DPP Home Profiles Patrick Whelan, Joe Raedle, Justin Sullivan & Spencer Platt - War Photography: From The Field To The Cover

Friday, June 8, 2007

Patrick Whelan, Joe Raedle, Justin Sullivan & Spencer Platt - War Photography: From The Field To The Cover

Photojournalists equipped with digital SLRs, laptop computers and satellite modems took pictures that were available to their editors within hours or even minutes

War PhotographyThe combination of professional-level digital cameras that can withstand the rigors of hard-core photojournalism along with the ability to transmit large image files has quickly transformed the work of the combat photographer and the assignment editor.

Photojournalists working during the first Gulf War and the armed conflict in Afghanistan used new digital technology, but it wasn't until the war in Iraq in 2003 that a completely digital workflow became possible. High-resolution D-SLRs, fast laptop computers with high-capacity hard disks and satellite links with sufficient bandwidth are the key elements that made turnaround for the combat photojournalists practically instantaneous. There's a world of difference between the e-mailing and modeming of images that was available before and what photojournalists can do now. It's analogous to the difference between fax machines in the 1970s that could transmit a page in 15 minutes versus current models that do 15 pages in one minute.

Speed of turnaround is only one part of the revolution. Digital technology also helps ensure that the photographs actually survive for publication and posterity. Consider this nightmarish case: In 1945, Robert Capa went ashore with the first wave at Omaha Beach. He relayed film back to one of the ships offshore and it was rushed to New York for special processing. Several hours later, a group of editors at Life Magazine gathered around a table as a lab tech hurriedly dried the negatives that showed the very first images of the Allied invasion at Normandy. The viewers, including the lab tech, were so transfixed by what they saw that they froze, and in so doing, the heat gun that was drying the negatives got too close and the emulsion melted, leaving only a handful of photographs intact. (When Life published the surviving photographs, it claimed the blurry look was because Capa's hands were shaking.)

Today's photojournalists working in the far-flung regions of the world rarely lose an image when they're implementing a digital workflow. In the recent war in Iraq, there were almost no accounts of lost photographs. That's at least partially attributable to the fact that digital images were stored redundantly. Once the photographs were taken, the cards were downloaded to a laptop. Many photographers used a compact, redundant hard disk system to keep two copies of the image files with them. When images are transmitted to the photo editors, they're archived at that end as well. The result is a number of safe copies in various locations.

Digital photojournalism's finest hour came in the spring of 2003. The need for images to get from the battlefront in Iraq to the pages of newspapers and magazines, and the screens of 24-hour news services as quickly as possible called for the ultimate state-of-the-art photo gear and transmission equipment to be drafted into service.


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