Where to buy gear?

Here is some advice for those who might be looking to purchase a camera or any gear for this class.

You can always go to a local place and buy camera gear. One of the main advantages is that you can actually put your hands on a camera or a lens and get a feel for it. You are also supporting your local economy by buying local. The disadvantages are that your choices are typically very limited, and you will pay top retail price for your gear.

The obvious alternative is buying online and having your gear shipped to you. The advantages include price and selection. You can get practically anything you want for below retail price. The disadvantage is that you have to do some research and know what you are buying beforehand.

Buying new

There are countless places to buy gear online. Probably too many places to navigate. You can always use one of the online search engines to find the lowest price. Be wary, though. There are some outfits that specialize in running scams – particularly the bait-and-switch. They will advertise a price that’s considerably below average. They will take your money and then you wait – and wait and wait – for your order to arrive. When it doesn’t arrive, you call them, and they tell you it’s on back order and will try to sell you something that’s more expensive. You may eventually get your order at the advertised price, but it will take a very long time.

Amazon.com is okay for buying gear. Search for “cameras” or “lenses” in the electronics section. Many reputable dealers make their merchandise available through Amazon.

There are two dealers I can personally vouch for, though. Adorama and B&H are two dealers based out of New York City that have excellent worldwide reputations. You are not likely to find companies that provide the combination of selection, price, and customer service anywhere else. I have personally dealt with both companies many times over the years and I have never been let down. You can complete your purchase online and have your gear in your hands within days, or overnight if you like.

Feel free to shop around, but you probably won’t do better than these two places.

Buying refurbished

Refurbished equipment might be one of the best deals for value. Sometimes, equipment is returned because of manufacturing flaws – either physically or electronically. These items are frequently returned to the manufacturer (through the retailer) and restored to the specifications required for new equipment.

By law, these items cannot be resold as new equipment, so you can purchase these items at a discounted price while still obtaining the same manufacturer warranty as new equipment.

The camera manufacturer’s website is often the best source when shopping for refurbished equipment (Nikon and Canon, for instance). Adorama, and sometimes Amazon, are good sources for refurbished gear, too. Make sure you include the word “refurbished” in your searches.

Buying used

Buying used can be a smart choice if you are just starting out but want some decent gear while you’re learning.

Many of the top dealers – including Amazon, Adorama, and B&H – have decent used gear in their inventories. I’m not sure about Amazon, but Adorama and B&H will vouch for the condition of their used gear. You can buy used gear that’s in “Like New” condition, but it will be pretty close to the price of new equipment. There are other ratings, such as excellent and good. You can also buy equipment that’s been used pretty hard and might have some dings and scratches. They are mainly cosmetic, though, and the equipment is otherwise in fine working order. Heck, it makes you look more like a pro if your gear has some wear and tear on it! Just make sure everything works fine before you purchase it.

Another dealer, KEH, specializes in used gear and is based out of Atlanta. Those of you in the Atlanta area may consider visiting them so you can actually get your hands on some of the gear before you buy. They have an excellent reputation and a detailed rating system so you know the condition of what you are buying. All used gear purchases at KEH come with a 180-day limited warrantee.

Another advantage of buying used is that you can make a purchase to participate in this class and sell it afterwards if you don’t want to keep it. It won’t depreciate much – if you take care of it – during the 4 months you use it, so you might even be able to sell it for as much as you paid for it. New equipment, on the other hand, depreciates quite a bit the second you take it out of the box.

Final word …

We’ll do the best we can with whatever camera you choose for this class. Your gear won’t earn you any grade. But a decent camera could be a smart purchase for every major that involves communication.

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Point-and-shoot cameras

If you have a point-and-shoot camera, and it’s all you can afford, we’ll make it work. The fact is, newspaper and television news rooms are often handing reporters point-and-shoot cameras and cheap camcorders and expecting them to come back from assignments with publishable photographs and videos. It’s just a fact of life in the news biz.

These simple cameras are not the ideal tool to produce meaningful photojournalism, but it’s not an excuse for not learning the basics. You just have to learn to work with their limitations.

One of the primary goals for this course is to move beyond the snapshot mentality. However, point-and-shoot cameras are made primarily for taking snapshots, especially at the default settings right out of the box. So if you choose to use a point-and-shoot camera, you’re going to have to delve into your cameras menus and the manual to learn how to override some of the default settings. Everything is set to automatic. For this class, however, you will need to learn how to control your camera. Snapshots are easy. Advanced photography is all about control – controlling what you see in the frame. Controlling when you press the shutter release. Controlling the settings on your camera for the desired results.

