How Evolutions Become Revolutions
December 2009

by Dirck Halstead

When we teach our 37th Platypus Workshop in Las Vegas in April, we will be taking a major step in video journalism. For the past 10 years, Canon has been supporting these workshops and we always worked with the cutting edge of technology. First it was the XL1, which redefined how a professional video camera looked and worked, then through the various models of the XL up through the XL H1, the first professional high-definition camera, then the XH A1 and XH G1 cameras. This year we will be teaching on a DSLR camera that only costs $1,750. The EOS 7D camera utilizes an 18MP CMOS sensor that's roughly 10 times bigger than the 1/3" CCDs used in the XL H1 professional camcorder.

The reason we have made the move is that these cameras have revolutionized video. The first time we showed a broadcast cameraman the results from the Mark II he was nearly speechless. He could only get out, "God! If I could only shoot video like that!"

Because of its use of standard Canon EF lenses, the sensor mimics what previously you only got from a 16mm or 35mm camera film camera.

All of a sudden, experienced directors of photography in Hollywood are shunning the industry-standard Panavision cameras that you can only rent, for this little whippersnapper that costs less than most Hollywood lunches.

So, Canon should be ecstatic, right?

Well, not really. Because the success of these cameras comes at the cost of dropping sales of their high-end video products. Nobody needs to spend $7,500 on an XL H1, much less $100,000 on a Sony CineAlta. Furthermore, with an industry-wide recession of professional cameras, the $1,500 camera will do just fine, as opposed to a "professional" camera costing upwards of $8,000.

When I started in news photography, the 4x5 Speed Graphic was what I used, along with virtually every one of my colleagues. If we needed long lenses to cover a football game, we used a modified Bell & Howell 16mm Filmo camera. If we needed long lenses to cover baseball, we used a Graflex with a long lens, called a "Big Bertha." Folmer Graflex Corp., based in Rochester, N.Y., had a lock on the professional market.

Then along came the 2-1/4 cameras such as the Rolleiflex and the Yashicamat, which replaced the Speed Graphics in most daily news operations. Starting in the early '50s, 35mm, which newspapers and agencies had been slow to adopt because of grain problems, replaced the 2-1/4 cameras.

In each of these evolutions it became impossible to turn back.

Now Canon has raised the bar again by introducing the hybrid camera. What it has done is make instantly obsolete all other cameras of its type, including their own.

In time, other manufacturers such as Nikon will begin to figure out what Canon has done, work on improving the design of their hybrid camera, and introduce their own versions of the Canon hybrids.

But once they do, there is no turning back. There are a lot of cameras heading for the trash compactor.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from

blog comments powered by Disqus