Times photo staffer’s invention: the streaming backpack

Josh Haner wears his streaming backback. (The New York Times)
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Back during the 2012 presidential campaign, New York Times photographer Josh Haner was right at the scrum, trailing presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan with occasional stints covering Joe Biden alongside a mob of reporters from television, print and digital news services.

The still photographers, he concluded, were at a clear disadvantage.

As the TV journalists were constantly feeding a stream of live footage to their headquarters, Haner had to scramble to upload the images he shot, add all the caption information, and enter it remotely into the Times' digital content management system, often with moments to spare before the next event or before his plane reached an altitude where he couldn’t transmit the images wirelessly anymore.

“I found myself traveling on planes with Romney and the Vice President and Paul Ryan with all of these TV embeds,” Haner said. “These journalists spend a year with each candidate and they're like a one-man-band and they all had versions of these television streaming backpacks. They'd turn on these backpacks and 10 minutes later they had a camera attached to it and they were live-streaming video to their control rooms, and I was fascinated with it. As soon as we took off they were done. I was sort of jealous as we were madly trying to file our photos before we took off ....”

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Now a Pulitzer winner, staff photographer and senior editor for photo technology at The New York Times, Haner, a Stanford graduate with a degree in symbolic systems which combines computer science, linguistics, philosophy and psychology, wanted to create something similar for still images.

“So when I got back to New York I started thinking about [it],” Haner told Capital. “If they could get video out we could probably get still images out.”

Haner’s first prototype of what he and the rest of the Times photo desk calls the “remote streaming photo backpack” was promising.

It is quite literally a backpack that allows photographers to send their photos to editors without having to be physically on site, or having to individually upload, color-correct and input caption information for each image.

“[Usually] our C.M.S. picks up the picture and ingests them and generates thumbnails and makes it available to photo editors,” Haner said. “And those photo editors have to make it available to digital editors and then include a caption in the C.M.S. There are a lot of steps of the process, so basically what the backpack does is it bypasses all the C.M.S. and publishes a photo with a caption on [the online file storage service] Amazon S3, and we can link to those on our live blogs and interactives. So it's not being powered by a standard C.M.S., it's kind of an outside-the-box solution to that. After the fact we have to migrate all those pictures back onto the C.M.S. It's sort of a backwards process from camera onto our site.”

The backpack contains a small battery-powered Linux computer that runs proprietary software created by software engineer and associate editor of the Times' Interactive News team Ben Koski. The computer also runs third-party routers that power four cellular modems.

Here's how it works: A photographer, in many cases Haner, will shoot an event as usual, but this time will record an audio tag describing the images they're shooting as they work, all the while automatically feeding these photographs to the proprietary software.

“The software breaks the pictures into small bits and sends them over two different cell carriers, Verizon and AT&T,” he said. “We do that because there are so many people at these larger events and such finicky cell connections, and we need a good connection to send the high resolution pictures that we need for print. It's a bit torrent solution but it's the best way to get data out at big sporting events. We've been at the Oscars, the Olympics in London, it's been all over.”

During these events, editors and photo staff stand by in the newsroom to “catch” these photos, which are sent over the four cellular modems, each of which transmits a different packet of data. The software then puts it back together at the other end. Then using the software, the staff edits, color corrects and captions the images—based on the attached audio tags—and then publishes them.

After remedying some hiccups in the original prototype—initially photographers had to send a separate email with caption info and were working with only two cellular modems—Haner and the Times Interactive News team have continued to iterate the remote streaming backpack.

The developed version of the initial iteration now live-streams low resolution, web-ready photos to the newsroom. The editors then choose which images they need higher resolutions of for print and are able to derive the high resolution versions from the software without the photographer having to lift a finger. The backpack weighs in at about 12.5 pounds and costs approximately $2,400 to make.

But Haner hasn't just developed the backpack further. The constant stream of new technology gave Haner the opportunity to build something new and better, he told Capital. Haner and the team have created two more versions of the backpack, which, as it turns out, aren't backpacks at all.

The second, smaller version comes in a fanny pack. The 6.5 pound fanny pack sends only high resolution photos to the print editors. The photographer has to stop intermittently to choose a few of his or her best shots and send them to the editor using the software. This newer version costs between $1,600 and $1,800 to make, Haner told Capital.

“They're not that expensive,” Haner said. “The main expense is the four cellular monthly fees. We also work with a company to host the other side of the routers. The router and the backpack connects to a router down in Florida where the packets are put back together, so we pay them a monthly fee of $74.”

Right now, there are only two of these streaming devices at the disposal of the Times photo desk. But Haner is working on creating a smaller remote streaming device that, pending development, can be made available to the entire newsroom.

“Rather than spending time making more of the same I'd like to keep iterating with newer and newer technologies,” Haner said. “I have something on my desk now that's the size of a pack of playing cards; it's not nearly as fast as the backpack or the fanny pack. But by this time next year or a couple of months from now we'll have figured out how to make them better. The stumbling block with the smaller processors that run on these Linux computers is thumbnailing photographs or jpeging. The more times you compress a picture the worse it looks. We want to do the first thumbnailing at the highest quality we can. At that point the total cost is about $250, so if we can make it fast enough we can give it to every photographer.”

In order to make the streaming devices available across the newsroom, the photo desk would have to undergo major restructuring, Haner said.

“It's a no brainer that you'd want to use these things everywhere you could,” he said. “It does require, while we don’t have to travel to send editors to all these events, it requires a big investment of personnel back in New York in our newsroom.”

For the recent gala at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there were seven photo staffers and editors on deck to “catch” the photos their photographers were sending. But the spike in traffic numbers to the Met gala interactive, which saw 8.4 times the unique visitors it did last year, justified the increased number of personnel, Haner said.

“We would have to rethink our photo desks is structured to make it more of a web-first workflow,” he said. “We have 40 photo editors and they're separated by desk ... and they split the work week. We would probably have to dedicate people to be pre-editors of livestreaming photos.”

Fully integrating the remote streaming photo backpack, fannypack or smaller iteration into the newsroom would allow photographers to focus more on shooting pictures at the events, Haner added.

“From a photographer's perspective it makes our photography process more similar to the days of film, where you went out you did your assignment, dropped off your roll of film, and went off to do another assignment. Now you download your cards, color correct and caption it. It takes away from the creative process of photography.”

There's certainly an entrepreneurial opportunity if the newsroom gets the smaller iteration down pat, but Haner said he's not interested in offering his invention to the wide world yet.

“Right now we consider it a competitive advantage, at the Met Gala we beat the wire services by 20 minutes,” he said. “It's not something that we want to share at the moment. It's not rocket science either. Other competing organizations have the ideas and are doing similar things. What's nice about this since we are not a wire service we actually control the creation and publishing of photographs by removing the sort of middle man process at the events we cover this way. We can get online so quickly that we're beating our reporters’ tweets, frequently. I don't want to share that.”