At my son's bar mitzvah last weekend, many of the 13-year-olds looked older than 13. And the dance music wasn't how I remembered dance music either. But what was really different occurred the next day -- in front of a computer.
As my son Austin logged onto the various networking sites of his friends, it was apparent they had already posted dozens of photos from his event the previous day, many of them complete with clever captions.
(Funny how homework is still a slog for kids, but posting and writing on myspace takes no prodding at all. Maybe if teachers simply stopped requiring complete words and sentences?)
By last Sunday evening, I had also received several e-mails from family members also containing a few dozen photos, from the event the day before. It was a far cry from what I recall following my older son's bar mitzvah seven years ago, or my wedding 26 years ago, when we waited eagerly for the proofs from the photographers hired for those occasions.
We had a professional photographer at last weekend's occasion, too, and I've no doubt his pictures will be excellent. But in the Internet age, the pros have ceded some of their role as chronicler of the big family event.
Digital cameras have become ubiquitous and are much more forgiving for indoor photography than film cameras. About 67 percent of households had one last year, up from 42 percent in 2004, according to ZDNet Research. And people in their party finery who previously felt bogged down carrying a bulky camera don't feel encumbered by a digital camera, many of them smaller than a wallet.
Even people without cameras at an event often have cell phones, which have taken the capture and spreading of digital pictures and video to a whole other level. The kids at my son's party were taking pictures of one another on a crowded dance floor with an ease and spontaneity that only a cell-phone camera would bring. I don't think they would have thought it was even cool to bring an actual camera onto the dance floor -- which also would have required the kind of forethought and planning that cell phones don't.
"Everyone who has a digital camera is a star. Everybody's got a camera. It's a different ballgame," said Bill Rettberg, a professional photographer. He's been shooting weddings and other events in the Baltimore area for a half-century.
It's not just that people are capturing an estimated 50 billion digital images a year, they're sharing them at lightning speed.
With the growth in online photo sharing and in high-speed connections, it's becoming more common for people to post their photos for others to see immediately after an event. Hewlett-Packard's Snapfish, Kodak Gallery and Shutterfly are among numerous pictures sharing sites available, many of them for free. One popular and inventive photo site, Flickr, had 7.8 million photos tagged "wedding" available for public view last week, and no doubt millions more are being shared privately or by other tags. Brick-and-mortar retailers from Wal-Mart to Ritz Camera also have photo sites that allow customers to share their shots with others.
The pros' pictures are typically still the best, and people still anxiously await their proofs, but waiting weeks to see the first images from an event is a tradition that's fading almost as fast as film itself.
Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.