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. (more…)
Everyone who has ever read books to very young children should have seen “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. It’s an absolute classic and, back in 1999 I had five minutes to shoot a portrait of Eric Carle, the American writer and illustrator who created it at a London Hotel. I should have had longer but I was badly late because I’d been given the wrong address but he was charming, patient and his PR people were relaxed as well. At the time, he was 70 years old and the book was coming out as a 30th anniversary edition.
As soon as I got there, I set up my Lumedyne battery powered light with a simple shoot-through umbrella and started to work. The author was sat in a high backed chair and I decided to work around where he was already sitting – he looked relaxed and I was still in “full apology mode”.
Although this was nearly 13 years ago I can still remember a random throughout that came into my head “if I were casting someone to be Santa Claus, it would be this guy”. From then onwards all I could see was a really nice bloke with a twinkle in his eye that children would adore. The fact that he must have illuminated millions of childhoods was certainly in my mind and we shot some very nice pictures very quickly.
This set of eight pictures is all that remains from the shoot. Back in 1999 storage was still expensive and the company policy was to use Zip discs (remember them?). My laptop had a zip drive and I put the wider edit onto the “official” zip disc and kept the tight edit on another disc for my own records. The official disc with the Kodak RAW files was lost somewhere in the mists of time and we didn’t discover that it was gone until we started to upload the entire back catalogue into a managed and backed-up library a couple of years later. You learn from your mistakes.
I like the simple and innocent tight composition of frame 004 and I love the expression of frame 007. I have read his books to young members of the family ever since and I try really hard to do so with the same twinkle in my eye that the author had.
This was still the early days of digital and I was using a Kodak DCS520 (Canon D2000) with Canon 17-35, 28-70 and 70-200 f2.8 lenses. At 200 ISO, with good light and if you didn’t need to use the pictures too large the quality of the files was actually very good indeed.
I took delivery of my first Kodak DCS520 digital camera in late November 1998. It was a revelation. I had used a previous model (DCS3) which was pretty poor and I wasn’t really that convinced about the whole process. After three days, I was a convert – the kind of convert who then sees it as their role to evangelise about their new-found wisdom/insight/faith. Based on the Canon EOS1n camera, the Kodak conversion replaced the whole of the back of the camera and quite a big chunk of the electronics too. It was expensive, relatively slow and it only had 1.9 megapixels. It had a tiny low resolution LCD screen on the back and it used enormous and expensive batteries that rarely lasted a whole day but I absolutely loved it from that first week!
This was one of the first proper portraits that I shot with my first DCS520 (known as the Canon D2000 in some countries) and it was of a double bassist and jazz teacher in his own home. My conversion was so dramatic and so complete that I even remember sulking a little when I had to shoot on film for the glossy sections of the newspaper. We worked with these early cameras for nearly four years until the Canon EOS1D came out. Nikon had introduced the D1 in that period and the see-saw battle for supremacy between the two big manufacturers with input from Kodak and Sony began in ernest.
I quite often get asked what the big trigger was for digital in the newspaper industry. There are a few factors;
- The arrival of cameras capable of shooting quality images
- The money saved by newspapers getting rid of darkroom staff
- The arrival of new health and safety laws that meant waste chemicals became very expensive to dispose of
- The speed of turnaround of digital pictures
- The ease of archiving digital images
Talking with others who used the Kodak DCS series camera from that era we all agree about one thing – how good Kodak’s software was. What a shame that they threw away their lead in professional digital photography. If they had even kept their software development going, they could possibly have avoided needing to file for bankruptcy protection in the US courts last week. I look back at the early days of digital with a real fondness – they really were the most exciting of times. There’s something very cool and very rewarding about being in the second row of pioneers!
Between January 2000 and June 2008 I posted a large number of technique examples taken from my daily work to show how I used light in an era where digital cameras were pretty poor at ISOs over 800 or even 400 in the case of the venerable Kodak DCS520. These days flash is a creative choice rather than a technical necessity but the techniques still stand up.
One of the technique pages was entitled simply “Why we use lights” and it is an extreme example of just how much difference some judiciously used flash can make. Early Autumn on a Friday evening in the UK isn’t often a time when the best opportunities to shoot great pictures present themselves. This one, was a real exception.
The subject of the portrait runs an educational organisation that serves a coastal area near where I was born. I should know the area like the back of my hand but I don’t and when my subject suggested that we went up on top of the Isle of Portland (not an island at all, just a peninsula!) I thought that it would make a decent enough backdrop but that the view might be obscured by mist. The two pictures below were taken with different lenses but they were taken within a few seconds of each other and show just how much of a difference a bit of flash can make.
Back in 2008 when I “retired” these pages I wrote the following as a background to my philosophy regarding portable location lighting:
A lot of news photographers don’t think that they are allowed enough time to light pictures, so they rely on their hot shoe mounted flash or on moving their subject into the daylight. If your kit is lightweight and well planned, if it’s reliable and quick to assemble then you can light as much of your work as you want to. I tend to specialize in editorial portraiture, so that is the area of work that I’m going to talk about.
When I was writing these pages my basic kit was one Lumedyne 200 joule pack, one Signature head, two regular batteries, one stand, an umbrella, a Chimera softbox and a Pocket Wizard kit – all in one sling bag. Since May 2009 that all changed and the Lumedyne kit was replaced by an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra system. I still like the Lumedynes but the Elinchrom is a few percentage points better! In October 2003 I added an Umbrella Box to my kit in the hope of replacing two light modifiers with one, which has worked in some ways but I have to confess that I go through phases of using each of the light modifiers for a while and then switching.
In the years when I was a staff photographer and posting regular monthly galleries as well as technique and opinion pages my website was getting up to 20,000 unique visitors a month. Numbers have clearly dropped off now that new content hasn’t been added for three and a half years but I’m still amazed by the the fact that in one day last month the technique home page still got 996 unique visitors.
Some day, I am going to write a book – yeah, I know – we all say that… The backbone of that book will be an up-to-date explanation of the theory behind some the 60+ technique samples posted on the original dg28.com. In the meantime, be my guest – follow the link below to the old technique pages and have look around. Be warned: one very well known blogger claims to have lost an entire night’s sleep doing just that.