At the very minimum, you will need to know:

  1. How to turn off the flash, and keep it off
  2. How to set the image quality to its highest setting.
  3. How to set the ISO speed

I wrote a blog post a while back for Statesboro Herald readers, giving them some tips on how to shoot candid photographs with a point-and-shoot camera. Since we will primarily be doing candid photography for this course, please take the time to read this and let me know if you have any questions:

Tips for shooting candids with a point-and-shoot camera

With an understanding of the limitations that a point-and-shoot camera may present, you can still make good, story-telling images. The rules of composition don’t change based on the camera you use. Choose good light for your assignments. Get a feel for the amount of shutter lag your camera might exhibit so you can anticipate moments. Be patient. Experiment. And shoot lots of pictures. You might have to shoot 100 pictures to get one good image. Sometimes, that’s what it takes.

So don’t worry if a point-and-shoot camera is your only option at this time. I’ll work with you. Technical quality is important, but the content of your images is more important. There is an approach and a process to creating photographs that communicate something meaningful – learning that process is the primary goal.

Which lenses?

DSLR LensesFor those of you who are considering using a digital SLR camera for this class, you should learn a little bit about lenses.

When talking about image quality,  the lens is more important than the electronics inside your camera. When choosing a lens for your digital SLR camera, there are some basics to consider.

Here is decent discussion on lens basics: Lenses 101

Kit Lenses

Kit lenses, or the ones that come with many entry-level DSLRs, are fine for this class. They are typically inexpensive zoom lenses made of lightweight plastic and have acceptable optical quality. They are not built to last, but they are fine for learning the basics. Be aware of their limitations, however. They are what is called “variable aperture lenses”, meaning that the further you zoom out, the less light it allows to enter the camera. They are fine for shooting outdoors in the daytime. You may struggle with kit lenses indoors or anywhere in low light, but there’s really no reason why you couldn’t shoot every assignment for this class outdoors.

Stepping Up

If you decide to pass on the kit lens and buy one or two lenses separately, read this discussion about fixed and variable aperture lenses: Zoom Lens Maximum Aperture: Fixed and Variable Apertures

Note that this is from the Nikon web site, but it is applicable to any camera and lens manufacturer. Fixed aperture lenses are preferable because you don’t have to worry about losing light as you zoom out. They are more expensive, though.

Learn more about lens speed and aperture.

Prime Lenses

Zoom lenses are popular and handy because you can vary your perspective without having to move around. The kit zoom lenses that come with some cameras are cheap and of marginal quality. A professional level zoom lens – one that is both fast and well-built – is expensive. $1000 and up. There are some intermediate level zooms out there, but there is another alternative: fixed focal length, or “prime” lenses. Some folks refer to them as “sneaker zooms,” because you have to move your feet if you want to change your perspective. They have some advantages, especially for beginners, because they are cheaper than zoom lenses. They also tend to be faster, smaller and lighter in weight, and sharper.

A 50mm prime lens is about as basic as you get, but it’s an excellent place to start. Even a major brand name 50mm can be had for around $100, brand new. That gets you a decently built lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8, usually. That maximum aperture will allow you to shoot pictures in very low light and still get sharp images. I have been doing this job for over 20 years and still use a 50mm lens quite a bit.

Another alternative is a 35mm lens. They are also quite fast (usually around f/2.0) and cheap. It’s a little wider in perspective than the 50mm. It’s also a favorite of photographers who prefer to work a little closer to their subjects.

Keep in mind that the wider you get from 35mm and the longer you get from 50mm, the more expensive the lenses get. You should be able to shoot any assignment for this class with either of these lenses, however.

Alternative lens manufactures

There are companies that build lenses that mount on almost any brand name camera. The main advantage of these lenses is cost – sometimes as much as half the amount of a comparable lens that’s the same brand as your camera. Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron are probably the most reputable. Be wary of really cheap brands, though. You get what you pay for.

Sometimes there can be small compatibility issues with obscure camera functions and modes, but the optical quality of these lenses is often very, very good – sometimes as good as a major brand lens. If you find a lens you like that’s the same brand as your camera, perhaps take a little time and see if one of the alternative manufacturers makes a comparable lens. You might be pleased with both the quality and the savings. Be prepared to do a little research, though, and search for reviews.

Buy used

Consider looking for a used lens. A used lens is actually a much better value than a used camera. Much like computers, cameras become obsolete at a faster rate because of constant development in technology and electronics. Lenses, on the other hand, have much longer life expectancies. I still have – and use – a couple of lenses I purchased in college over 20 years ago.

In the end …

Buy what you can afford and we’ll make it work. If you think you’ll be using your equipment long after the final exam, shop and purchase something you can grow into. I’m always available for advice. If you can’t afford more than a kit lens, that’s okay, too. Like I said before, there’s no reason you can’t shoot every assignment for this class outdoors in good light.

Which camera?

I’m sure a lot of students are wondering what kind of camera they need for this class.

First, we must understand that great photography is not always dependent on the camera used. People, with vision and creativity and knowledge, make great pictures – not cameras.

But photography – like writing and other creative endeavors – is a craft. There is a process that must be understood, learned, and practiced. And part of that process is understanding how to use the right tools for the job at hand.

