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A look back at the NC2000 - Continued

The NC2000's images presented other challenges as well. "They tended to be flat and have a little bit of a color cast," says Hoffmann. "We'd pull in the corners in levels in the individual RGB channels, and that did a lot to improve it."

Skin tones were frequently out of whack or, as Tony Kurdzuk puts it, "Anyone with a lighter than medium skin complexion came out looking like a sunburned lobster."

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The "sunburned lobster" effect (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

Shooting the cameras under lights sources heavy with infrared also posed a problem. Some photographers found that putting infrared-blocking Tiffen Hot Mirror filters on their lenses helped to counteract the deep purple shifts in certain colours that could occur otherwise. In Rochester, they went so far as to have the 52mm Hot Mirror filter included with the camera machined to fit the drop-in filter slot of their long lenses. Shooting a fire without a Hot Mirror in place virtually guaranteed purple flames in the early days.

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Purple fire, as recorded by the NC2000 (Photo by Tony Kurdzuk/Newark Star-Ledger)

Kodak eventually developed a version of the acquire plug-in that rendered fire more accurately, though for photos of things not burning it sometimes produced bizarre results.

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Fire as rendered by v3.5 of the acquire plug-in (Photo by Nick Didlick/Vancouver Sun)

nc2000_fire_sampler_B.jpg
The same photo as rendered by a special "Portrait" version of the acquire plug-in

"My favorite thing," Kurdzuk continues, "was every NC2000 I ever had, if you shot at ISO 800 or above, you couldn't get consistent color across the frame. I shot a lot in courtrooms, so in the courtroom I'd have these pictures that were badly yellow in one corner and badly blue in the other corner, and I'd have to figure out some kind of gradient method to try to even it out. With all the things that camera did, you really had to delve deeper into Photoshop than you ever wanted to."

The camera's 1.3-megapixel resolution was obviously a challenge, too. "We always used to shoot tight, tight, tight with these things," says Bob Deutsch who used the Canon-based DCS 3. "Any time you tried to crop, the whole thing would fall apart. Really, a baseball swing would be head to waist. You couldn't shoot it any looser. You were way, way overlensed all the time, and you'd lose pictures because of that, but there was no alternative. You couldn't crop 'em."

"There's one thing I will say," says Tony Kurdzuk, "I don't think there's been a digital camera I've used that is as sharp as that camera, pixel for pixel. It was just amazingly sharp." This was because, unlike most digital SLRs made nowadays, the NC2000 did not have an anti-aliasing, or low-pass, filter over the CCD. Low-pass filters blur the image somewhat but reduce "Christmas tree light" color aliasing and moiré, both of which plagued NC2000 images.

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Specular highlights often showed signficant color aliasing (Photo by Nick Didlick/Vancouver Sun)

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A shingled roof shows massive moiré (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

The color aliasing problem was addressed by an independent software engineer named Dennis Walker, who had been working with Kodak and the AP on reducing noise in the camera's image files. By all accounts, the Photoshop plug-in Walker introduced in late 1996, Quantum Mechanic, which both reduced color noise and removed color aliasing, made life with the NC2000 much more pleasant.

Next, Walker tackled the RAW image workflow. "The original Kodak Acquire plug-in didn't even rotate the thumbnails [of vertical images]," he says. "I remember the first Super Bowl I went to, all these guys are sitting there with their heads sideways." Photographers in those days also did their captioning in Photoshop one picture at a time, and an AP photographer named David Breslauer had urged Walker to write a batch captioning utility.

The program Walker wrote to solve these workflow problems, and to address the need for quick image browsing, was Photo Mechanic, which he introduced in early 1997. The combination of RAW image browser and RAW file format plug-in for Photoshop brought a measure of efficiency to what had been a chaotic workflow. AP also marketed the software, under the name AP Viewer.

