Can a Pro Beat an Amateur?

(commentary)

Someone asked me recently about why photojournalists (PJs) had such tight deadlines. 

PJs have always had tight deadlines. Back in the film days it was because of the time required to process (and sometimes print) our work. Labs that did that work weren't portable, so more often than not it was the transit of the film cartridge and then the time to get resulting output that was the determinant of how tight our deadlines were. I can give you two examples from my own experience.

First, we'll start with stills. I was a stringer for ABC News in the early 70's. It was easier to pay me a few bucks to shoot events happening in Pullman, Washington (Washington State University) than it was to send a staff photographer there. Okay, so I'm shooting a football game in the afternoon on the West Coast, what's my deadline? Three hours ago, basically. I had to run the film after the game to the airport and ship it to NYC, where it arrived anywhere from 11 to 19 hours later (East Coast time). That's after most paper's print deadlines, and it meant that best case my images would show up on the next day's news. For that to occur, something big had to happen that would still be being talked about a day later. 

Towards the end of my doing that stringing, things got a little better. I could have my film driven to Spokane (90 minutes away), have it processed there (an hour or so), and transmitted electronically back to NYC. Still, the three-hour time difference meant that something that happened at the end of a game (~4pm PST) didn't usually arrive in NYC until about 10pm EST). At least it was in time for most morning newspaper print runs at that point. 

I was mostly doing film and television work, though. The stills work was something I only tended to do on request, usually only when a top ranked team was in town. One of my regular jobs was to deal with the film taken of, say, a football game and have it ready for the taping of the coach's TV show early the next morning. We couldn't do that processing in Pullman, so again it was drive it to Spokane, get it processed, and now drive it back. Given that we usually well over an hour of film and we were trying to fit the coaches commentary show into far less than an hour, that meant that the timing worked out like this: film off to Spokane by 5pm, film back from Spokane best case at midnight, but usually more like 2 or 3am. The film had to be edited and ready for the Telecine machine by 6am. I can't tell you how many times I was still editing the film when the Telecine started rolling. Literally, I was frantically splicing film ingested into the machine, and sometimes I didn't have time to spool everything up so we ended up with a big spaghetti mess of film on the floor.

So the deadlines 40 years ago were mostly due to process. Moreover—and most important for the point I'm going to make in this article—no amateur could possibly duplicate these frantic logistical rushes. There was money in all that work: we could provide visuals for the news and no one could easily duplicate that without having the same costs, manpower requirements, and logistical timing we pros were using.

Let's fast forward to today. Is that same thing still true? Not really. As a matter of fact, it's an indictment of just how far off the mark the camera companies have been with pro gear. Let me demonstrate.

Let's say that there's a big game today in Pullman, Washington and something really dramatic happens. Who wins the race to publish, the amateur or the pro? 

In video, the pro still may have an advantage. The video bus used to broadcast the game (and virtually every game is broadcast these days) has a big broadband pipe that connects to the NYC media world, after all. The video crew hooked into that will have near instant transmission. Of course, because of the way broadcast rights are purchased, only one network is usually going to have that access ;~).

The still photographer down on the field with his or her D4 or 1Dx is actually at a big disadvantage these days. Their best way of getting an image out is to run back to the press room, get out their laptop, download their storage card to it, find the image they need, process it (adding EXIF information, etc.), and send it via the Internet to their service. I'll bet that's a 10-15 minute process, best case. 

Meanwhile, the person in the stands with their smartphone or camera connected to their smartphone has already posted their shot on Twitter, Facebook, their Blog, and other outlets, with commentary. If I'm CNN or Yahoo looking for a still to illustrate a news story before anyone else, where am I going to find that image? You guessed it: from the consumer-created choices already posted on the Internet. Indeed, by the time the pro's image has made it back to their service, been looked at and dealt with by the photo editor on duty and then transmitted on their wires, it's probably been far more than 15 minutes that have passed. More like a half hour best case. 

Some of the blame for the current situation has to go to the news and photo services. Pro camera generations come every four years or so. For the last couple of generations the PJ organizations have mostly been lobbying for video to be added to pro cameras. Wrong answer. How fast does that video get to the wire? Even slower than the stills do. Moreover, often you can't shoot video at a venue because there are rights issues (true of sporting events for sure, plus these days widening to other events, as well). What they should have been lobbying for is better communication connections out of the camera, the thing I've been asking for the last 10 years (communicating, programmable, modular). 

The problem is that Internet access to public images (and to some degree video) is ubiquitous, fast, and generally free. So how is it that the PJs can make money at the job when they can't be quick enough to get images to market faster than the amateur? This becomes a circular thing: PJs can't make as much money doing it, thus fewer PJs are active in the market, with fewer PJs active that means fewer top pro cameras sold, and fewer cameras sold means less attempt to build direct communication into them, therefore no communication from the camera means PJs can't make money and we're right back at the start of the circle. 

Now, the clever PJs find ways to shorten their cycles, but they're not getting much help from the camera. As I pointed out to Nikon engineers a few years back, I can't pre-enter EXIF data (something they did try to do a little bit about at the last minute on the D4, which can add an IPTC entry in the field). I can't tag images with useful labels. The images aren't moved out of the camera automatically without a WT-4, and even then it's a pain to set up a system that works at getting images out to the Internet without having a computer nearby. In short, the supposedly "pro" camera isn't doing much that solves the pro's workflow problems. And workflow is the only place where we're going to get back some of the time advantage we lost to consumers with smartphones and connected cameras.

Here's the big question: how is it that the two major camera companies don't know what I just wrote and haven't done something about it? My simple answer: they aren't really watching what users are doing and trying to figure out what problems they have. Solve user problems and you sell products. Fail to solve user problems and you end up with fewer users.  

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