I was at the Virtual Futures conference over this last weekend and decided to take a camera and, purely for fun, try photographing the event. This process brought together a number of pieces of technology besides the camera itself, and when I sat down afterwards and thought about it I was amazed at how far photography has come since I was last seriously interested in it 10 years or so ago, when my camera still used film. This is best demonstrated by one particular photograph from the weekend…

Most of the conference sessions were held in a standard University lecture theatre with raked seating. I was sitting near the back so as not to disturb the other delegates too much with my photographic activities. This particular shot was taken in a session that was in almost complete darkness – we had light from the projector screen and obviously the speaker had a torch to see the script, but the main lights were off. This brings me to the first amazing thing about this photo – I had the camera sensitivity wound up to its maximum sensitivity of ISO 12,800. 12,800! Back in my film days, ISO 1600 was as high as you could get, and while you could push process that 3 stops to get to ISO 12,800 the results would be pretty grainy. Yes, this shot is a bit noisy but nowhere near as bad as ISO 1600 film push processed by 3 stops!

The second amazing thing about the shot is the lens I used to take the shot. It is a lens I had on my film camera, bought somewhere between 15 and 20 years ago, and yet it still works perfectly including auto-focus (although not in near darkness – this shot was manually focused). I know this is normal for photography kit but in how many other areas of technology can you connect 20 year old kit to modern kit and have everything just work perfectly? But it gets better. As I said I was sat at the back of the lecture theatre, maybe 30 metres from the speaker. The lens was zoomed to its maximum 210mm, at which it has a maximum aperture of f5.6. Despite the ISO 12,800 sensitivity of the camera that gave me a shutter speed of 1/10s. And I had no tripod. Standard practice suggests you need a shutter speed of 1/250s, or even 1/500s to avoid camera shake at 210mm (the size of the sensor on my camera means 210mm is equivalent to over 300mm on a film, or full-frame digital, camera), and yet I hand held it at 1/10s. And remember this is a lens made before image stabilisation (IS) was invented. This was possible because my camera has IS built into the camera body. Any lens I can connect to the camera automatically has the benefits of IS. Amazing.

That’s pretty much it for the production of the photo, but the amazing technology doesn’t stop there. I have an Eye-Fi card in the camera rather than a standard SD storage card. This gives my camera a WiFi interface so it can transfer photographs wirelessly. For this conference I had it configured to deliver the photos to a specific album on Google’s Picasa photo sharing service. Within a minute or so of the photo being taken, it was in a publicly viewable album for all to see, whether at the conference or not. And this transfer was fully automatic – no manual intervention required. And of course, for selected photographs, I was able to tweet them, again within a couple of minutes of them being taken, for people at the conference and any just watching the twitter stream. To get a photo from a dSLR to Twitter in a couple of minutes with almost no manual intervention I find quite amazing.

It turns out there was actually a bit of a snag with the WiFi. The WiFi here at Warwick uses WPA2-Enterprise authentication. The Eye-Fi card speaks WPA2, but not WPA2-Enterprise, so I couldn’t use the provided WiFi. Instead I brought my own! I have a MiFi – a mobile broadband hotspot. It gives me a WiFi hotspot the Eye-Fi card will connect to, but transfers the data over 3G. This is mildly annoying in a building with WiFi, as transfers are slower. The reason the photos took so long (a minute or two:-) to arrive in Picasa is mostly due to the time taken to transfer 5MB files over a 3G connection. Using a MiFi does mean, though, that this whole process – camera->Eye-Fi->MiFi->Picasa – can be carried out anywhere there’s a 3G signal, inside or out. There’s no dependence on any technology you can’t easily carry with you. The last time I did photography seriously, this would have involved getting film developed and scanned and would have taken days not minutes.

Photographic technology has come along way in the last 10 or 15 years…

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