The Digital Journalist

Digital Photojournalism
Turns a Corner

Editorial by Dirck Halstead

The measure of the impact change has is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder. Until we are affected directly, change is immaterial. So it has been for those of us who practice magazine photojournalism. All around us we have seen newspapers and wire services move from film to digital. Frankly, the newsmagazines have dragged their feet in making the shift.

For a long time the excuse was that "digital is not capable of producing the high quality necessary for covers and big double-truck layouts," and yet, wire services were managing to get an increasingly high number of digital photos into these same editorial spaces. We, the photographers, were going to have to lead the way in digital use.

One of the biggest obstacles for us as small business people was the almost prohibitive cost of buying professional digital cameras. It was one thing to buy a conventional EOS1n for a few thousand bucks--it was an entirely different matter to pop for a $30,000 investment in a digital camera.

However, it was becoming increasingly apparent that digital was going to be a part of our future, whether the editors wanted it or not. Then, a timely shift in the landscape occurred. The signal event was President Clinton's trip to Vietnam at the end of last November.

With the story happening at magazine deadline and on the other side of the world, standing a chance of getting a picture published meant shooting digital. Even though this fact had to be apparent to our respective editors, they were no help in getting cameras to us. Fortunately, Canon had just come out with the D-30. At the price of a regular film camera, and with improved 9-MB resolution (almost double the earlier, more expensive models), we now had the tool we needed.

Since then, digital has become my new best friend. During the visit of President-elect George W. Bush to Washington to meet with Vice President Gore, I used my D30 to photograph their snow-covered meeting, and in less than an hour, my pictures were in editorial offices throughout Europe. My colleagues P.F. Bentley and David Hume Kennerly have both put their publications on notice that their coverage of the first 100 days of the Bush administration will be largely digital.

The ability to edit our own takes has given back to us the creative process control we used to have. The current issue of Time Magazine features a three picture spread by P.F., which he shot on Capitol Hill, using his new D30. From his hotel room, which has a DSL high-speed Internet connection, he was able to pump several of his photographs to the magazine. Although the editors had the final selection choice, P.F. was able to make the initial selection, Photoshopping them on his laptop. The ability to edit our own takes is like learning to take control of the creative process all over again

Fortunately, cameras like the D-30 are just the beginning. In the past month, two companies, Eastman Kodak and Foveon, have announced break-through technologies in resolution. Kodak has come up with a new chip that can capture a resolution of 4,096 by 4,096 pixels per-square-inch, which is about twice the resolution of 35mm film. Foveon, a silicon-valley chip designer, has created a prototype camera that has virtually eliminated all pixels or grain.

Foveon gave the camera to famed photographer Greg Gorman to test, and after blowing up an image he shot to 8'x4'-- no dots were visible to the naked eye. This camera could put 4x5 view cameras on the shelf forever, let alone Mamiyas and Hasselblads. Most amazing, this chip technology could produce professional cameras for less than $100.

Ultimately, of course, it doesn't matter whether you put the chips in still or video cameras. In fact, the differences between the two cameras may become increasingly irrelevant. This is what we have been suggesting at The Digital Journalist for the past three years. The key to success will be the mind and the eye of the photojournalist.

Welcome to 2001.

Dirck Halstead

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