The Digital Journalist Survey On The Impact Of Digital In Photojournalism

September 2003

by Dirck Halstead

In our last issue, we asked our readers to respond to a survey on the impact of digital in their lives. There is no question that digital is now the preferred medium for photojournalism. There was not one respondent who longed to return to film.

In my Advanced Photojournalism class at the University of Texas at Austin, we teach entirely on digital. The wet labs are in the process of being shut down. This means that students who emerge into the profession take digital as a matter of course. J.D. Perkins, a freelance photographer wrote "the marketplace has been digital since I left college, so it hasn't changed the way I worked-I've always had a digital component to my workflow."

There were some real surprises in the responses to the survey. We expected that most readers would rank speed as the number one effect that digital has had on their work. 20% of the respondents ranked this as the main change. A far larger number wrote that digital has actually stimulated their ability to experiment. One respondent told us his experience.. "Being able to act like a free spirit. I have my wireless laptop mobile phone & DSLR and can basically do the jobs I need to do in greater number because the turn around time is faster, and I can spend longer on other assignments that would otherwise have been compromised by impending deadlines." Long time Newsday photographer, Dick Kraus writes "I find that I am able to shoot more varied pictures and try different techniques since I am able to monitor my shots as soon as I make them. If I try something and it doesn't work, I can make immediate adjustments and keep trying until I am satisfied." Richard Levine concurs, "it has allowed me to experiment with different effects and light while getting immediate feedback." Picture editors took this one step further. David Cantor of The Blade in Toledo wrote, "multiple digital delivery outlets allow editors to process image search requests with not only greater speed but also allow editors to offer more choices. Also, image choices are presented by providers more quickly than in analog days"

While some photographers were ecstatic about the ability to turn out far more images in a day, this also had a downside, Newsweek contract photographer Chris Usher wrote," I find that digital photography actually creates more work. This is mainly due to the fact that EVERY IMAGE has to have complete and thorough information, Usually a blanket caption won't do. In the case of a typical White House event, you will shoot a variety of characters in attendance as well as the President and whoever might be with him. This creates an incredible amount of work as you must go through an identify each frame individually instead of just writing "President Bush signs the Tax Cut Bill in the East room of the White House." Although this inevitably creates a much better archive of information in the long run, it's certainly more time consuming than maintaining an analog file with a job envelope enclosed."

18% complained about the cost of digital. Compared to the life of a film camera, which often would extend into decades, the constant upgrading of digital cameras and software means greater cost in filling a camera bag. Freelancer Greg Mironchuk wrote, "it's drastically, dramatically, and dangerously increased my capital outlay budget." J.D.Perkins agrees."cost and obsolesce of equipment.-Not only do you need new computers every 2 or 3 years, but also new cameras. There are ways around this, but if you are paying for your own kit, you better have one hell of a lot of work that pays well, just to pay back the loans." On a more prosaic level, Mironchuk wrote, "you need $2500 worth of equipment just to LOOK at the pictures. You can't hold a CD up to the light to see what's on it.

Probably more respondents would have mentioned cost, but the vast majority were staff photographers, which skewed the results away from people who actually paid for their own gear.

When asked what they liked the most about digital, speed and the ability to instantly see what they had photographed were high on the list. Rob Miracle wrote "speed is a big one, but the biggest is the ability to know what you have before you leave so if you don't like what you have you can usually stay at the scene until you get the something you like. Since we don't recreate things, it was not good to get back to the darkroom and find you missed something important." Chris Usher added "the best thing about digital is the instant gratification of seeing the image as it is made; it's like a never-ending pack of Polaroid film. I find this helpful in that I can move on to a new picture idea knowing that I got what I wanted out of a situation. When shooting film I would typically have to over shoot to ensure that I got the picture. On a business level, digital allows the images to be accessible, via a web site, almost instantaneously as news is made by cutting out the costs of shipping, processing and scanning, which film requires. In addition, notwithstanding the initial costs of digital equipment, it seems to have created a boon to budding photographers who no longer have to buy and process rolls and rolls of film as they experiment with their technologies and vision on smaller incomes." Freelancer Greg Smith adds "the ability to say 'what if'' for almost no incremental cost, freeing me to shoot the marginal and discover that it is not really marginal but is, instead, the core of a scene's meaning." At the editor's level, David Cantor replies "its ease of workflow and the ability to multi-task. For editors who handle photos for multiple sections of the newspaper, the digital platform allows those editors to simultaneously handle multiple requests, be it pre-press processing or image searches for story development, with greater efficiency." Many of the respondents also liked the ability to change ISO speeds and color balance instantly.

