DPP Home Profiles Tyler Hicks - Into The Combat Zone

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tyler Hicks - Into The Combat Zone

While New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks takes pictures of some of the most hellish events on the planet, he manages to capture moments that reaffirm life in the midst of violence and death

Gear On The Go

When taking pictures, Hicks used then and still uses today the JPEG file format at the highest resolution and quality. In the fall of 2001, he only had a few 256 MB CF cards, so storage was at a premium.

“My kit then was a basic Apple PowerBook with a fried keyboard, a few CF cards—both 128 MB and 256 MB—and my Nikon,” he says. “I had no external hard drives to back up my images. To get around that problem, my colleagues and I shared computer hard drive space and backed up each other's pictures.”

Nowadays, they have all learned to be prepared. “I bring a huge hard drive, two computers, lots of compressed air, disc maintenance software and system CDs,” says Hicks. All of this is required to ensure that he can stay up and running no matter how difficult the conditions become.

“The thing that really gets you is the dust,” he says. “In Afghanistan, the dust is so fine that it's simply a matter of time before it gets inside your computer. In the morning, even if there's no wind, you'll see a fine layer of dust on everything in your room. It also gets into your camera. Your sensors are absolutely coated with dust. Even when you take those two seconds to change lenses, you just know that the dust is going to get inside. When I shoot at a wide aperture—ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6—I don't see as much dust as opposed to stopping down to ƒ/22, where I see every grain.”

When taking his pictures and prepping them for The New York Times, Hicks doesn't use a lot of Photoshop in the field. Since he has to send them back via satellite phone, “I just load them on screen, resize them a bit smaller and then send them off to The New York Times,” he says.

Data Transfer Via Satellite

In the fall of 2001, Hicks' data transfer toolset was the Thrane & Thrane Inmarsat Mini-M phone. It would take an average of 15 to 20 minutes to send one compressed photograph. As the technology improved, he switched to the Thuraya satellite phone to send images, which was capable of sending data at 19.2 kilobits per second.

When traveling overseas on assignment today, Hicks brings a handful of satellite phones, some of which can be used for both voice and data. By simply connecting a USB cable from the base of the Thuraya phone to his laptop, he can dial the phone access number of The New York Times server and then transfer his photographs.

Says Hicks, “The transfer speeds were slow, but at least the satellites were in geosynchronous orbit, so they would stay put and I could take the time needed to upload and send my pictures.”

With such slow connections, one could ill afford the bandwidth to launch a web browser or an e-mail application. The “bit” budget provided only for the use of FTP software to move files. On a normal day, Hicks could send seven images.

Today, photographers use the Inmarsat RBgan data sled and satellite. These sleds have an Ethernet data port that allows photographers to transmit data at 56 kilobits per second. In addition, there's a directional antenna on the sled itself, which one can adjust for optimal communication with the satellite.

“The RBgan satellite system charges $15 per megabyte, but you can be anywhere in the world and use it,” says Hicks. “The setup is very easy and user-friendly. There's no special software to install. Simply launch your browser, and when you connect the data sled, the RBgan system points you to their start page. After you log in, the application finds an available satellite and begins your data session.”


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