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A look back at the NC2000 - Continued

The NC2000 was officially launched in February 1994, just before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where several of them were used with reasonable success. But the AP didn't find a lot of eager buyers.

"We were selling them by bits and pieces," says Marty Cammarata, who was then the Director of Technology Marketing at the AP. "Somebody would buy one here. Somebody else would buy one there. We'd sell one to three in a month."

nc2000_pb520c.jpgOne of those bits and pieces was sold to the Vancouver Sun in late July 1994, and made its way into the hands of Nick Didlick. Along with the camera, he got Apple's flagship desktop computer, the Power Mac 8100. The base configuration of an 8100 included an 80MHz processor, 8MB of onboard RAM (264MB maximum if you filled all eight RAM slots), a 500MB hard drive (a 2GB unit was the largest optional drive), a SCSI port and three NuBus expansion slots, all running on Mac OS 7.1.1 and yours to take home for US$4,250.

Didlick also got a shiny new laptop, a Mac PowerBook 520C (shown at right). It sported a 25MHz processor, 36MB maximum RAM, 130MB hard drive, dual-scan color screen with 640 x 480 maximum resolution for US$2,900.

The NC2000 shipped with a dedicated version of Kodak's DCS Acquire module, a Photoshop plug-in for viewing thumbnails of the camera's RAW images and opening them as RGB pictures in Photoshop. A rudimentary white balance adjustment was the software’s only real RAW conversion feature and, in the earliest releases of the plug-in, the conversions were overly contrasty and punchy.

Version 1.3 of the Kodak Acquire plug-in for the NC2000

The Sun was using version 2.5.1 of Photoshop when that first NC2000 arrived, but it soon switched to version 3.0, which had been introduced that year. (Layers were version 3.0's big new feature.)

Didlick used this basic hardware and software setup for his day-to-day assignments through the rest of the summer and into the fall. As a result of his experiences with it, the Sun and the Province, which between them had 17 staff photographers, decided in October 1994 to buy an NC2000 plus accompanying computer hardware for each staff shooter and give up film entirely. The AP's Marty Cammarata calls this "the shot heard 'round the world." The two papers completed the process in the early summer of 1995.

The Calgary Herald was undergoing a similar transition during this time. In the summer and fall of 1994, the mid-sized broadsheet rotated two NC2000 bodies among the staff for both daily work and assignments happening close to deadline. In the spring of 1995, they published the first edition of the paper to have locally-shot pictures taken exclusively with the NC2000.

Tearsheets from the Calgary Herald showing NC2000 photographs

The entire photo staff was outfitted with an NC2000 by the end of the summer that same year, and the film processor - which was seizing up regularly thanks to a lack of use - was dismantled and removed by the fall.

Calgary Herald Photo Editor Peter Brosseau dismantles the film processor

At all three papers, the conversion was much easier said than done. Dean Bicknell, a staff photographer at the Calgary Herald, said in a newspaper interview about the digital conversion at the time: "[Kodak and the AP] should supply valium with every camera."

Didlick agrees. "Ten years ago," Didlick says, "gathering the pieces, the tools to work, was a nightmare. There's a whole bunch of stuff that we had to find or invent. Something we needed would be just [announced] in the magazines or only available in Florida on Thursdays. [The only card readers] were these $800 readers that were the size of a book. Nobody wanted to carry this shit, so most guys opted to just suck the images off the camera [with a SCSI cable]. It looked like an umbilical cord from an elephant."

The early NC2000 cameras varied remarkably widely from their rated specs and from each other—ISO 200 on one camera might be the equivalent of ISO 400 on another. "Of the 20 cameras that we had at the Vancouver Sun, no two of them had the same exposure or color look," Didlick says. "So you have a newspaper production tool, and none of the tools act alike.

"TTL flash never worked," he continues. "You had to use them on automatic flash, so we went out and found Vivitar 283s and 285s. The storage cards were these 105MB Maxtor PC cards. I don't even think you can buy a CompactFlash card that small nowadays. If you dropped them, they were toast."

He recalls the first published image that he shot with an NC2000, from the 1994 Commonwealth Games. "The picture looked fine on my screen, but it was cyan in the newspaper and nobody could figure out why. There was no such thing as color management. We were color manglers. We used to just sort of lasso color, and mangle it all up, and send it off to the newspaper, and hope it turned out. [Shooting with that camera] was a 3-step process. It was the point, shoot, and pray process."

But, he says, "you could take a lot of the praying out if you understood something about the color of light, if you didn't boost your ISO too high, and if you nailed the exposure within a third of a stop under. Then you could make beautiful pictures."

Cheetahs eye an NC2000 just outside Nairobi, Kenya (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

Helped in part by the news from Vancouver, sales of the NC2000 picked up in 1995. Some early efforts by AP photographers also helped build the camera's credibility, says Jim Gerberich. He specifically cites photos by Stephan Savoia from the Woodstock II music festival in the summer of 1994, shots of the January 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan by Eric Draper, and David Longstreath's pictures from the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, USA in the spring of 1995.

In September of 1995, Kodak introduced a Canon-based version of the camera, built around an EOS-1N body and dubbed the EOS DCS 3 (a monochrome version had debuted two months earlier).

Photojournalist Lise Aserud and the DCS 3 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

The DCS 3 doubled the NC2000's 8MB buffer to 16MB, allowing 12 shots before the onset of buffer stall. Advances in CCD circuitry had also allowed Kodak to significantly lower the noise produced by the M3 sensor, improving high ISO image quality. In April of 1996, an upgraded NC2000, called the NC2000e, brought the expanded buffer and improved CCD to the Nikon mount.

nc2000_reed_bw.jpgIn the fall of 1996 the Gannett Rochester Newspapers in New York, which comprised the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and the Rochester Times Union, bought an NC2000e and started down the path that would make them one of the earliest large daily U.S. newspapers to switch to digital. (The Tulsa World was one of the first major U.S. dailies to make the conversion; the paper's staff of 10 shooters completed the all-digital move in 1996.)

In Rochester, the paper handed the camera to staff shooter Reed Hoffmann (shown at left clearing out film gear during the switchover) and told him to figure it out and teach everyone else how to use it. 

"Imagine a camera," Hoffmann says, "that had no LCD, that used a slow kind of cranky drive to write pictures to, that, even at its lowest ISO, wasn't very good quality, that always had a color cast.When [the switch to digital] was announced, the photo department was on the fourth floor, and we used to be able to open all the windows and let fresh air in. The first thing they did was come around and put locks on all the windows."

Unlike the photographers in Vancouver and Calgary, the Gannett Rochester shooters each got two NC2000e bodies, a huge investment by the paper.

They also got the hot laptop of the day, the Mac PowerBook 1400c, which debuted that year with a 117MHz processor and an 800 x 600-pixel, 16-bit active matrix display. Maximum RAM was 64MB, and the biggest hard drive it could use was 2GB. Theirs were tricked out with a swappable, internal Zip drive for backup, supplemental storage, and sneaker-netting.

Each photographer was also outfitted with a full location lighting kit, "because we knew we had to shoot at as low an ISO as possible," Hoffmann says. "You couldn't shoot at ISO 800 and get a decent picture, much less anything beyond that."

ISO 200 lit portrait shot with the NC2000 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

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