Film vs Digital

This isn’t another article about whether film is better than digital. There are plenty of those out there and I’ve never read one which came to any kind of concrete conclusion. No, this is about the realisation that I’ve now been shooting digital for more than half my professional career. In fact I crossed the 50/50 threshold a couple of years ago and didn’t even realise it.

Let’s chart my film/digital timeline then. I started freelancing in 1988, went digital in November 2000, and pretty much committed myself to digital ever since.

With film I’d started with developing and printing black and white in the darkroom at the Bath Chronicle. When I became a staff photographer on The Portsmouth News I had to switch to colour, processing using a minilab in the office and having my work printed by darkroom technicians. Then with the march of progress, newspaper production got computerised and the photo department lost its print technicians.

Photographers then had to process their films in the usual way, but we then scanned the negatives on a Kodak scanner, captioned them on a Mac and stored the images on Zip drives, which were slow, unreliable and couldn’t store many photos. I remember the digital archive getting very quickly out of hand.

I left The News in 1998 before they went fully digital, but while I was there I did get to try a Canon EOS1 with a Kodak digital back at Wimbledon one year, so that really was my first experience with digital SLR photography. But digital SLRs back then ran to something like £15,000 just for the body, so I couldn’t afford one as a freelance.

At first I was shooting film and scanning using a portable Canon scanner and wiring pictures via my Nokia 6310 mobile phone connected to my Apple 1400c Powerbook. It was slow and unreliable to send data back then, but it mostly worked ok. I even got the odd scoop with that setup.

Then in 2000 the Canon D30 was released. A 3.4 megapixel SLR which could just about do a news job, but which cost a mere £1,600 for the body. It wasn’t really up to the task of fast news, but it was fine for features and objects that didn’t move, like the exterior of a country house I shot for a News of the World story. Thankfully my current digital SLRs are far better, far more responsive and the images produced are a world away from the early models and the price, while not cheap, is far more accessible.

I’m glad I started my career with processing film and printing in a darkroom. It taught me so much that you can’t learn if you start with digital. I still carry the lessons I learned back in the late 1980’s and it often helps me work faster by knowing what’s going to result from a particular set up even before I put the camera to my eye. I do sometimes use digital like a polaroid to check settings and lighting, but I’m usually pretty close to what I want before I even do that.

I’m keen to get back to shooting more film though. It does remind you of certain fundamentals and makes you work in a different way so I’m going to look for clients or projects which will allow me to get back to film once in a while.

Whether that will actually happen depends on many factors, time being a critical one, but I know the vast bulk of my work will be digital for the foreseeable future. As ever, watch this space because you’ll be the first to see if I shoot film for anything serious again.

It’s good to talk

After last week’s article (rant) about the Johnston Press photographic staff redundancies, I feel the need to chill and talk about something a little warmer and fluffier. I could have another rant, this time about the new powers UK police might soon have to seize press photographers’ images, but since there won’t be any press photographers left soon I suspect the law will be redundant by the time it hits the statute books.

I could have a rant about the latest European Union copyright review, which could very well be another attempt by big business to grab photographers’ rights, since these reviews never seem to centre on ways of strengthening copyright law. And on this matter, I urge all creatives to make submissions to the review, the deadline of which has been extended in to March 5th.

Yes, I could rant about all of that, but while rants get hits to my blog, it also gets boring. In any case it’s likely I’ll have to have another go at these subjects later, so rant lovers needn’t despair entirely.

Instead I’m going to tell you about a rather fun Friday evening last week when I addressed members of the Frome Wessex Camera Club and spent a couple of hours talking about the work I do now, and the experiences I had working for the News of the World from around 1998 to 2001 when I left abruptly due to unpaid expenses.

A milkman delivers a crate of milk to 10 Downing Street, London

Sitting overnight in Downing Street in case Cheri Blair went into labour, I captured a shot of the milkman delivering and broke the story that this delivery is a national secret

I’d not previously addressed a room full of people on this subject before, and it was kind of cathartic for me. I’d prepared a presentation with lots of photos from the period, each with its own back-story, and while I was nervous in the build up to the evening, once the house lights went down and I got started it was like I was flying. I’d made presenter notes, but barely referred to them for the entire talk. Everything just seemed to flow naturally.

Queen Elizabeth II rides out in a horse-drawn carriage at the start of the Trooping the Colour ceremony and parade in London in 2001, protected by a transparent umbrella to protect her from the rain

Some stories I covered were more conventional, such as Trooping the Colour, 2001

The audience of club members (plus my son who I’d dragged along under mild protest) did a very strange thing too; they laughed at my tales of celebrity chases, brushes with bodyguards and sitting in the backs of vans waiting so long for a particular scallywag to appear I’d have to pee in a bottle or risk blowing my cover.

