Future proofing photojournalism

Last night I went to see the new China photography exhibition at the Maritime Museum in Liverpool. Its a large exhibition and simply stunning. TThe photographer, John Thomson, travelled around China from 1868 to 1872 doing essentially photojournalism. He had a team with him to help carry his gear as he used glass plate negatives. Its a fantastic story with stunning photography.

Two things struck me from it. Firstly the image quality was outstanding. We’re talking about a camera from 140 years ago. When he nailed the focus and shutter speed, not being picky but some suffer for motion blur, when he nailed it the results are incredible. I’m not even sure if my D700 would be that crisp at the size they’ve printed these photos. I think the largest is around 1×1 metre. Its one of the things that I love about old cameras. They’re simply a box that captures light. They’ll go on forever. My D700 won’t. Its why I want a Leica M6. I’ll still be using it when I’m 60. None of my current cameras will last me till then. Thats a real shame.

From looking at these metre high prints, looking at the detail and being wowed by the sheer scale of the exhibition it got me thinking about the current state of the media. I hear that most normal journalists at the local paper are equipped with a Nokia phone with something like a 5mp camera on. It’ll do video and photos. Somewhere along the line someone has gone “We only need a camera that produces a photo to fit in this square.” The DPI on a newspaper isn’t really that high and neither is the resolution. A 5mp camera phone will produce something that technically fits in these empty squares. The same for web. Only need a 72dpi image at around 500×500 pixels. Thats nothing. You can source those photos from anyone at the scene with a camera phone. Why do you even need a professional photographer with a D3?

The answer is simple. For future proofing. In 50 years time what sort of exhibition could you put on with 5mp camera phone images? Sure they’ll look fine on the web but these things aren’t going to upscale nicely. Image quality isn’t just about the resolution of the image. The lens and sensor size has a huge impact on that. Hence medium format for advertising. It should be the news’s responsibility to document modern times in the best way possible to preserve it for the future. We’re going to be left with a handful of photographers who take it upon themselves to document the world as it is in their spare time simply because its not currently commercially viable.

Some people say that print is dying and it quite possibly is. I know many photographers who have never printed their work. How many family photo albums are simply left on a computer these days? I really hope we haven’t fallen to the idea that a 5mp camera phone is enough. That a 500px wide image on Flickr is going to be our legacy in this age. Someone needs to be thinking how we present today in 140 years time.

Go and see the China exhibition. Stand next to the largest print you can find and then look at the screen on your mobile phone because that screen is the future. Look back at the huge print and I hope you’ll get my point.

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2 responses

  1. I can see where you’re coming from on this one only I don’t think we should be comparing 5mp Nokia phones with John Thomson’s plate glass work. Whilst some news reporters may be carrying phones that take photos for grab shots to go online and even at times in the papers themselves, this is only an indication of the way things are going in the newspaper industry. Paper sales are on the way out to some extent, and from an environmental point of view that’s not a bad thing, but I don’t think we should be looking at newspapers to be the saviours of our visual history. And for the most part, the majority of newspapers whether on or offline will carry on using pro photographers with pro gear because most photographs need to hold a narrative which a member of the public with a mobile phone is not going to achieve.

    Personally, I shoot on everything from phones to 12mp slrs with a large archive of film. The film is constantly being scanned and both the scans and current digital work are often backed up via numerous drives and discs to make sure that they are there, should anybody be interested, in the future. At the same time, all over the world, people are doing the same. They store low res on the internet on various websites, and some even store high up there, and all kinds of sizes are backed up in many ways offline. With regards to pioneers like John Thomson, how many more like him had their glass plates smashed or lost or degraded in the last 100+ years? If it had been digital, and backed up, I think we would get to see even more of history so I’m not too worried about our present being preserved for future generations. i think it’s doing ok as it is.

    Aside from that there are still people today who work like John Thomson. Have you seen Simon Norfolk’s photographs of Afghanistan which he took on a massive big wooden camera? And I’m sure there are plenty more who still wander the world, with quality gear, documenting lands and people and events because that’s what they want to do or feel they have to do. And I think that will always carry on. And what do we lose if a few journalist’s mobile photos of Cheryl Cole won’t blow up to a metre high print in 2150?

    Anyway, you’re only using it as an excuse to yourself for wanting to buy a Leica! 😉

  2. I don’t mean for this to sound mean or negative to anyone.
    However, it seems that “amateurs talk about gear and professionals talk about light”. Not that you can’t talk about gear or cameras I just think you get to a point that you have a vision and the rest is really just the lighting.