On the 18th of November 1998 my working life changed. Forever. That was the day when I received my first professional digital camera that was solely for my use. The Kodak DCS520 was a Kodak/Canon hybrid camera (also known as the Canon D2000) based on the Canon EOS1N that had a 1.9 megapixel CCD sensor with a small LED display on the back and removable PCMCIA flash storage cards. It was a revolutionary piece of kit and it didn’t seem to matter that it had a 1.6x crop factor. Nor did it matter that it didn’t work properly with the 540EZ Speedlight which was the top-of-the range offering from Canon at the time. We didn’t even mind the shutter lag because the DCS520 was infinitely better than the previous DCS offerings and much more convenient than having to process and scan colour negative film.
I started to use my Lumedyne battery flash kit on almost every job which meant having battery chargers for the cameras and the flash units in the car running off of a voltage inverter. Between jobs everything went on charge because nothing worked if you ran out of power.
To add to the joy of getting that massive box with that massive camera I was also given a new Apple PowerBook 520C laptop and a 14mm f2.8L lens. A few weeks later my second DCS520 appeared and suddenly I was a full-on digital news photographer! Modems got better and then ISDN was installed at my flat – after a very short time I rarely needed to go into the office. We still shot colour transparency film for a lot of magazine jobs through 1999 and 2000 but over time that started to change too as software for interpolating (increasing the file size) the pictures became available and very efficient. Being a staff photographer back then was very useful because the financial outlay on getting this kit was huge. The batteries were expensive and the PCMCIA memory cards were crazy money.
Of course, compared to the technical marvels that we shoot with these days, they weren’t that great. You went above 400 ISO with fear and trepidation and you never over-exposed. Getting the white balance right was pretty vital too although, as the firmware in the camera and the Kodak software for processing the proprietary file format improved over the four years that we used these cameras, it became easier and easier to fine tune your files.
Shortly after getting the DCS520s I started to post images on the internet and to interact with other photographers in chat rooms. Rob Galbraith’s website and DP Review became required reading as we all learned how to get every ounce of quality from this rapidly developing technology. Life had changed. We went from seeing our colleagues every couple of days to seeing them for social occasions and the technology that liberated us also isolated us.
Nearly four years after the DCS520s arrived they were replaced by the Canon EOS1D. They were a massive leap forward again with 4.11 megapixels, 1.3x crop factor, a better screen and compact flash memory rather than the unwieldy PCMCIA that we had been using. That was the start of the upgrade cycle and, twenty years after getting that first usable digital SLR, we don’t think twice about having way over 20 megapixels in the simplest models and being able to shoot at eye-wateringly high ISOs.
There’s a lot of nostalgia about shooting film but I don’t really get it. The only downside of digital for me is that I miss chewing the fat with colleagues whilst waiting for the machines to process our film. I don’t miss the smells and I definitely don’t miss having to hand-process film. I don’t miss the scanning and having to carry a “dev-kit” in the boot of the car in case there was no lab available where I was working.
Twenty years represents way more than half of my career. November 1998 was a huge month and I look back on that time with a great deal of fondness. I’ll end with this July 2000 portrait of Theresa May – shot with the DCS520 and Lumedyne lighting.