Just 40 seconds after President Bush took the oath of office Jan. 20, a black-and-white photograph of the scene was being transmitted to newspapers around the world.

How rapidly things are changing!I remember how proud our photo crew felt not so many years ago when, while covering President Johnson's speech at the United Nations, we were able to deliver a black-and-white print of the event for transmission in just a little over five minutes.

Normally, it takes 10 to 15 minutes to process a roll of black-and-white film and make a print, and 30 minutes or longer to process and print color. But our old-fashioned ways are gradually going by the board. Darkrooms, as we knew them, are disappearing.

At the Associated Press, the world's largest news photo gathering organization, prints are rarely made any more while a news story is breaking. Now, everything is shot on 35mm negative color film. The film is processed and placed in a Leafax transmitter, where the picture can be adjusted for color balance, cropped, captioned and transmitted to an electronic darkroom in as little as 40 seconds.

Prints are no longer needed. An editor can call up the picture on a video screen, make corrections and electronically send the picture directly into the prepress process. Newspapers applaud not only saving the cost of printing paper, but also saving time - as much as 90 minutes - in getting a color picture into the paper.

Called digital handling of pictures, it's actually the electronic converting of a photograph into a lot of numbers that can then be manipulated, if necessary.

Washington photographer Ron Edmonds took the picture from the photo stands just in front of the Capitol. He used a new Nikon electronic still video black-and-white camera that captured the scene in digital form on a small disc. Next to his camera was a small transmiitter and a telephone.

Edmonds shot 25 pictures of the swearing-in, then removed the disc from the camera and popped it into the transmitter, which enabled him to view the shots and select one for transmission. With the push of a button, he began transmitting the picture directly into AP's Laserphoto network for distribution to newspapers around the world.

No film was processed, no print made - and the photographer didn't even have to move from his camera position!

There are still problems with the system. Quality is only about 70 percent that of a silver-based picture, with less sharpness and tonal saturation, according to Hal Buell, AP's assistant general manager for News Photos.

He called the Bush photo a real-life experiment that worked. "The subject was stationary. That meant that the subject could be cropped in the lens and there was no need for additional electronic darkroom enhancement."

Photographer Edmonds said the camera operated just like a conventional Nikon film camera. Having lugged darkroom equipment to remote locations around the world, he welcomed the electronic system.

The single lens reflex camera, the Nikon QV-l000C, uses a standard 2-3-inch charge coupled device sensor. It has three modes of sensitivity equal to film speeds ranging from ASA 400 to 1600. It shoots one frame at a time, four frames a second or 20 frames a second. It records 25 frames per disc in high resolution, or 50 frames in low.

Edmonds used the equivalent of 400 ASA, exposing the picture at 1-250th of a second at f5.6.

The user can see the pictures for editing on the transmitter's tiny TV screen, but cannot crop them or change tonal values. The picture is sent directly to either Laserphoto receivers or electronic darkrooms.

The cost of the camera and transmitter is about $20,000.

"It will be quite a while before we get rid of our standard Nikon film cameras," Buell predicted, " ... but this experiment, along with others, shows that we are on our way to a digital world."

How fast we will get there, he observed, depends upon improvements in quality - and price.