Going digital during the 1990’s

Switching from film to digital made sense, but challenges lurked
Me in the PhoZone darkroom on the campus of the University of Idaho in 1976.

During the summer of 1999 I started shooting with a digital camera for the first time.

I had been watching colleagues at other papers shoot digital images with great interest and was aware of the shortcomings of the gear available at that time, but also the advantages they offered, particularly when traveling to cover sporting events.

We take it for granted now, but going digital at that time was a game changer for photojournalism and sports photography. For historical context, back in the film days, photographers who worked remotely had to contend with processing film and transmitting images over analog phone lines. We either talked a local paper or one-hour lab into helping us out or we processed ourselves in a makeshift darkroom in a hotel bathroom or a prearranged space at the venue.

During my career I primarily used two different machines to transmit. The older version required a photographer to also make a print which upped the lab requirements substantially. Later in my career I used a system called a Leafax which allowed scanning directly from a negative.

All these techniques were a huge pain in the ass and required a lot of forethought and logistical preparation. I remember arriving in San Fransisco for an Oregon vs. California football game to discover that the giant case that held my processing kit would not fit in my rental car.

The idea that I could travel with only cameras and a laptop was a dream I longed to make reality.

The problem? The laptops available then were very slow and the cameras were very expensive.

The Register-Guard bought a laptop computer, but the only option financially was to rent a camera. At that time the only interchangeable lens cameras available were produced by Kodak and cost something like $15,000. I would rent a Kodak DCS520 from Pro Photo in Portland, Ore. for a few days or by the week for around $250 a day. They would typically offer price breaks for long weekends or extended rentals.

Believe it or not, this was a deal compared to the cost of film, processing, and paying overweight luggage fees to the airline carrier, let alone the promise of taking film out of the equation all together.

So during the summer of 1999 I started working with a Kodak digital camera to perfect my workflow and understand what I could and couldn’t do with the tech. After several weeks of practice I reserved a camera for a week and booked a flight to Lansing, Michigan for a rare Thursday night game between Oregon and Michigan State. The midweek game allowed me to pull off a twofer as Dennis Erickson and Oregon State were set to open their season on a Saturday in Reno, Nevada for his first game as head football coach for the Beavers.

I can not over emphasis how cool all of this was to me at the time. The new technology allowed me to make a feature picture of fans in the stands before the game at Spartan Stadium, move the image for an 1A section front deadline and return to the field for the opening kickoff. More importantly because of the time difference, I was able to stay on the field until the very end of a night game while still making deadline for the Friday edition of the sports front.

The file sizes rendered by those early cameras were laughably small even by standards of the day. A photographer could shoot an entire game on an 80 MB memory card. After cropping an image file as I felt it should run, I had some doubt that the resolution was large enough and asked a veteran Associate Press photographer next to me in the workroom what he thought? He looked at me and said, “Don’t worry about the shit son!” I laughed and sent the picture as I cropped it and never looked back.

The next day I hopped on a plane to Reno, and after touching down, drove straight to the OSU practice. There I captured a picture of Erickson and some players working out and was able to make deadline for the Saturday sports front before I even checked into my hotel.

I was hooked.

While the technology still had a long way to go in 1999, after that first adventure as a digital photojournalist, I was ready to embrace the digital age of photography with both hands.

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

Follow Chris Pietsch on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.