This is How AP Journalists Sent Photos From the Field in the 1980s

Thanks to advancements in modern technology, photojournalists can have a near-instantaneous connection with agencies and outlets with very little downtime between when a photo is captured and when it is published. But it wasn’t always like this. To celebrate its 175th birthday in 2021, the Associated Press (AP) has published a series of detailed blogs […]

This is How AP Journalists Sent Photos From the Field in the 1980s

Thanks to advancements in modern technology, photojournalists can have a near-instantaneous connection with agencies and outlets with very little downtime between when a photo is captured and when it is published. But it wasn’t always like this.

To celebrate its 175th birthday in 2021, the Associated Press (AP) has published a series of detailed blogs that dig deep into its corporate archives and explain as well as show the history of the organization. In part seven of the eight-part series, the AP shared a scan of an old brochure that advertises the latest of 1970s technology: the AP Portable Picture Transmitter.

This large device is basically a portable fax machine that would be able to send both black and white or color photographs over long distances using telephone lines. It could also be used to send drawings or printed materials of any kind that could fit on its scanning spool.

Associated Press brochure announcing AP’s new portable photo transmitter for both color and black and white photographs, 1981. (AP Photo/Corporate Archives)

“Sending color photographs is greatly simplified with the AP Portable Transmitter,” the description reads. “A single color print is mounted on the drum and by simple positioning of the desired filter in front of the photo multiplier, the same print is sent three times. One time each for cyan, magenta, and yellow. Of course, the transmitter can also be used to send regular black and white separation prints.”

One of the major selling points was that it only contained two mechanical functions: the rotation of the picture drum and the electronics that moved the fiber optic carriage. The entire machine was powered by an 8-bit microprocessor that controlled the timing, motor, video, and oscillating functions. It also controlled the automatic gain system and would prescan the entire photograph to obtain the best white levels and then set that white output signal to the proper level.

The AP Portable Picture Transmitter was also capable of operating in the AM or FM modes in the laserphoto standards that were used at the time.

While it isn’t small by any modern standards, at the time it was considered to be light and compact as well as durable — it took up no more space than 170 cubic inches.

The design of the device is similar to one that was used by other organizations at the time, including the United Press International UPI Model 16-S. This drum-based transmitter was detailed in photo director Chris Wilkins back in 2012. In that explanation, it was revealed that transmitting images this was was extremely slow and could take between eight and nine minutes to send a single black and white photo. The UPI 16-S was used from the early 1970s up through around 1991.

The AP Portable Transmitter looks as though it has more features and was slightly more advanced in its design than the UPI 16-S, though additional information on it outside of this single image from the AP’s archives is thin. What is notable is that the AP eventually switched to a different device called the AP Leafax 35 by 1988, which was more advanced and was housed inside a silver briefcase (which can be seen on the AP’s blog post). It eventually became the proprietary technology of the AP as it was capable of the same functions as the Portable Transmitter but was also a portable negative scanner, the first device of its kind that could perform both duties.

Photo by Morio, Creative Commons

That said, it still wasn’t fast. In from 2015, photographer Brad Mangin mentions that it could take upwards of 30 minutes to send a single photo.

“I was covering sporting events all over the place and sending pictures back to our picture desk in New York over analog phone lines with an AP Leafax transmitter that took 30 minutes to send one color picture — and that was state of the art at the time!” he said.

Gratefully, technology has advanced to the point where in the time it once took photojournalists to send a single photo, modern methods could send hundreds.


Image credits: Header image via the AP and used with permission.

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How Do Pro Photographers Light Their Photographs?

How does renowned portrait photographer Albert Watson light his photos? With a foolproof three-light setup that makes his photos look amazing, of course! Except… he doesn’t. In fact, setups are very far from what professional photographers do when they light their work. Here is what mindset photographers have when they light. We all start in […]

How Do Pro Photographers Light Their Photographs?

How does renowned portrait photographer Albert Watson light his photos? With a foolproof three-light setup that makes his photos look amazing, of course! Except… he doesn’t. In fact, setups are very far from what professional photographers do when they light their work. Here is what mindset photographers have when they light.

We all start in the same place: a YouTube video showing some amazing setups with just 1 light. When we watch a video showing a 4-light setup, we’re already feeling pro. And yes, for some photographers being able to do a four-light setup — a nice rim, fill, hair, and key light — is enough. These setups give a simple formula to use when lighting a scene.