A group of black ladies laugh heartily at the end of a march in honour of murdered teenager Damilola taylor

Marking the anniversary of the death of Damilola Taylor not with sadness, but unity and joy

And when the house lights went up at the end of the presentation, the image which will stay with me forever is the look on my son’s face because this was the first time he’d heard many of these stories. I’d assumed he would have been bored to tears, but his expression was a mixture of happiness and pride. Of everyone in the audience, he was my most important critic and it seems I passed the test.

Supporters of the National Front are escorted through the streets of Bermondsey by police officers.

A National Front march in Bermondsey, London. A lot less laughing and joy than the Damilola Taylor march which happened on the same day.

Never one to gloat, but…

It’s hard to fight back the tears as I write this, but I’ll do my best. What has got me reaching for the handkerchief is the news that Stuart Kuttner, former managing editor of News of the World, is to be charged with conspiring to intercept communications without lawful authority. I’m not going to go into masses of detail now. There’s plenty of background to this story on the web and in my previous posts here and here.

Suffice to say this story isn’t over yet and I’m sure Kuttner has the funds for a top-flight lawyer, but wouldn’t it be nice to see a bit of karma for once? If convicted, Kuttner could face a prison sentence and certainly if the charges are proved in court, the flagrancy of his behaviour would increase the chances of a custodial sentence.

Does this news give me any great pleasure? Schadenfreude maybe? Kuttner forced me out of working for the News of the World about 12 years ago because I asked to be paid what I was owed. I’d rather he’d been a decent human being when I was there than have it come to criminal charges for phone hacking (not sure what’s happening with the allegations of signing off expenses for payments to police officers), but given I can’t control other peoples’ behaviour I’ll accept that this is as close to karma as I’ll get.

The Screws terminally screwed up.

Sunday Times Collumn

Kuttner has questions to answer

In my article The Screws Becomes the News I speculated that phone-hacking was more widely known about than News International were letting on, and that compensation payments to hacked victims were a way of trying to insulate executives above editor level from the burgeoning wave of controversy and official investigation.

Last week, I needn’t tell you, the fan was set to overdrive and the proverbial brown stuff made contact with such force that we could all smell the resulting mess, and The Screws is now no more.

Hacking the phones of victims (and their relatives) of murder, terrorism, military action and illicit payments to police officers, a Royal Protection Officer; the allegations have come so thick and fast that Murdoch has been caught uncharacteristically and spectacularly off-guard. It’s looking like his son can’t cope, his BSkyB ambitions have been put on hold and the share value of News Corp is under attack.

If Rupe thought he could rescue the main body of News International by amputating the sceptic arm that was the News of the World, it seems he’s going to have to lose more, or get a better surgeon involved.

The gangrene may yet spread wider as further allegations come to light, and we haven’t even seen the start of official investigations, reviews and legal proceedings.

What can we expect in the coming days, weeks and months? Well, a mixture the expected, unexpected and probably downright bizarre. Rebecca Brooks is seriously damaged. If Murdoch cuts her free, she’ll not find work easily. Her CV will do her no favours.

More seriously for her, for the former editor Andy Coulson and the managing editor at the height of the hacking years, Stuart Kuttner, there must be a very high risk of criminal implication.

I’ve asked before, and I’ll ask again: How is it possible that executives who were hell bent on keeping the expenses of their freelancers trimmed to the minimum didn’t know they were signing off huge payments for phone hacking and police bribes? It simply isn’t feasible and it wouldn’t be acceptable if investigations didn’t get right to the heart of who knew what and when, and didn’t bring the culprits to justice.

I for one will be watching with great interest as events unfold, but in the meantime and again as I said in my previous NotW article, I do have sympathy for the talented staff who have finally lost their jobs over this.

Leaving the scandals, enquiries and investigations to one side, it’s interesting to consider what this almighty mess actually means for the Political future.

Politicians (with the bruising inflicted by the MPs’ expenses scandal) will be keen to end the influence newspapers have on their views, actions, policies and likely political success. They will be happy to declare themselves free of and uninterested by the influence of the print media.

In parallel, newspaper publishers have witnessed the loosening of their influence from well before this scandal as the internet started to accelerate the decline in circulations and advertising revenues, and it is the internet which is starting to flex its political influence. We see this in David Cameron’s increasing coziness with the likes of Google. He tried to keep print press close by employing Andy Coulson, but that backfired spectacularly.