At a National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) conference later that year, Walker heard some newspaper shooters complaining about the NC2000's severe intolerance for overexposure. So he went up to his hotel room that night and coded the "exposure throttle", a modification to the Photoshop plug-in component of Photo Mechanic. The modification allowed recovery of highlight detail in images overexposed by a stop or two, and was a precursor to the software exposure compensation function common in RAW processing applications today. Upon seeing the exposure throttle in action, one photographer, clearly nostalgic for the days of negative film, greeted it with the happy observation "now I can go shoot drunk again!"

nc2000_walker_and_friends.jpg
Dennis Walker (centre) is assisted in the development of Photo Mechanic by (l to r) Rob Galbraith, Don Denton and Nick Didlick during a visit to the Calgary Herald newsroom

(The NPPA recently gave Walker The J. Winton Lemen Fellowship Award for writing "digital imaging programs which allow journalists to work more effectively.")

The PCMCIA storage cards for the NC2000, which were hard drives rather than solid-state flash RAM, were fragile and - by today’s standards - slow. Mark Terrill, then a stringer for the AP's Los Angeles bureau when he first started using the NC2000 in 1994, recalls the Maxtor MobileMax 105MB discs that he used. "If you dropped it more than six inches, you'd pick it up and shake it, and it would sound like it was full of sand. And that was the end of your assignment."

NC2000 shooters transmitted their selects from the field using analog modems. Many organizations in North America used a BBS program from Spider Island Software called Telefinder to receive images. If a landline wasn't available, it was possible, but very painful, to transmit an image by analog cell phone at about 1KB/second.

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A mobile transmitting station in the early days of digital (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

"Once you transmitted by cell phone a few times," remembers Reed Hoffmann, "you'd much rather walk into a business or knock on somebody's door and pay 'em twenty bucks to use their phone for five minutes. It was that slow and unreliable." Digital mobile phone networks that sprang up in Europe and Asia well before North America made transmitting photos less error-prone, though still slow.

As Bob Deutsch says, the camera's non-replaceable battery may have been its most painful feature of all. "It wouldn't last a whole ballgame," he says, still a bit aghast. "So sometime around the fourth or fifth inning of a baseball game your camera would die."

You couldn't put a fresh battery in, he continues, "and at $16,000 apiece you couldn't have four or five cameras lying around. So basically you could do five innings, and then you're screwed. We tried to run AC power to these things everywhere. It was a real pain, especially at the ballpark. Often our positions were out in right field or something, and there's just no power anywhere out there."

"You could not shoot a pro football game without charging," agrees Reed Hoffmann as he recalls without fondness scurrying to the nearest AC outlet at halftime. "It was always a race to get to the chargers." Quantum eventually developed a cable to run from the camera to one its external battery packs, which helped alleviate the problem, as did replacing the internal pack with ones built and pre-conditioned by a small battery rebuilder in Calgary. Another outfit sold for a time a dedicated external battery and short cable as well.

The NC2000's much longer shutter lag, compared to film cameras, was also a big adjustment. "My first tennis match," says Tony Kurdzuk, "I didn't get the ball in the frame once."

"You had to re-learn how to take pictures," says Deutsch. "You had to anticipate. Particularly on baseball, you had to push the button as soon as the guy started to swing. And, of course, the motor drive was slower than shit. Kathunk, kathunk."

nc2000_football.jpg
Anticipation was the key to shooting sports (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

The slow continuous shooting speed had an unintended benefit, Deutsch notes wryly. "It was so slow that [the camera's limited buffer depth] didn't matter. At two frames a second, by the time you hit the end of the buffer, the play's already done."

nc2000_ttl_melt.jpgThe NC2000 also marks the beginning of photographers' struggles with digital cameras and flash exposure control. On TTL, overexposure was almost guaranteed unless you dialed in minus two or three stops flash exposure compensation (an example of this is shown at left).

Even then, says Tony Kurdzuk, many subjects were hopeless. "If it was a guy in a tuxedo in a ballroom, you could dial back nine stops and you'd still melt him. The only reliable way was to go back to a Vivitar 285 and do standard auto flash. You can just pile on the irony there. I'm holding a $13,000 high-tech camera, and I'm stepping back fifteen years in flash technology."

