News photographers in the field hear the question all the time. Someone looks at their considerable camera and asks, “Is that digital?”
These days, in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any newspaper photographer whose camera is not.
During the past half-dozen years, digital cameras have swept aside their film predecessors (and accompanying darkrooms) as the tool of choice among newspapers. Even photo-heavy magazines, such as National Geographic, are joining the digital wave, though the new cameras so far are more widespread in newspapers.
Photographers are mixed on whether the switch to digital has saved money, but the changeover is beyond a simple cost comparison. Digital cameras have increased photo use in newspapers, allowed more far-reaching coverage and given photographers more time behind the lens.
They’ve allowed more immediate portrayal of the news through Web sites and, in the process, changed the life of a news photographer.
Complaints about the cameras remain, but major deterrents such as image quality, speed and heavy price tags have dissipated with each new model to hit the market.
Mike Fender, director of photography at The Indianapolis Star, said the newspaper has used all digital photos for more than five years. The daily’s 15 photographers are equipped with $3,800 or $4,000 Nikon and Canon digital cameras.
Even small weeklies with lesser budgets can go digital relatively painlessly, Fender said, since buyers can find a good digital camera for $1,000 to $1,500.
The switch has saved The Star money in film — which alone cost the paper $100,000 per year — and processing materials. But he said those price tags have been replaced by the drumbeat cost of computer upgrades and maintenance, because digital cameras still lack the fortitude of their film counterparts.
“I’m not sure it saves a lot (of money) in the long run,” Fender said, of the switch to digital. “(But) it improves the news product, and that’s my main thing.”
For example, he said, The Star’s photographers once had to leave Indiana Pacers NBA games by halftime to process the film by deadline. With digital they can shoot until the final buzzer.
“We might (have left) at halftime with the Pacers up by 10, and then they lose,” Fender said, of the film days. “But our photo would show the Pacers winning.”
DECISIONS BEHIND THE SWITCH
Indeed, sports coverage has proved one of the driving engines behind the switch to digital. Joe Harpring, chief photographer at The Republic newspaper in Columbus, Ind., said in early 1999 the paper decided to purchase one digital camera and an accompanying laptop computer for deadline situations, particularly late sports games.
Indiana’s conversion to high school class sports in the late 1990s meant teams and photographers were traveling farther for games, Harpring said, and downloading images from a digital would save time. But the digital cameras were very costly, and the option was limited.
Then things changed. In fall 1999, Nikon introduced its new D1 digital model, which produced better results than previous $10,000 (and up) digitals, and was about half the price. With the D1, digital suddenly took the upper hand over film.
The newspaper, which has a circulation of about 22,000, quickly reconsidered and invested more in the new technology. The Republic shot its first digital photos at a New Year’s celebration at the end of 1999, and six months later the paper knocked down its darkroom walls.
The switch has saved money for The Republic, Harpring said. The paper used to spend $30,000 per year on film and darkroom costs. Meanwhile, digital camera prices continue to fall. He said the Nikon’s newer D2H, with better speed and quality than the D1, can be bought for less than $2,000.
Besides, he added, digital spared photographers from dealing with nose-numbing conditions in the darkroom, and it saved the newspaper the hassle of properly disposing the processing chemicals.
Perhaps there’s no greater testament to improving digital quality than National Geographic’s hiring of Ken Geiyer from the Dallas Morning News to help the magazine publish more digital photos, just as he did at the newspaper.
National Geographic Associate Editor Dennis Dimick said only 5 to 10 percent of the pictures in the magazine are shot with digital equipment, but that figure is likely to grow as the marketplace continues to phase out film.
“It’s important for us to get good at digital,” he said. “The handwriting is on the wall.”
While the magazine will continue to support film, the digital option is becoming more viable as most of the camera industry’s research and development money is going to digital, Dimick said.
The quality of digital photos is great, he added, although the magazine requires photographers who shoot digital to use six-megapixel cameras or greater.
One challenge posed by digital is assimilating computer software that will recognize all types of raw images shot by different cameras, Dimick said. News photographers often save raw files from their digital cameras as compressed JPEG images, which is fine for newspaper publication, but JPEGs lack traits sought for magazine photos.
Digital cameras also could be a liability in the field, where National Geographic photographers generally shoot 40,000 photos per story. Digitals require frequent recharging, not to mention an accompanying computer to download, save or send images at the end of the day — a challenging prospect during a monthslong assignment in the jungle.
“When you’re done with film,” he countered, “you can just put the roll in the bag and be done.”
DRAWBACKS, JOB CHANGES
Even in newspapers’ eyes, digital cameras still have room for improvement. Longtime photographer J. Bruce Baumann, executive editor at the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press, shot with film for most his career but said the newspaper has been fully digital for three years. The cost comparison has been “about a wash,” he said.
The paper likes to use large photos, Baumann said, so it stuck with film cameras until the new digitals could match the quality.
Baumann is satisfied with digital in general, but he listed a few complaints. A digital camera still has trouble with low-light situations, he said, creating noise in the image — in film it’s called grain.
Digital flash cards can corrupt and erase images, he added, and digital cameras eat battery strength ravenously. Newer versions are more efficient, however, and battery costs have dropped.
Baumann also said maintenance costs are higher because digital cameras are more fragile and susceptible to water.
“The cameras don’t take the beating the old Nikon Fs took,” Baumann said. “The old Nikon F in 1960, you could drive nails with it.”
Still, he spoke fondly of how the paper’s photographers recently attended an Indianapolis Colts NFL playoff game in Massachusetts and sent back photos within minutes using digital cameras and laptops.
“This is a tremendous advancement for photojournalism,” Baumann said, even after explaining the shortfalls. “Any time you can spend more time on journalism, it’s better.”
But with the new technology has come new kinds of demands on a news photographer’s time. The Republic’s Harpring said the newspaper generally ran four pictures on the front page when film was king; these days, he said, there might be a dozen photo elements.
A film photographer at The Republic could expect to turn in color photos by 8:30 p.m., Harpring added, but faster turnaround times are now required. An editor called him at home at 11 p.m. one night to shoot a nearby house fire; by 12:15 a.m. Harpring turned in his digital photos for the next day’s paper and was hanging up his coat.
“The ante is up from what it was,” he said. “The public’s expectation of immediacy, you can’t underestimate that.”
The changes are becoming the norm. Darron Cummings, a photographer for the Associated Press in Indiana, has been shooting news since 1985. He, along with several other veteran photographers, couldn’t think of a single newspaper still shooting with film.
“After you saw the quality, after you saw how effectively they can be used, a lot of people just got on board with it,” Cummings said.
He said sometimes he thinks it would be fun to take film on assignment again, but those days were gone when the newsroom got rid of its film cameras.
“They were sitting there losing money,” Cummings said. “Why even have it around? We’re not even using it.”
Dave Evensen is a daily newspaper reporter and freelance writer from Bloomington, Ind.