Will the internet be a better friend to the politician? I’m doubtful, but one thing is clear. Politicians thought the print media were powerful long after it was obvious to everyone else that readerships had declined to a point that only a tiny minority of people actually read newspapers. But at least politicians had a chance of “herding” information and controlling the message to some degree. They could see who was writing about them and they could cozy up to a limited number of political corespondents.

From here on, it’s all going to get a lot more complicated and harder to control. Tighter regulation might reign in Fleet Street, but the digital world is a completely different proposition.

UPDATE: No point updating. By the time I’ve written the update, someone else will have resigned, been arrested, extradited, a business deal will have collapsed, another scandal will have been unearthed and I simply can’t type fast enough to keep this current.

Second update: 02.08.2011 Stuart Kuttner has now been arrested. Finally.

The Screws Becomes the News


Surprise, surprise! It turns out that phone hacking at the News of the World (aka The Screws) might just have been a tad more widespread than was previously admitted.

Now they’re offering compensation and all sorts, presumably because having already had a Royal correspondent jailed and two more senior staff arrested in connection with phone hacking allegations, senior executives may be getting a little edgy at the thought of the police investigation working higher up the chain of command.

Even executives who are no longer in the roles they were in at the height of the phone-hacking period might be getting nervous over this, because it’s a fair bet that one or two, such as former managing editor Stuart Kuttner, would have been signing off expenses for third-party phone hacking services when the practice was rife.

Of course the likes of Kuttner may not have known what they were signing off. Maybe the receipts were put through as general investigative expenses, but it has to be worth asking whether executives above editor level would have been ignorant of the nature of the expenses they were scrutinizing.

At this stage it’s only fair I point out the rather dull axe I have to grind in all this. Between (circa) 1997-8 and 2001 I was a freelance photographer for The Screws, and dedicated about 18 months of that time working 4 days a week exclusively for them.

However by late 2000 I was getting increasingly worn down by the long hours, the pointless errands and being sent to distant places to do silly jobs with no story worth reporting. That year I missed the birth of my son because I was chasing a story in France. It wasn’t the picture desk’s fault that I missed the arrival of my son. I’d opted to stay on in France to see the job through, and my son had arrived unexpectedly early, but when things turned terminally sour between myself and the paper, I was dismayed when I was told I wasn’t “a team player.” That actual phrase was used, and it stuck with me because I’d done more than miss the birth of my only son for that paper.

I’d pulled double shifts when the desk couldn’t get cover, having to spend nights in my car on more than one occasion, without sleep or comfort break waiting for some Z-list celebrity to show up. All for the princely sum of £128 (£145 for a Saturday shift woohoo!). Often the shift fee was equivalent to about £10 per hour. Ok, I’d opted to work for The Screws, but that lesson is well learned now.

On a few occasions I’d turned some insane reporter’s nonsense story into a useable scoop just by being diligent and intelligent. Clearly this also made me “not a team player.”

What finally finished my time with The Screws was when I’d tried repeatedly, and failed, to get paid the expenses I was owed. Mostly mileage.

The thing was, at the time I was working for The Screws, I was living in Portsmouth but having to drive to Wapping most of the 4 days a week. Starting at 6:30am, I’d get to the picture desk for 10, be sent on that day’s wild goose chase (pun intended) and probably get home again some 12 hours later. The reason for the insane commute was that when I started working for them, most stories I covered were in the Hampshire, Wiltshire, West Sussex region. Then they went all celebrity-led and all the “stories” were suddenly in London.

Now management knew where I lived, and it wasn’t as if the mileage rate they paid was generous, even when petrol was somewhat cheaper than it is now. But every month I would submit my invoice, including mileage, and every month a cheque would arrive for the invoice amount, less 8%.

Eventually I gave up asking nicely for what I was owed and threatened legal action. The amount outstanding was in the thousands, and I could no longer afford to work for them. The effect of the letter I sent was instant, and my time at The Screws was over. I was scared and relieved.

And who was it that was taking a scalpel to my invoices? None other than Stuart Kuttner. He must have assumed I was on the fiddle to the tune of precisely 8% every single month, but I never did receive an explanation. I did get my money in the end, but never an explanation.

While I worked at the News of the World, I had the honour and privilege of working with some of the best photographers and reporters in the industry. Unfortunately there were also reporters who clearly had substance and honesty issues. There’s no point me naming the bad apples because this was all a decade ago now, and I can’t even recall their names and nor do I care what happened to them, though I do sympathise with any of the talented people who might still be there.

Addendum: Senior reporter James Weatherup was added to the list of arrested journalists today. As yet, those three most recently arrested have not been charged.

Addendum II, This time it’s personal: Former Managing Editor, Stuart Kuttner, has been arrested, questioned and released on bail regarding allegations of making payments to police for information and on charges of phone hacking.