21st Century Technology (but only just…)

Digital Camera Technology

Just before the Harley was delivered to me, I received another expensive, but also terrifying gift. Kodak delivered the digital camera to me. The love it/hate it DCS620. It was Digital ! It cost $28,000! I also got to use a laptop! I was given a mobile phone! And a satellite phone! It was like christmas – but be careful what you wish for… (or – life is never easy and it is never glamorous).

This was May 2000. The internet was new. Digital cameras were new. Data over mobile phones was almost non-existent. It was a brave new world!

Kodak (remember them?) were a major sponsor of the Olympic Games and as such they agreed to provide a digital camera to me to shoot the Torch Relay on. If not for them, we would be stuck with the choice of paying over AU$30,000 for one of their new cameras or doing it the old fashion way of photojournalism. The ‘old fashion’ way – well, really it was still the current way in those days,  was to shoot on film and either ship the film back to the office to have developed and scanned  or develop the film yourself in a make-shift dark room you would have to set up in the bathroom of your hotel each night. Dragging chemicals and enlargers around the Pacific islands and Australia and staying up until 2am processing and drying film was not going to be fun. I had never had to work that way before. I hated the dark room process. And shipping film back to the office was going to be a 3 day journey (or longer) for most of the Torch Relay. The whole point of shooting everyday was so we could give images to newspapers and news agencies so they could publish the very next day. If they received them 4 or 5 days late they would not be interested. Old news is anything that happened more than 24 hours ago.

Just 6 months earlier Kodak had released the first professional grade digital camera – the DSC620c. A few non pro digital cameras had been around for about a year – but the image quality was so bad as to be unusable for almost everything.

The Kodak DSC620 (beside a standard film camera). It was almost twice the size

The DCS620c was a 2MP camera. To put that into context – its picture size is 1728×1152. The iPhone camera is 8MP. My current Canon DSLR is 22MP (and costs $2,500!)

While the technology was pretty amazing for the time – it was also unreliable. Taking a photo in anything but perfect light (eg bright midday sun) would result in mostly over exposed (or occasionally very under exposed) images.  Colour temperature recordings were always wildly off balance. On one day setting colour balance to 5,000k looked redder than a tomato, and on another day it would look green. Using a flash was such a random experience only one in 10 would ever expose adequately. Even when setting the camera manually, the shutter speeds selected did not always record to that speed. 1/125th might get a metadata reading of 1/60th. So when reading the digital file on the laptop using Kodak’s dedicated software it would render the file as 1 stop over exposed. In the heat of trying to edit images and get them transmitted before deadlines expired, it was a frustrating experience.

There are three possible explanations to this digital disatser. 1. I may have had a wonky camera, 2.it may just have been the state of technology in 2000, or 3.I may have been a dud photographer… I like to believe it was the 2nd excuse….

One of the unique features of this new digital camera world was being able to review your shots on the little LCD screen on the back of the camera. When I say little – I should say postage stamp size! And the screen resolution was so bad you could only see that a. you had taken a picture and b. it was in colour. You had no idea if the image was in focus or if the colour settings were giving anything usable. But yes, it was a step up from film cameras in that regard.

The screen on the back of the DCS620 - about the same size and quality as a postage stamp
The screen on the back of the DCS620 – about the same size and quality of a postage stamp


The next challenge with digital was editing the files. In may 2000 laptops were a luxury. You were either an executive or very rich to be toting a laptop. IBM (remember them?) were also an Olympic sponsor and so provided me with a laptop. But this was the days before USB and bluetooth and retina screens. My laptop screen had an 800×600 resolution on a 12inch TFT crystal display. So viewing the digital image from the camera on this poor quality screen made it very difficult to get an accurate take on what adjustments were needed. And all images from the DCS620 needed a lot of adjustments!

The software was basic and you would open one image at a time. Adjust colours and then re-save to the internal hard drive. Internal drive was 4.8GB (yes – total hard drive size of 4.8GB!). There were no external drives. No USB drives. When the hard drive was full I would connect a SCSI (wikipedia that to understand!) connected external CD writer and make a back up copy of the files. It took about 45mins to burn on CD (DVDs were not yet around).


Then came the really fun part. Transmitting the files. It was email – but ‘transmitting’ was the term used because it really was a technical experience. Some mobile phones could connect to data. It required the phone to be connected via a special cable to the laptop. You then dialled up the internet providers special number and crossed your fingers. Speeds were about 9.6kbs (to put that into context, your iPhone today can transmit and receive at over 3mbs !! So more than 300x faster. Sending one of my photos in 2000 would be like sending an sms today ie. instantaneous)

And then you held your breath…

The pictures from the 2MB camera produced a JPEG of  approx 1.6MB after editing. But 1.6MB would take days to send. So I would reduce the file size down to a tiny 200KB to 300KB. (I really cant believe that myself now – KB not MB!!). On a good day a 200KB file would take 25minutes to email. And if it dropped out after the 20th minute, you just dial in again and start from the beginning. Based on these numbers, I would generally only send out 4 or 5 images a day. Or sometimes one if things were really bad.

To put the transmit speeds into a rough context: your iPhone today can transmit and receive at over 3mbs –  So more than 300x faster!! Sending one of my photos from 2000  using an iPhone today would be like sending an sms –  ie. instantaneous,  not the 20+minutes it took back then.

During the first 15 days of the relay we were in remote Oceania countries. Mobile phones did not work at all. I carried a large satellite phone that opened up like a briefcase. You had to point it in the direction of the satellite in the sky – placing it outdoors or the roof would block the signal. It was as slow if not slower than a mobile phone but cost about 100x as much per minute. From memory I only managed to send about 6 photos via satellite – before giving up. I never saw the monthly bill for the sat phone – but I’m sure it was rather high.

The other alternative to sending photos was to use the hotel internet or land line. Back in 2000 most small hotels had no internet. So I had the joy of plugging the laptop modem into various phones at outback hotels  and motels to try and dial into the internet.
Occasionally I would get a ‘fast’ speed of 28kbs. But mostly it was as slow as a mobile phone – but slightly more reliable.

Now, was all this better than having to shoot on film and develop my own negatives? Probably – but only just!

Running, Walking, Crawling (Never stopping, Never going back)

But the thing to bear in mind here is what type of project this was. An Olympic Torch Relay is a constantly moving, 6 km/h, wandering circus across 20,000km. Everyday. From 7am to 8pm. A new hotel every single night. Events taking place all day, every day. Stop for an hour and you are now 1 hour behind the Relay. You must catch up. And you need to negotiate the horrific traffic jams that the Relay is leaving in its wake. So shooting the Relay, capturing all the important moments and yet still managing to send photos every day was a significant challenge. If I had known the real details before I signed up for the job I might not have been such an energetic and excited puppy. I’ve since heard of more than a few photographers who have been employed to shoot relays over the last 10 years and cracked under pressure and had to give up, saying it was too much for one person to handle.

But I was young (much younger than I realised when I look back at some of the photos of me at the time) and I was going to grab the bull by the horns. And we had a great team of individuals on the Torch Relay crew – which made the long, long days still enjoyable. It also helped that we were all doing it for the first time. There were no ‘experts’ as there are today. We lived and learned how to produce the biggest Olympic Torch Relay ever undertaken – one day at a time.

Its a time I always look back at very fondly.

The entire Torch Relay crew and convoy of vehicles line up for the official photo in Kiama, NSW during the test event before the actual relay started.

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