Thursday, August 20, 2015

Is the DSLR dead?

Back in the Eighties we wondered if photojournalism was dead. With Life magazine shutting down and Time using fewer and smaller photos. Who was publishing picture stories? Picture pages?

Photojournalism didn't die, it just changed. National Geographic launched its own cable channel in 2001, Frontline on PBS in 1984, and television "cameramen" started calling themselves photojournalists. Associated Press led in moving from film to Kodak digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras with low 1.7 megapixel sensors in 1995. (No time taken up processing film.) Photographers could cover a baseball game, upload photos and then cover the winning run at the end of the game. And still make the 11:30 p.m. deadline for the morning papers!

Technology changes have changed journalism and the cell phone is replacing the DSLR!

This reminds me of the past, when press photographers covered events with the 4x5 Speed Graphic. Thinking they needed bigger film size to get better quality, more usable than small 35mm images. They could manipulate the sheet of film when they developed it, but a roll of film meant all the shots got developed the same. Smaller film meant more grainy images, less detail and less cropping in.

But, the 35mm camera and Kodak's Tri-X film enabled photojournalists to better capture the moment, it was faster and you didn't miss a shot. Telephoto lens were smaller and you could carry a couple of cameras with different lenses mounted to get a variety of shots. With reliability and versatility the single-lens reflex and Tri-X beat out the sharper Speed Graphic in the mid Sixties.

Polaroid camera introduced in the early Fifties, eliminated the darkroom. Photographers used it to check their exposure with strobe lights. And some small weekly papers gave them to reporters, who didn't know how to develop film or make prints. Polaroid got a head shot or group photo to go along with the story they were writing.

Today the digital phone can shoot photos. Is it playing the role of a Polaroid or is it a game changer like the 35mm camera? It's doing both.

In 1975, covering the Republican convention in Kansas City for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I had to get the photo in the morning, then drop the film off at the Associated Press darkroom, wait for it to be developed, pick one or two shots and wait for them to make a print. Then, type the caption that would get stuck along the side of the print, and finally, wait to get a go ahead from AP to start transmitting over the phone line. It took 20 minutes for it to scan the b&w photo. Hopefully the Inquirer got the photo before the 7 p.m. deadline for the first edition.

(Try for the first edition, because once the page was made it was difficult with the letterpress to add photos, the photo simply replaced one and fit the same size.)

Those were the good old days. Trying to scoop other papers and offer more coverage than TV.

But with the "smart phone" you can get the photo, add tags, caption and upload immediately.

The so many digital phones around we see live video coverage of riots, storms, concerts, etc. Uploaded to Facebook, TV stations, YouTube, etc.

Where has the DSLR gone? Has it gone the way of the Speed Graphic.

University of California Berkeley School of Communications offers a PDF Mobile Reporting Field Guide to show journalists what equipment then need for covering events with their cell phone. Motion not stills. Sound with visual. Edited on location and uploaded.

My mentors for photojournalism were W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bruce Davidson, along with newspaper photographers like Gary Settle of the N.Y. Times and Brian Lanker in Eugene, Oregon.

Today I admire Bob Sacha, Anthony Suau and Bruce Dale who are embracing the changes in technology. Directing videos that tell a story.

For some the cell phone is like the Polaroid, but for others it is replacing the DSLR. Depends on how professional you are.