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Mike Goldwater - Primacy of Image over Technology
By Hilary Barton
Posted on 9/21/2021 11:00 PM
Mike's career in photojournalism and commercial photography over the last 40 years spanned the digital divide.  From 1980 to approximately 2000, he used a variety of analogue cameras and films, since then he has used several different types of digital cameras.  In his talk he explored the strengths and pitfalls of each, all lavishly illustrated with his wonderful archive of images.

As a photojournalist in the 1980s he mainly used Kodachrome 64 film for colour photography and Kodak Tri-X film for B&W.  He showed a photograph of himself with 3 cameras round his neck, two with different speeds of colour film and one with black and white film.  He also changed lenses between cameras if necessary, all making life, for example on the front line of a war, very complex.

With Kodachrome 64 it was difficult to get the right exposure as it had a narrow tolerance.  It was necessary to use a hand-held light meter and it still was not possible to use the film in daylight after early morning in many countries.  One of Mike's early uses of this film was to document the birth defects resulting from the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, where most images were made indoors because the light outside was too bright.  Ideally Kodachrome should be stored in a fridge, otherwise it is prone to faults, such as a line of bright blue dots across the image.  In practice it was impossible to store the film correctly in the field, and faults that could be removed instantly in Photoshop today could render a photo useless.  A hair that got stuck in a shutter whilst changing the lens could render a whole film useless.  And the photographer would not know until he got home from a trip.

Mike made two trips to El Salvador to cover the civil war.  At the time he was using Nikon cameras and prime lenses.  He described the pressure of trying to capture the "decisive moment" whilst taking some images in B&W (below left), then deciding they might have more impact in colour (below right), switching lenses for a different composition, and then needing to change the film.


Even the most professional photographer occasionally opened the back of the camera without winding the film back (below left).  When everything came together, the reward was a story syndicated around the world (below centre).


In 1981, Mike joined with 7 other photojournalists to establish "Network Photographers" (above right), an agency that owned the copyright of their photographs.  The 2 full-time staff sought contracts and syndicated stories.  The agency grew to represent 37 photographers, including such luminaries as Fay Godwin, and had 20 staff.  Freelance work can be lonely and competitive, so Mike appreciated Network's supportive collegiate atmosphere.  They had monthly soirees to discuss ideas and developing projects (he observed that they were quite like our photographic society meetings!).  The heyday of magazine photojournalism was the 1980s and 1990s, but it did not survive the shift to interest in celebrities.  The "Network" business model survived well until the onset of digital.  They tried scanning transparencies to turn them into digital files, but at 300 scans a day, they could never compete with the millions of dollars that Getty, for example, invested in their digital library.  Network closed in 2005.

In an attempt to improve the success rate of image-capturing, Mike switched from Nikon to Canon, an emotional decision, which was driven by Canon's superior auto-focus.  At another point he switched from Kodachrome to Fuji Provia film for better colour saturation and wider exposure tolerance, such as he used for the building of an Ice Hotel in Sweden (below).


Finally in the late 1990s, the digital revolution arrived with a Kodak digital camera and the ability to send images back to the office by satellite phone, a set-up that cost £20,000.  Mike invested £2,000 in a Canon 30D with 8Mp and 1.6 crop factor.  It had an imaging screen on the back which had the great advantage that he could show his images to his subjects.  He used this camera to record the devastation caused by a volcano erupting in Goma (below left).  The ability to shoot at ASA1600 meant that he could take successful photos in a shelter that would otherwise have needed flash (below right).


With the launch of the Canon 1Ds Mark II in November 2004, with 16Mp, at £5,000, digital photography had really arrived.  Another photographer recommended to Mike that he should use the digital Canon 1Ds II alongside a Mamiya 7ii, a now classic medium format rangefinder film camera, to compare them.  He took them both to Inner Mongolia where he was investigating the unfolding climate catastrophe and the appalling accident record.  The image below shows a comparison of a Canon image on the left with a Mamiya image on the right, taken moments apart.

While one might consider that the Mamiya image on the right is fractionally better, the expense and difficulty of producing colour film images in harsh conditions meant that Mike chose to continue using the Canon, eventually switching to the Canon 5D which handles shadows well.

With the closure of Network and the decline in photojournalism, Mike switched to commercial photography, working for clients as varied as Dubai (below left) and G4S (below right).


Coming up to date, Mike has switched to mirrorless cameras and now uses the Canon R5 with its flip-out screen.  He illustrated his workflow from digital to Lightroom, using colour coding similar to the way he used to deal with contact sheets, with images from the Broadstairs Folk Festival (below).  He appreciates how quick and easy it is to improve images, that "negatives" are free and there are no toxic chemicals.  For book projects he often collaborates with old Network colleagues who can help with the difficult talk of being objective about editing, a key skill that is difficult but not impossible to learn.


His most recent project is in Thanet (below), where he has a family connection, but is also a microcosm of post-Brexit Britain.  He is enjoying setting his Fuji XT3 to B&W with a red filter so that he can compose well for B&W on the screen.  The images are RAW files but are processed in Lightroom with the same camera preset.


Although the market for photojournalism today is much smaller, there is still room for some stunning photographers, such as the ones you see in the World Press Awards.  The safety of photojournalists used to be respected in conflict situations but not today, when they are often a target.  The use of smartphones to take sneak pictures has taken over this niche.

Mike concluded by stressing that the image itself is primary.  How you got there is interesting, but it is more important that you enjoy making pictures, and it is the image itself that matters the most.

 Copyright Warning  The copyright of all images on this site is retained by the photographer, and they may not be copied or used without permission.