Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

High-Tech Heaviness

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

In the great Depression-era monster flick King Kong (1933) – in which a gorilla on steroids lays waste to much of Manhattan before being shot down atop the Empire State Building – the thing that sets the big guy off is not the curious attention of the public, but the exploding flashbulbs of the damn news photographers.

There's Kong, in chains on the stage of a midtown theater, as his impresario captor Carl Denham, played by the always over-the-top Robert Armstrong, proclaims, "Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong! – the eighth wonder of the world!" The black-tie crowd oohs and ahhs as the creature struggles against his confinement, and Denham, fatally overplaying his hand, gestures for the "newspaper boys" to come onstage and take the first-ever pictures of the animal that he believes will make him rich.

A horde of newsies, looking like a parade of ants next to the furry colossus, approaches Kong, each carrying a bulky 4x5 press camera and a ton of big flashbulbs. The bulbs pop-pop-pop in Kong's frightened face, and finally the ape thinks, "screw this," and breaks free. Before the movie ends, with the poor ape breathing his last on Broadway, he has torn down an elevated subway, climbed up the side of Fay Wray's hotel to grab her out of her room, and stomped who-knows-how-many cars, trucks and people into oblivion.

I know what you're thinking and you are right: Once again the press has made a bad situation worse.

Still, for all that drama, the telling detail that got to me, aside from Kong's wonderfully expressive face and Robert Armstrong's woefully bad acting, was all the heavy and bulky gear those news shooters had to lug with them. Boy, am I glad to be working today, when our equipment is so much smaller, lighter and more efficient.

Or is it?

A few months ago, veteran Washington news shooters Dennis Brack and Joe Marquette dramatically demonstrated that, if anything, all the high-tech wonders of the digital photography age have increased, not decreased, the back-breaking load of the average news shooter. Writing in the April newsletter of the White House News Photographers Association, Dennis and Joe compared the weight of the average news photographer's gear in 1947 with the stuff he or she has to lug today.

Granted, in 1947 that Speed or Crown Graphic 4x5 was bulky, especially with its humongous flashgun. Throw in a hard leather "gadget bag" a dozen flashbulbs and maybe eight or so 4x5 film holders and you are talking a fairly heavy load: seventeen pounds of gear, without even a motordrive or a cell phone.

But segue ahead half a century and you realize why so many of us suffer from cranky backs and achy knees.

Joe Marquette's average load, Dennis writes, consists of all this:

Two Canon digital bodies, a selection of smart cards in cases, an 18-35mm zoom lens, a 28-70mm zoom, a 50mm normal lens, a workhorse 80-200 zoom, a 300mm f. 4.5 telephoto [when it's impossible to be close to, say, the President at a podium 100 feet away], a 1.4 tele-extender [if the podium is 200 feet away], two spare batteries and charger for the cameras, a portable strobe with its own high-voltage battery, two tiny Canon "peanut" strobes for fill light, a monopod for the long glass, a photo vest, a cell phone and, of course, a laptop computer on which to download and transmit images.

Total weight: 59 pounds, or more than triple the weight of the 1947 gear.

And remember: guys like Joe and Dennis have to carry this stuff with them, and often have to go running after their subjects or onto and off of press buses and airplanes. They don't have the luxury that I have, on non-news commercial jobs, where I can stuff the kitchen sink into huge rolling camera cases and at least take most of the weight of my gear off of my back and knees.

Oh digital! Oh high tech! Oh boy, how it hurts!

As Dennis and other news photographers have noted, ultra-compact transmission devices might one day do away with the need to lug a laptop. But that's in the future and you can bet such cool and very pricey gizmos will likely remain expensive given the comparatively small (not to say captive) market that would need them.

Which is why I, for one, have taken to bringing my own laptop with me to commercial jobs. Not to transmit pictures, but to burn CD's for my gotta-have-it-now clients.

In the old days, when clients said they needed pictures immediately, I would rush the film to my lab and have images ready in a couple of hours (at huge rush charges to the client.) In the recent past, I switched to shooting digital, often in addition to film, and then e-mailed a handful of images to clients so they could put them up on their websites, etc. But the problem with this route often was that my clients' computers could not take my tedious, one-at-a-time transmissions. [A local PR firm was puzzling over this dilemma recently, when someone noted that its "antiquated" system was running Windows 95.]

So now, when a client gives me the gotta-have-it-now routine, I simply bring the laptop to the job and at a convenient break, download dozens of pictures onto a CD. I should add that I charge a big premium for this "rush" service, especially if the client also wants the job shot on film.

At one recent event, I was grateful for the redundancy. It was a major awards ceremony and the client needed electronic images to service newspapers nationwide. I also shot film so the client could have stuff for its own newsletter files and also to more easily make thank-you prints.

All went fine. The digital pix were great, the CD worked like a charm and I told the client I'd have contact sheets in 24 hours.

But (and this is tough for a film fan like me to admit) if I had not shot digital, I would have been screwed. My lab, one of the best in town, experienced a glitch in its high-tech processor and ruined – absolutely fried – every roll of my film from that job.

The fact that I had shot the entire event on digital – and that the client had all the images it actually needed, saved my behind – not to mention my relationship with this valuable client. So now I don't mind at all carrying my laptop. Along with my tiny Canon PowerShot, it's my electronic security blanket.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
My new camera gear. For jobs where the client wants images asap – often for deadline web usage – it makes sense for me to shoot digitally (sometimes along with film), lug my laptop along with me, and burn a CD on the spot. This way the client is happy, I am a hero, and my images also are safely on my hard drive or CF card as a backup (as well as on film – provided the lab doesn't screw up.) Still, there's no getting around the fact that my laptop is another heavy bit of equipment I now have to carry. But to working pros these days, what else is new?


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Stan Tretick and the Obligations of Access


Edward Weston: Revisited and Revised

Konica Hexar RF: A Great Pretender

Paul's Peripatetic Palm Pix

'New' Image of Old Glory After A Digital Facelift