Many photographers can create these light setups, but very few are professionals. So, how do pros light their photos? What setups do they use? How do they decide?

Setups Are a Myth

The first thing I want to emphasize is that setups don’t exist on a professional set. Never has anyone asked me to do a three-light setup, nor has anyone asked me to create great results with only one light.

Being able to do a classic portrait setup and have top clients is a thing of the past. Back in the 80s, you could impress someone with a clean white background, but now it’s not about that at all.

Competition is fierce, and many photographers end up learning as many setups as possible so that they have a vast mental toolbox. This results in companies selling kits for “perfect portrait light” “perfect beauty light” “perfect fashion light”. What this creates is a set mentality that there is one right way to light fashion, a different one for beauty, and the third one for portraits.

The best analogy I can give is if you were told there is only one way to eat bread: plain with butter. You can’t make toast, add jam, or even make a sandwich.

I think it’s pretty clear that thinking in terms of setups is limiting. It’s not wrong, but it puts a label on something that is undefinable: perfect light.

So How Do Professionals Light Their Photos?

Before I go into how to learn the art of lighting, let me take you through a sort of step-by-step process that I’ve applied to light so far.

1. Black Frame

It all starts with a single frame. If I’m in the studio, I take a black frame to make sure there is no ambient light. On-location, I take a perfectly exposed frame. Although now I have an intuition about exposure, I still do it as a good habit. If anything, it lets me know I tethered in properly and that everything is working.

2. Ambient Control

With the test frame complete, I introduce light. If studio ambient light is desirable, I may increase ISO or perhaps lower the shutter speed. Generally, I don’t touch aperture too much as I like to have a wide plane of focus around f/11. On-location, I will play with the settings to get a good amount of ambient light.

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3. Introducing Artificial Light

Again, this all starts with a single light. If you want to be a purist, you can start with a light directly in front of the subject. Setting the power, and then seeing what that light makes is the next step. Some questions to ask yourself at this moment are:

  1. Is the light too hard?
  2. Is the falloff too dramatic?
  3. Is the light coming from the right direction?
  4. What do I want to show/say with this picture?
  5. What aesthetic do I want?
  6. Anything else?

Answers to these questions will form a base for what you want to do next. This may include adding a modifier, moving the light further, or perhaps even adding additional lights.

A good way to think about this step is to take on the mindset of a painter. Each light is a brush that adds dimension to the image. You should be careful about what you add and don’t to each picture.

Remember that with every light comes a great deal of responsibility to control it — don’t forget about things like flags, scrims, or butterflies. Those will help you sculpt the end result and come up with a unique image that is yours. Truly yours.

The end of this process should yield a light that looks good to you. Determining what looks good and what doesn’t comes from being deeply caring and passionate about the subject. While I don’t want to sound like a loosey-goosey artistic type, good light just clicks with the subject like a puzzle that fits perfectly.

Deep care for the subject enables you to understand what light fits correctly. If you photograph 1950s cars, you may want to show the chrome on the bodywork. If photographing popsicles wets your whistle, you will inevitably find a way to show them in a light that is right.

What separates great from the good is that obsession with the subject in front of the lens, no matter what it is.

How To Learn Light?

Knowledge of light comes from experimenting and appreciating what each surface does to light, how it reflects or bounces, diffuses or travels directly, etc. This understanding then enables you to appreciate each modifier.

For example, a 5-foot octabox will have the same light spread as a 2-foot, but the softness will be different. A 1×6 softbox turned sideways will produce a hard vertical but soft horizontal shadow. Diffusion paper on a small source won’t make the light soft.

There are virtually thousands of examples like these that come from understanding what each little tool does to light.

I’ve written a separate piece on learning light earlier this year. If you want a more detailed explanation, give that article a read!

Closing Thoughts

Professionals light their images in order to achieve an aesthetic rather than execute a bog-standard setup, just like how painters paint in order to convey a mood rather than do a technique exercise. Of course, good technique is important and helpful, but knowing four one-light setups is not a good technique — making your own light setups with 1, 2, 4, 10, and more lights to fit the aesthetic is a good technique.

I promise you, knowing how to light will not only bring progress to your photography but it also enables you to solve some of the most complex problems that arise on set.


About the author: Illya Ovchar is a commercial and editorial fashion photographer based in Budapest. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Ovchar’s work on his website and Instagram.

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