Photography Then & Now

An antique Kodak film camera, foreground, and a Canon EOS 1-D  Mark IIn. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

An antique Kodak film camera, foreground, and a Canon EOS 1-D Mark IIn. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Do you ever yearn for photography ‘back in the day’? Long to be quietly making prints  in a romantic, dim darkroom? Think that life would be so much nicer with just a couple of rolls of actual film in your pocket? Here’s  a reflection upon what has changed and what has not in the world of photography over the course of my career…..

I ran across the following thread on the PhotoForum site recently.

The Post:

“Two things I miss from my SRT 201: Focusing screen (which can be fixed) and aperture ring. The ring wouldn’t be a big deal if I had a second wheel, but as it stands I have to use the mod-button to do the aperture. Oh well, maybe I’ll just upgrade to a D300”

And The Reply:

“I have to agree. I don’t care that they eliminated the f-stop ring but, they also eliminated the distance scales. It wouldn’t bother me too much about the distance scale if they would put split prisms or, micro prisms back in for manual focusing. No I take that back, I want the distance scales back.”

This thread  got me thinking about what has changed and what has not over the course of my career as a news photographer. PLENTY has changed, but then the most fundamental things have definitely not.

The beauty of old film camera mechanics is still something I greatly admire. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

The beauty of old film camera mechanics is still something I greatly admire. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

When I began professionally in the late 1970s, I was shooting black and white ISO 400 Tri-X film with a Nikon F2 and FM cameras.  I processed that film in a stainless steel tank on reels that I loaded up in a darkroom. We kept D76 developer in 5-gallon tanks; Acufine developer was our choice if we needed to “push” the film to ISO 1600. Our big “innovation” at the time were Senrac film dryers, which were basically tubes with a blow dryer on the end, to dry the film quickly for deadline processing. Negatives were edited on a big light table, (no time for contact sheets) then taken off to the darkroom for printing. Darkrooms were laid out with trays of D76 paper developer and fixer, ready to go. (The image magically appearing in that tray, under the dim yellow of the safelight, was the first “positive” view anyone had of that image.)  We used Kodak paper that had to be dried on big ferrotype drum dryers, then rushed out to the Photo Desk for an editor to see. Newspapers were mostly all black and white, since no one had presses that could really print decent color yet.

Looking back on it, those days were an industrial nightmare! Think about it: hours a day spent in enclosed dark spaces with the vapors of strong chemicals wafting through the air. We all had permanently yellow-stained fingernails from the fixer we used. Nothing about the developing/printing process would pass muster in today’s workplace environment.

A $20,000 NC2000 digital camera.

A $20,000 NC2000 digital camera.

Color film and processing/printing came, then the very first Macintosh computers and negative scanners (to digitize your negs for the computer).  Finally, in 1994, the first real digital camera, the NC2000, was introduced by Kodak and the Associated Press. It was based upon a Nikon N90 film body and a huge, hulking digital attachement down below. These first cameras cost as amazing $20,000 apiece, were full of digital noise and shot fragile, actual-glass hard drives. We bought three of them and were delighted to have them!  By eliminating film, processing and printing time, they extended photo deadlines by at least an hour in most situations, meaning you could shoot later and still make the newspaper.

The cameras of course quickly developed and got better as money poured into R&D for the amateur market. First tower computers, then laptops, wireless capability and the internet all changed this business even more. At big deadline-driven sporting events now, it’s not uncommon to have photographers shooting photos which are wirelessly transmitted to editors sitting at workstations miles away who edit and publish the images to news services within minutes of the exposure.

This sounds like a far cry from those early film days, and in a sense, this is true. But what interests me more is what simply does NOT change: the picture-making, creative process. One of the things that has always delighted me as a photographer is the problem-solving, art-making process that we all go through each and every time we pick up a camera. Nothing is ever straightforward, not really. Every situation has something to figure out. Each time you aim your camera at a subject, all of your past experience (or lack thereof) comes to bear upon your decision-making process. You work your way through this process intuitively, absorbed in the image you want to create. You watch and observe the light, the all-important light,  relate and react to your subject (if human), go through the dance we all dance as photographers, intent upon pursuing our goal, the ultimate, beautiful photograph.

So I would argue that nothing important has changed at all! This other stuff-the technology of photography, which has always been on a fierce change-driven path-has no real bearing upon the  pursuit of our vision as photographers.

So the more things change, the more they really DO stay the same!

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Equipment, Inspire

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

5 Comments on "Photography Then & Now"

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  1. My dad’s old Pentax film camera is still working. it’s amazing how the merchandsie in their day are really quite sturdy. Moreover, until now, my dad never fails to put me in awe whenever he shows us some photos taken by that camera. Everything seems so much more impressive when done the old fashioned way.

  2. Hey Lauren,
    Maybe it seems impressive because everything was so much harder back then! Buy some film, expose the film (no peeking in an LCD to see if what you tried even worked the way you hoped/thought it would). Develop the film. Go into a darkroom, mix up chemicals, make a contact sheet. Edit the contact sheet. Go back into a darkroom, make a few prints….did I mention that you needed money for the printing paper too? And the chemicals? There’s never been a better time in the world to be a photographer than RIGHT NOW!

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