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.

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3 Responses to Which camera?

  1. Pingback: Spring 2015: Here we go! | Journalism 3333: Photojournalism

  2. Pingback: Follow up on class (1/13) | Journalism 3333: Photojournalism

  3. Pingback: Follow up on class – Jan. 11 | Journalism 3333: Photojournalism

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