In the face of so many challenges, photographers banded together for survival, and many lasting friendships owe their existence to the camera. The NC2000, says Kurdzuk, "was like that old saying: a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It was like the blind leading the blind. People started freely sharing any and all information discovered about the cameras and software, and how to get the most out of them."

The NC2000 scuttlebutt network operated in several ways, with photographers travelling to one another's papers, exchanging tips and hints at workshops and conferences or using the NPPA-L mailing list. This web site and Rob Galbraith's book, The Digital Photojournalist's Guide, are outgrowths of that phenomenon.

"It was like we were all pulling for each other," Kurdzuk continues, "hoping that someone would break the code and find solutions. When someone figured something out, the news spread like wildfire and was adapted by others right away."

In his own inimitable way, Nick Didlick concurs. "We should have a reunion — no, a 12-step program — for everyone who shot with that thing."

We Beat the Hell Out of Our Competitors

In February of 1998 Kodak introduced the DCS 520. Like the DCS 3, it was built around the Canon EOS-1N, but it had a new 2-megapixel CCD, interchangeable NiMH batteries and an image playback LCD. The fine art of chimping was born.

A Nikon-mount version, the DCS 620, would not follow until a year later, so the AP continued to sell the NC2000e, but its days were clearly numbered. Marty Cammarata, the AP Technology Marketing director, says the organization did a decent business refurbishing NC2000e bodies and selling them at a substantial discount to small weekly papers and the like, and he believes the last of the breed was sold in September of 1999. By that time, a brand new NC2000e carried a list price of US$9,995.

And the total number produced? "As I remember it," Cammarata says, "just a couple cameras shy of 3,000."

Despite its shortcomings, the NC2000 was a landmark product — the first digital camera that could be, and was, used for day-to-day newspaper shooting. Somehow or other, photographers made it work.

"You know," says Bob Deutsch, "at the Olympics [in 1996], being able to shoot digital and transmit over cell phone allowed us to push deadlines and get pictures in, and a lot of times beat the wires, beat television, and everybody else. It gave us an edge that's gone away because everybody else is doing it now. My feeling was, even though the quality sucked, we got the picture in. And I always felt I'd rather have a shitty picture in than none at all."

That sentiment is echoed by Jens Dresling, a staff shooter at Denmark's Politiken newspaper, who first used a DCS 3 in 1995 (purchased by the paper, he says, because the Queen of Denmark's youngest son selfishly scheduled his wedding for "way after deadline"). "We beat the hell out of our competitors using this camera. It might not be pictures that will end up in an exhibition, but I shoot pictures for the paper, and we had great success using it." Dresling later used the NC2000 for much of his daily work.

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The Rolling Stones as recorded by the NC2000 (Photo by Jens Dresling/Politiken)

 Mark Terrill says that his early willingness to try using the NC2000 "went a long way towards getting me a [staff] job with the AP, I believe, because suddenly I became the go-to guy when an assignment called for digital. We used those cameras for [several] years. I've shot some of my best work on it. I have two Time covers, both with that camera." (The Time covers are shown below.)

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November 2, 1998 (Photo by Mark Terrill/AP)

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July 19, 1999 (Photo by Mark Terrill/AP)

Back at the Newark Star-Ledger, as the millennium passed and technology advanced, the paper moved on to newer cameras — DCS 520s and 620s and, later, Nikon's D1-series cameras, the Canon EOS-1D and EOS-1D Mark II.

nc2000_tony_kurdzuk.jpgWhen the paper was finally ready to dump the last of its outdated NC2000 bodies, Tony Kurdzuk (shown at left) bought one, brought it home, and set it on a shelf.

It wasn't exactly a shrine, but Kurdzuk acknowledges a sentimental attachment to the camera, and to the wild and woolly days of digital pioneering.

"There was so much excitement that revolved around the NC2000 and the whole digital revolution, about how cool this stuff was. It was new in so many ways. That's the nostalgia."

Nick Didlick once wanted to find an old NC2000 of his own, but he had a different plan for it, one that involved the school of Tiger Barbs in his aquarium. "I wanted to sink one in my fish tank," he says, "and sit there watching my fish swim around it."

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