We asked about the empowerment that might come with digital.

80% responded that digital had in fact changed their lives. Dick Kraus wrote, "Without question it has given me the ability to shoot and work on my images in ways that were never possible with film and chemistry." Chris Usher writes "indeed, digital photography does add some degree of empowerment particularly when there is a deadline and the editor wants just a few images e-mailed or FTP'd as it allows the photographer to edit his or her own work. Or in the case that the photographer burns a CD of the shoot, it allows them the option of including a folder of selects along with the raw take." Richard Levine wrote that he felt "more self-assured and willing to try different things."

Most of the respondents felt that they now had more influence on the presentation of their images to editors. They cited being able to create slide shows, and the fact that they were no longer "hidden away in the darkroom" However, The Blade's photo editor David Cantor offers "because of remote filing, photographers are often bereft to how the story and its images are advancing in newsroom dialogue during the course of the day. This may translate into less influence in image presentation. If the editors and photographers do not talk enough about both assignment issues and the resulting images, this may hamper editors who present the images in budget and make-up meetings. Unless newsroom managers make a commitment to shore up the assignment and usage dialogue, the digital environment may leave editors and photographers with less influence in image presentation than in the days of analog, film to print and face-to-face photo presentation forum."

On the question of marketability of their images, there was an interesting split in opinion. Most staff photographers at newspapers and relative newcomers to freelancing had found that the ability to offer their photographs to outside markets via the World Wide Web had created new business for them. On the other hand, most established freelancers found that their income from stock sales had dramatically declined. Greg Mironchuk writes "in the past there were relatively few photographers doing this sort of work, and the availability of their work was limited to VERY discrete channels (wire services, agencies, a few independent marketers), so editors and picture buyers were dealing with what they perceived as a fairly discrete number of providers. The Internet makes available bewildering panoply of agencies and independents. Instantly. Such that if I were a picture buyer, skimming through hundreds and hundreds of thumbnails of VERY similar pictures of the same events. I might have a natural tendency to de-value the worth of any specific photographer, or any specific image." Roy Inman reinforces this opinion writing, "the perception among many picture buyers is that a digital image somehow has less value; after all they really don't exist. A 4x5 color transparency still commands more respect." Rich Schulman adds, "the availability and quality of amateur and prosumer digital cameras has undoubtedly been one factor in keeping the rates of freelance photographers down or losing ground in relation to inflation."

However, freelancer Doug Wilson sums up "I think that unless you have digital capabilities your marketability as a freelance photojournalist is going to become severely limited."

The survey reveals in no uncertain terms that digital is now the medium that any photographers working in editorial must use. Digital has proved to be a robust medium. The only photographs that survived from photographer Bill Biggart's work at the World Trade Center on 9/11 came from his Canon digital camera. Almost all photographers covered the Iraq war on digital. However, with rapid advances in chip technology, keeping up with the new cameras has outstripped the ability of many freelancers to buy them. The good news is that now the initial development costs have been recovered by manufacturers, future improvements in CD size should remain fairly low cost, with the premium cameras not exceeding $7500, and that technology quickly working its way down to lower cost models. However, some feel that digital is still in the early stages of what it is capable of. One respondent wrote, There is still "over complicated technology especially about color and white balance, I'd much prefer if the manufacturers centered less on existing tech and utilized a new approach to overcoming previous inherent parameter variations like White Balance and color parameter tech. There are standards out there, Id prefer if they were uniform and adhered to by the Camera manufacturers. " It still takes too long to edit on the computer, much longer than on a light table. Batch captioning software needs to developed. The survey also points out that the change does not come at low cost. 40% of respondents cautioned against thinking that digital is cheaper than film. The principal worry is that publications that routinely paid for film and processing now think that the processing or post-production costs are somehow without cost. Many of these publications have ceased to pay for digital transmission costs. Yet, the time that photographers must spend finishing the job is growing exponentially. It was clear to these publications that the processing of film cost money, yet moving those costs from the lab to the photographer does not seem to be in the equation.

Photographers have invested in new equipment, learned new technologies and increased their value to publications. Now it is time for those publications to compensate those who are providing these images for that value

Most importantly, the survey reveals that photographers look at the new medium of digital as simply a new and better way of expanding their creativity, all to the end of getting better pictures.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor & Publisher
The Digital Journalist


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