When I first started teaching this course, I realized that many students are on a tight budget, and I had to design lessons and assignments that would work on almost any camera. However, the only restriction for this class is that mobile phone cameras are not acceptable tools for what we need to learn.

Why no mobile phone cameras?

What? Haven’t iPhones and other mobile phones become viable and frequently used tools in photographically reporting the news, you say?

Well, yes. But the sources of these types of pictures are still mostly from amateurs and “Citizen Journalists.” And that’s mostly because that is the type of camera available to these sources. These are increasingly important sources for reporting the news, but we are trying to learn about professionalism in this course. If you are interested in becoming a professional in the communications field, you must learn what skills and knowledge will help you sustain a career, rather than being an occasional contributor by coincidentally in the right place at the right time.

Professional, you say? What about the Chicago Sun-Times and other news organizations (right here in Georgia, no less) who have laid off their entire photo staffs and now rely on writers with iPhones to create visual content in their publications?

Well, these are examples of news organizations taking desperate steps in desperate times. Advertising revenue for all news organizations, especially newspapers, continues to fall, and they must make ends meet – somehow. However, we don’t yet know if these organizations made the right choice to protect their future. That is, if communicating the news is their goal. Photography has become more wildly popular than ever, and it remains one of the most important cogs in the news reporting machine. While technology has leveled the playing field in image quality between professional photographers and amateurs, the content of photographs is still something to consider. Can we trust that amateurs will consistently deliver the photographic content that we need to see, for ourselves, on a reliable and consistent basis? What many of these organizations are already finding out is that technology cannot replace experience and a professional approach.

The fact is, sometimes, in certain certain circumstances, a mobile phone camera can be just the right tool – in the hands of an experienced and creative professional photographer. However, it is not the right tool for a beginner who wants to learn the basics of professionalism in visual journalism. Controlling that tool is essential, and that’s something you must learn before relinquishing control to tools like mobile phone cameras and their apps which supposedly make everything simple.

Mobile phone cameras are are conceived and designed for taking snapshots of friends and family, and they might be just fine – in a pinch – when it’s the only camera available. But we are not doing personal, casual snapshots in this class. We are concentrating on photographing real people living their lives, doing what they do, being who they are, in a candid and non-interfering fashion. For the most part, we will NOT be asking people to stop what they are doing and pose for the camera. In fact, we will be learning that it is unethical – in the context of news – to interfere with and alter what we witness with our own eyes.

Mobile phone cameras, no matter how advanced at this stage, are simply not made for this task. And one of the main objectives of this class is to learn professionalism and ethical practices in reporting the news with visual mediums.

So, what do I need?

Most students in the past have ended up using digital point-and-shoot cameras because that is what they had and could afford. They are the bare minimum. You can make good photographs with a point-and-shoot camera, but it’s not always easy. They present many limitations in operation. But it can be done. It has been done. Students have gotten As in this course using point-and-shoot cameras.

That said, for the purpose of this course, I would highly recommend that students purchase, rent, or borrow a digital SLR camera with interchangeable lenses since these are the tools most working photojournalists use.

In other words, get the best camera you can get your hands on. The camera is just a tool – like I said, cameras don’t make good photographs, people make good photographs! But good tools can ease the learning process and reduce frustration.

I hesitate to recommend any particular brand because most cameras can produce acceptable results. However, over 90% of professionals use either Canon or Nikon, and it’s hard to go wrong with either of those. Both produce good models in a variety of price ranges. More manufacturers produce good lenses for them. And it’s much easier to get them serviced, if necessary.

One thing to consider, photojournalists spend most of their time shooting in available light (we won’t be doing ANY flash photography for this class), so fast lenses are preferred. Lens “speed” is a photographic term describing the maximum amount of light a lens allows to reach the image sensor. A “fast” lens allows more light into the camera, and that’s crucial if you are shooting indoors in low light – especially someone or something that is moving. Read this to better understand lens speed and maxium apertures:

What is lens speed?

And learn more about lenses here:

Which lenses?

In fact, I would highly recommend searching for a good used body. Like computers, cameras improve with every new generation, but ones that are 3-4 years old produce perfectly acceptable images. In fact, discontinued models, such as the Canon Rebel XTI or Nikon D40, are particularly good values and produce perfectly fine images.

If you buy a good used camera body you may have more money to spend on a good lens. You can always upgrade your camera later. A good lens will stick with you a longer amount of time and allow you to make photographs in a wider range of circumstances and possibly be more creative.

Learn more about buying gear here:

Where to buy gear

Most of you probably won’t become professional photojournalists, but there is a good chance that having more advanced photography skills and knowledge about how news publications use photographs could help you land a great job when you graduate, whether you are a Journalism major, or PR, Multimedia, etc. Employers are looking for people who have multiple skills. So consider the long-term in your purchases. Hopefully, this class will encourage you to keep exploring the world photographically beyond the final exam.

Feel free to contact me anytime. I encourage you to post your questions as comments right here, as many of you may have similar questions.