, there was usually a picture.
By the time I was hired as a staff photographer for Newsday, we depended on the Speed Graphic less and less. We often used a Mamiyaflex 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 camera which had interchangeable lenses. Wow! What a step forward that was. We had the luxury of changing from wide angle, normal and telephoto lenses. One could get pretty creative with all of those goodies. Now you had some control over perspective. And, I shed another skin. But, the best was yet to come.
It took many years of continuing improvements in the equipment, film and technology before 35 mm cameras gained a foothold. And we photographers grew another skin and learned to adapt to these changes and eventually we became comfortable with 35 mm. And we evolved another style of shooting and we became butterflies.
The changes came faster and faster. Lenses of all focal lengths and speeds that were incredible. Film speeds increased by leaps and bounds and grain structure shrank and developers were created that could milk the last bit of quality out of these tiny images. There were autofocus and autoexposure programs and TTL flashguns that did away with the cumbersome method of calculating flash exposures. The camera became a computer and did all of your thinking for you. Motor drives became a staple. Zoom lenses replaced the need for an equipment bag that bulged with fixed focal length lenses. Now we had 36 exposures on a roll and motor drives that could crank all 36 frames through your camera so rapidly it boggled the mind. You didn't even have to pause to snap off one lens and twist on another. You just pumped your zoom lens in and out like a slide trombone. We were making music. It was beautiful. For some of us.
Photographers who never grew up with the discipline of the old Speed Graphic found that all that this new technology accomplished was to fatten the coffers of the film manufacturers. Too many of them hit the motor drive button when they arrived on the scene and just kept grinding away until they had to change rolls. And then they shot another roll and another. And most of their frames looked just like the frames that preceded them. Some of the dinosaurs, who remembered how to make good photographs with old technology tried to carry those early lessons into this brave new world. We enjoyed the capabilities of these new advances. But, for the most part, we set our cameras on manual and used our motor drives as film advance mechanisms on single frame mode. Most of us trusted our own ability to focus properly, rather than relying on the sometimes all too slow autofocus. And while we all certainly shot more exposures than we did with the old cameras, we tried to control what we shot so that only what we wanted appeared on film. It certainly made it easier for our editors who were now forced to look at so many rolls. And it lessened the possibility of bad photos running in the paper with your name under them. I once had a Director of Photography tell me, "If you don't want shitty pictures to run in the paper, don't show them shit." Not a bad philosophy.
And then came color. There is no point in trying to describe what changes that wrought in the way we made photos for the paper. I mean, it required a whole other way of looking at things. For so many years I had looked at color in nature and while I enjoyed the beauties of such a display, in my mind, I was translating things into shades of gray. I remember shooting a fashion spread when we were still a black and white paper. The fashion coordinator suggested that I shoot that lovely pastel green gown with a nice soft brown background paper that was hanging from one wall of our studio. She simply could not comprehend what I was saying when I told her to think of those tones as shades of gray. She kept telling me that one was green and one was brown. I kept telling her that one was light gray and the other was LIGHT GODDAMNED GRAY! Now I had to learn color and color balance and flesh tones and different kelvin temperatures of various light sources. And that was no easy task.
And just when I thought that I had it all down pat and could relax and utilize what I had learned, I was informed that my paper was shutting down its printing darkroom, retraining all of the darkroom technicians and requiring all staff photographers to scan our negatives and input them into computers. It was time to start spinning another cocoon.
We were given a crash course by Apple which consisted of teaching us how to boot up a Mac and what the little icons meant. We had about an hour of instruction in Photoshop and then we were on our own. Some of our shooters were computer literate and they taught the rest of us and little by little we learned the ways of the digital image, even though we were still using film cameras.
I was reluctant to learn this new technology. I thought it went too far afield from the photography that I loved so dearly. This was electronic mumbo jumbo. To this day, I can't grasp the concept of all those 0's and 1's making a picture out of my work. But, it was learn or flip burgers. This was the start of the biggest metamorphosis of my entire career. I was never a real whiz bang in the darkroom. Oh, given enough time and enough photographic paper, I could turn out a decent print. But, the more that I worked with Photoshop, the more I realized that I could do the same burning and dodging and cropping with the computer that I could do in a wet darkroom. Not only that, but I could do it with more accuracy and with greater ease. And guess what? I could even take Bill Clinton's head and put it on Al Gore's body? (Now why would I even want to do that?) I could. But, I won't. Commercial and artistic photographers may play those kinds of games with their images, but there is an ethic in this profession which prohibits that kind of manipulation. It's the same ethic that the print journalists are supposed to abide by. It's called "Truth In Journalism."
A couple of months ago, I was handed
a brand new Nikon D-1 Digital camera. And I had to become another kind
of butterfly. I worked with it for a month before I was comfortable enough
to start using it on assignments to the exclusion of my film cameras. I
have to tell you that I love it. It has opened up whole new worlds to me.
Photography is always photography. The D-1 is based pretty much on the
Nikon F-5 body. The lenses from my film cameras work on the Digital. However,
due to the difference in size of the light gathering CCD in the digi compared
to the size of the 35mm film image, you have to multiply a factor of 1.5
to the focal length. So, a 20 mm lens becomes a 30 mm. A 300 mm becomes
a 450 mm. I find that exposure is more critical on digital than with film.
Well, it's like working with slide film. If you overexpose, you blow the
highlights out of the ballpark. I'm still working on different light ratios
using the Nikon SB-28 flashgun on TTL mode. I like the LCD viewing screen
on the camera back. I can make a test shot and instantly preview it for
exposure and light ratio. It's like having a Polaroid back on the camera.
If I like what I see, I continue making pictures. The first month or so,
I didn't get much life out of the rechargeable camera batteries. Previewing
them, all the time, on the LCD screen really sucks up the juice. Now, I
don't have to look at each frame that I make. (Can we still use the term
"frame?") I used to shoot a lot of exposures when I first started using
the digi because I was uncertain of the results. I probably still shoot
more digital images than I would were I using film. But, digi "film" is
reusable. I have two flashcards. One will hold about 60 JPEGS. The
other about 160. I will soon be issued a laptop computer. I can always
download my images onto the hard drive, reformat the discs, and start shooting
again, if I have to. The first time I came back to the office with an assignment
shot entirely on a flashcard, I found myself walking into the room with
the Fuji film processing machines. Old habits are hard to break. As a gag,
I taped the tiny flashcard onto the leader plastic that feeds the film
into the machines, and walked into the scan room to tell the technicians
that the machine wouldn't accept my pictures. Well, I thought it was funny.
Life is good. I am 67 years old and I feel like a newly hatched butterfly.
|Contents Page||Editorials||The Platypus||Links||Copyright|
|Portfolios||Camera Corner||War Stories||Dirck's Gallery||Comments|
|Issue Archives||Columns||Forums||Mailing List||E-mail Us|