The New York Times staff photographer Jim Wilson. Jason Henry for The New York Times
How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Jim Wilson, a photographer for The Times based in San Francisco, discussed the tech he is using.
You’ve been shooting photos for The Times for years. What was one of the most challenging shoots you’ve ever had to do, and what tools did you use?
I started at The Times in 1980 and have been shooting ever since, with the exception of about a seven-year period when I was an editor.
I’ve had many challenging shoots over the years. One that comes to mind was a trip I took with my colleague Kirk Johnson to St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. We flew with a group of scientists who were doing environmental monitoring at a former United States Air Force radar site there from the Cold War. The place was very eerie (think Dr. Strangelove), and from one location at the site, you really could see Russia. We were dropped off at the edge of a gravel runway for a week of camping in one of the most remote places on the planet. I had to carefully plan out what I was going to shoot and how, since every piece of gear I had was dependent on battery power and there weren’t any sources of electricity to recharge.
We had no transportation to get to the survey sites, so had to hike the tundra to each location, sometimes over several miles. For the most part, the weather cooperated, but there was one night when the wind came up and the sky opened, gushing frigid rain along with the howling wind — I worried that my tent would be blown over.
How has tech changed your photography equipment over the years?
There’s no question that tech has made us much more portable than we ever were. The equipment itself is far more sophisticated and capable — we can see what we are shooting in real time; we can fine tune everything to whatever our needs are. We are now able to transmit our pictures from anywhere we can get an internet connection.
When I started, everything was dependent on processed film, which meant having to bring film, a darkroom kit including enlarging and print making equipment, and a transmitter (very much like a souped up fax machine). We’d have to find or at least arrange for a telephone line and telephone access when we needed to send our images. I remember having a small portable typewriter that I’d use to write the captions that were pasted onto the photos before they were put on the drum transmitter and sent back to The Times. The phone lines were all analog, and each picture took around 10 minutes to send — if the line was interrupted for any reason, we’d have to start over. If we got out 10 images in a day, that was huge.
Photographers now can send wide arrays of photos multiple times during a day. The upside of all of this is more time on the scene providing coverage and more choices sent. When we were strictly a print-based operation, the press deadlines ruled our lives — there was a definite point in the day at which no more changes could be made.
What’s the best camera you've ever used?
This is a hard question. I always loved using the Leica cameras I started out with. They were solid and dependable gear that were elegant in their simplicity. I loved my battered M2 and M3, was grateful when Leitz brought forth the M4 and thought having the built-in meter of the M6 was such an amazing advance. These cameras just felt so right and so great in one’s hands — they were quiet and unobtrusive.
Then came autofocus lenses and auto functions on the high-end single lens reflex cameras that rolled out from companies like Canon and Nikon. You can customize these cameras for just about any situation you can imagine. With many of these cameras, one can upload directly without even a laptop. The cameras are capable of recording far more detail in poor lighting conditions then we ever could in the film days.
Camera sales have subsided because people use the cameras on their smartphones. How do you feel about smartphone cameras and their impact on digital photography?
The smartphone has killed the lower-end camera market, and if it hasn’t killed the mid-range market, it’s sure breathing down its neck. Everyone has a camera with them now at all times, and there's no doubt that we're seeing images that we never before could have contemplated. As we all know, it’s not just still images but also video.
I think it’s the ultimate democratization of photography — anyone at any time from anywhere can produce images that can affect how we think of the world around us.
With each advance in the cellphone market, I wonder what the long-term prognosis is for the high-end cameras. I attended the launch of Apple’s iPhone X with all of the improvements made on that device, many of them involving photo and video capabilities, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there may be a day when companies like Canon and Nikon won’t have the incentive to make the kind of gear that we as pros now use.
Outside of work, what tech product are you currently obsessed with?
I don’t know if this qualifies as a tech product, but we recently bought a new Subaru that has lane departure warnings and automatic braking. We really had to pay close attention when the salesman was demonstrating all of this and were amazed at how it worked. These are safety features that are important and ought to be standard on all vehicles. I see the self-driving cars that are around the Bay Area and know that though it may not be tomorrow, the future is here.
What do you think about drones and 360-degree cameras?
Drones have opened up a whole new way to look at scenes, and I think they're an incredible tool. When you can get just a little elevation, it’s fantastic how much more depth you can bring to whatever you are seeing.
As for the 360 views, I’ve seen some that are genuinely amazing. The most successful ones give a sense of place that would be difficult to obtain in any other way. One of the most impressive views that I’ve seen was shot by my former colleague Fred Conrad in Haiti after the earthquake — it was a 360 panoramic still that showed the interior of a quake-destroyed building in incredible detail.
Any way of seeing that helps us to tell a story better is a positive development, and I see a great future for both of these technologies.
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