46 Days to Go : And the band played on

Getting the picture is one thing, getting it published is another and before the invention of wires and cables, pictures were sent to newspaper offices via messengers riding motorbikes.

The photographers of the 50s used plate cameras to shoot football.

PLATES

Fleet Street © Matthew Ashton

These guys were highly skilled photographers.

They didn’t have digital compact flash cards capable of storing huge amounts of data on them, nor did they have endless amounts of film. They went equipped to football grounds with unexposed plates in dark slides. They had no motor drives,  they just had one chance to get the picture before they armed their cameras with a new slide.

These guys had messengers waiting in the corner of the ground who took the unprocessed plates back to Fleet Street at agreed times for printing and processing and inclusion in the next edition of the newspaper.

As the years rolled on, photographers moved with the times and used roll film enabling them to capture more moments on a reel which in turn lead them to using 35mm film. However, the small matter of getting the images back to the newspaper stayed the same and messengers were still employed to take the films back to the office.

In Manchester , The Daily Mirror for example sometimes had up to 7 photographers at Old Trafford. Each would leave in 10-15 minute intervals returning their films back to the newspaper darkrooms for processing, editing them for the picture editor who would then choose the image for the latest edition.

This was a timely procedure but it was best way of logistically doing things.

CUPS

Cameras stayed the same and it was the film that was the focus of improvement. When photo analysts look at pictures of the FA Cup through the years there is a steady improvement of picture quality due to the film.

This was ideal for the young photographer who had the battered hand-me-downs as they could still keep up to date and use the latest film which resulted in the same picture quality as the chief photographer had the pick of the latest offering from Canon, Leica or Nikon.

Today however, picture quality is simply dependent on the type of camera sensor that records the image. Cutting edge cameras with the latest technology released 8 or 9 years ago are mostly used as door stops in most agencies or newspaper offices. However, film cameras made a generation ago, can still use the latest film.

Although pictures had been transmitted down telephone lines for decades – hence the term ‘wiring’ – pictures going down the wire; ground breaking developments in the 70’s and 80’s saw printed colour photographs being scanned whilst attached to a drum scanner. The image was scanned three times in separate files of Red, Green and Blue which were sent to a receiver and took nearly half an hour.

In the late 80’s to early 90’s came the computer and the scanner. A machine called the Leafax was obsolete the moment it was released as Apple Macs began to dramatically change the lives of the photographer .

Photographers stated renting hotel rooms or using houses next to football grounds to process films in which they subsequently scanned into a computer and transmit using a modem hooked up to a telephone line back to the picture desk. Rooms at newspapers previously used for receiving images were labeled Mac Rooms.

Part of a football photographers job was to quite literally go door knocking and ask the occupier if they would let the trust worthy photographer transmit images from their house. Money exchanged hands as telephone points were unscrewed and wires connected whilst films were processed in kitchens up and down the country.

Many a household were proud and boasted to their neighbours that the back page picture of a national newspaper had been sent from their home!

Whilst photographers watched Tomorrow’s World on BBC Television presenting the first steps of digital photography, many snappers, including myself thought space travel would be more common place and film was to last for ever. Star Trek seemed more real.

Film technology was developing at speed and the ability of highly trained technicians and photographers defied the laws of processing resulting in having a dry processed colour film ready for scanning in sometimes less than 5 minutes. Photographer connoisseurs would be in horror as short cuts were taken in order to get in image to a newspaper with 20 minute recommended washing times cut to 2 rinses and a quick dry in alcohol with an ultra powerful hair drier – which quite often shorted out electricity in Eastern European football stadiums!

Colour film was being developed  so that the football photographer could achieve a printable result whilst shooting under floodlights. Along with newspapers going full colour, this was groundbreaking. They were exciting times.

A true photographer was multi-talented. Manually focus the lens, process the film, have the know how to connect a modem to a phone line in a strange location – it was a talent that was valued and photographers at this time were highly paid, especially those who could produce colour images to the newspaper desks before deadline.

TABLE

© MATTHEW ASHTON/AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

My personal experience changed in 1995. Me and fellow colleague Laurence Griffiths were one of the first photographers in the world to transmit digital images using mobile phones from the other side of the world.

This happened with Table Mountain in South Africa over looking the England cricket team on tour. The camera was like a brick and took 2 frames a second although it seemed like 1 frame every 3 seconds sometimes.

Up until that point, a newspaper could expect to see an image about 40 minutes after the event when shot on film.

With digital cameras and a mobile telephone, this was cut down to 10 minutes.

The image quality did not satisfy the needs of the magazine editor but for a shot in a newspaper it served its purpose.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and France 1998 FIFA World Cup, photographers used all three means of recording light – slide film, colour negative and digital cameras to record the goings on. Photographers servicing newspapers went digital for speed, whilst the purists churned out the quality film.

In the year 2000, Vodafone announced a sponsorship with Manchester United. The England cricket team was also sponsored by this newish company. Whilst spectators bathed in the sunshine at Test Matches, Vodafone technicians assisted and monitored photographers using their data transmission facilities.

The Vodafone PR people wanted the Vodafone brand in the newspapers and assisted the photographers all they could.

Beginning at sending at a speed of 9.6 and then the technical breakthrough of sending images at 14.4 kbit/s saw more photographers go digital. Instead of showing replay after replay of the wickets falling in the cricket, Sky Sports and Channel 4 did mini documentaries on how photographers sent images back to their offices. Sport photographers started to appear in technology magazines showing off how they utilized the latest mobile phone technology.

It was cutting edge stuff and now I feel like my Grandad saying how he first saw colour television!

At the 2002 Korea/Japan FIFA World Cup digital cameras were becoming more common with the likes of Canon printing A2 exhibition prints in the media centers to proudly boast the quality of their cameras. Whilst in Japan, photographers stood magnetised, eyes wide open, as their Japanese counterparts connected laptops into Tokyo phone boxes and sent images at ISDN speeds via the internet. Devices previously unseen were connected to laptops and using mobile networks, they could send at 56 kbits/s. It was like being in the future.

Vodafone over took Orange in terms of reliability and new technical terms like GPRS, HSDPA were commonplace.

KNIVES

© MATTHEW ASHTON/AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

After the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, the knives were out for those who still used film. Digital camera technology reached a point where it more than matched film. As Nikon released the D3 and Canon lead the pace with their cameras, it was hard to believe the quality of colour film at 1600 ISO was deemed so astonishing only 10 years previously.

Book publishers were beginning to question the quality of colour negative material from the 90’s as the modern day digital image was far superior.

The workflow of the football photographer was now more of a computer nerd. Compact flash cards stored the images, firewire cables sucked in the images into laptops – some used camera wifi connections.

With intelligent software managing the pictures, captioning and file naming them, using 3G USB dongles the images were sent out in rapid fashion to the newspaper picture desks.

From an FA Cup Final, a picture desk would probably receive 7,000 digital JPEG files from the photographers at the new Wembley Stadium with its ultra fast LAN lines. A stark contrast to 60 years ago when perhaps the photographer who got through a dozen plates was considered to be a machine gunner.

SPOONS

The picture editor did not know he was born. Images from across the country from every game was being spoon fed to the picture desks.

Mobile networks increased the speed to over 100 kbits/s with the European traveling photographer returning home marveling at speeds experience in Italy and Germany

Then it all changed once more in dramatic fashion.

The Christmas of 2009 saw the rapid rise of the iPhone and Blackberry. Not for the photographer, but for the general public.

Ten years on from assisting the mobile phone networks, the public who previously used mobile phones for telephone calls and sending text messages with the odd picture message only, were now seeing the benefits of 3G transmission technology for themselves.

As January and February of 2010 passed, photographers started to get more angry whilst pitch side. They could not send images. March got worse!

With hundreds of thousands of iPhones and Blackberrys being sold, 75,000 fans in Old Trafford meant that about probably 40,000 of them had one of these new devices inside the stadium inside their pockets. These gadgets automatically retrieved emails and severely clogged up the network pipes.

Some years previous to all this, when Sir Alex’s men scored a goal, 30,000 text messages would be received alerting the fan a goal had been scored! And that was bad enough.

However saturation point was certainly met and networks were approaching overload. Fans were retrieving emails that they did not need to read whilst at a Barclays Premier League stadium. This squeezed out the poor photographer who could no longer use the available bandwidth to send images.

Football clubs introduced wifi as journalists could also no longer send copy back to their sports desks using their now defunct USB sticks. Clubs like Arsenal, Manchester City and Wolves lead the way by installing ultra fast wifi for the media to transmit with.

MUGS

Going to Ewood Park in Blackburn was a frustrating affair. Photographers were paying for a service they assisted in developing but it could no longer be relied on.

Whilst up to 30,000 fans watched a fixture, the transmitters of the mobile network on the stadium roof could not cope. All devices showed a maximum signal strength but no internet connections could be made. Pictures trickled in like a drop of water replacing a gushing waterfall in a drought.

It was a magical experience to first send images at 9.6 kbit/s but in 2010 sending at 50+ was the norm. At Blackburn the networks could only offer 3 kbits/s if we were lucky!

Photographers were back in the dark ages during the 90 minutes of action.

As soon as the fans left the stadium at the final whistle, connection speeds picked up, but newspapers who had been used to receiving images so fast had closed their doors and had gone to bed.

DISHES

© MATTHEW ASHTON/AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

Some photographers moaned at the networks. With pleas of being passed to level 2 support, Doris’ manning the phones tried to help but spectacularly got it wrong in failing to understand the merits of VPN and assumed photographers were having problems with picture messaging.

Some agencies were looking at using satellite dishes and phones to transmit.

South Africa will offer photographers LAN lines both in the stadium at pitchside and in the media centers. We will be able to send at speeds approaching 1000 kbits/s.

But in recession hit Britain, phone companies servicing 40,000 customers who have the facility to automatically receive email 24 hours a day that they don’t need, that volume of custom far outweigh the 25 drenched photographers tearing their hair out when finding picture transmission impossible.

Although Vodafone have at least recognised the issue and have admitted network saturation, unlike others who churn out PR standard garbage with apologies that mean nothing, I see this as the end of stadium transmitting as we know it. I feel it will be years until the UK sees mobile phone networks like in Japan and Korea. For the meanwhile its back to wiring using wires.

It is kind of nice knowing that when ‘wiring’ images at the World Cup, pictures will be going back down a wire like in the old days.

The old days are the dying days and the new day’s just begun . . . a line from And the band played on by Simple Minds. Highly appropriate I think.

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One response to “46 Days to Go : And the band played on

  1. Great post. A really fascinating insight in the history.. Keep em coming!

    James

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