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What do you REALLY need?
There is no “best camera” for photojournalists. Or, to put it another way, the best camera for a photojournalist is the one in your hands right now, or when breaking news happens.
Low-cost point-and-shoot cameras have been known to be used to capture breaking news, as have starter DSLRs. However, if you are more interested in delivering sharp, high-quality, well-exposed images and want to rise above the level of “citizen journalist,” where even grainy camera phone images are acceptable, here are five criteria that will help you narrow down which camera you want in your hands when breaking news happens.
1. Ruggedness. You will be using your camera in all kinds of conditions. If you travel the world, your camera needs to be protected against sand, dust, moisture and rain, depending on where you go.
2. Weight. Many of the most popular cameras for photojournalists are HEAVY. Add to that the weight of a couple of f/2.8 constant aperture zoom lenses and you better invest in a good chiropractor. Find the lightest camera you can that still gives you the ruggedness and durability you need.
3. Low-light performance. Flash can ruin good news shots, and interfere with the scene. The latest generation of DSLRs are capable of surprisingly good image quality in low light at high ISOs.
4. Meets your budget. If you’re just starting out, your budget will most likely be a tight one. Buy the best lenses you can afford, then look for refurbished, used or perhaps mid-range cameras rather than pro level. Most APS-sensor DSLRs will produce images that will be acceptable for newspaper or magazine editorial work.
5. HD Video. Multimedia newsrooms expect more than just still images. These days, the ability to capture video—either full length with interviews or just a 30 second clip to post on a web site—is expected. If your camera can do this, you have a competitive edge.
That said, let’s look at several “made-for-photojournalists” cameras, by brand, and see if they make the most sense for photojournalists who must watch their pennies, and what alternatives there are if you’re short on cash. (Prices are approximate, but are current as of June 21, 2010.)
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV ($5,000)
Along with the Nikon D3s, the EOS 1D Mark IV produces virtually grain-free images at insanely high ISO settings, despite its APS-H sensor (bigger than most APS sensors, but smaller than full-frame). In a brief hands-on with the camera, I was able to shoot publishable images at ISO 12,800! A new 45-point AF sensor and AI Servo II AF focus tracking makes shooting and keeping your subject in focus easy even in tough circumstances, and 10fps helps you catch the moment. Full 1080p video capture is possible, and an external microphone hookup lets you record high-quality sound. 16MP images might strain some wireless networks, but won’t choke ‘em. Downside: It’s big, heavy, and expensive.
Canon 5D Mark II ($2,500)
For half the price of the 1D Mark IV, you can get the 5D Mark II. Advantages? Smaller, lighter body, 1080p HD Video, and basically all the key features you need for electronic news gathering. The 21MP CMOS sensor will deliver big 6MP files, which are overkill for newspapers or even magazines and would certainly transfer slowly even on a fast wireless network, but you can dial image size down to “Medium” and cut file size down to around 2MB. Disadvantages? Fewer AF points (9), low-light performance is stellar, but not quite as stellar as the 1DMIV, slow burst rate (3.9 fps) makes it better suited for the studio than for breaking news.
Canon EOS 7D ($1,600)
Don’t let the 7D’s 18MP APS-C Sensor fool you—this camera is designed for sports and news photographers. Its rocket-fast 8fps burst rate, 1080 HD Video capture, and 19-point AF system give it impressive flexibility. Image quality is said to be excellent even at high ISOs; it is light, fast, has a 100% viewfinder, and a solid, ruggedized Magnesium body and long-lasting shutter. It also has an optional WFT-E5 Wireless File Transmitter so you can beat the guy next to you uploading your pictures to the news desk straight from your camera. Disadvantage? The sensor isn’t full frame. So what? This is a serious, sports and photoj-friendly camera that gives you major bang for the buck.
Nikon D3s ($5,200)
Nikon’s Photo-J flagship, the D3s has a 12MP full-sized FX format CMOS sensor, which will deliver reasonably-sized images natively. As with the Canon 1Ds Mark IV, the D3s offers extraordinary low-noise image quality at ISO 12,800. Continuous shooting is at 9fps, and the camera will capture 720p HD videos at 24 fps accompanied by stereo sound. The camera has Nikon’s 1005-Pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II system, scene recognition, an AF system with 51 focus points, and rugged Magnesium-alloy construction. Plus, if you’re a strobist, Nikon’s TTL wireless flash system will make it easy to take the flash off the camera and shoot away. Disadvantages? The price, the size, and the weight.
Nikon D700 (Under $2,500)
Consider saving over $2,500 and using it to pay for some really nice lenses, to use on the extremely capable D700. Smaller and lighter than the D3s, the D700 offers an extensive ISO range (but perhaps not quite as impressive as the D3s’s), a similar 12MP FX CMOS sensor, the same 51-point AF system and 1,005 pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II and iTTL flash control as the D3, and even a built-in flash that you can use in a pinch. Disadvantages? No video, slower 5fps burst rate.
Nikon D90 ($850)
Yes, I know…I’ve skipped over several other newer capable cameras, notably the D300 and D300s. But I like the D90. Why? As the world’s first HD Video DSLR, it blazed a trail and is still very good at capturing video footage at 24fps. Its 12MP APS-sized sensor will get you decent shots up to ISO 800, offers a 420-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II, in-camera editing, the works. Besides, it gets you into the Nikon lens and iTTL flash system for under a grand while still giving you flexibility that they’d appreciate in the news room. Save on the camera, splurge on the lenses. Disadvantages: Not ruggedized, slower 4.5fps burst rate.
Out of Left Field:
Here are three more cameras worth considering. No, they don’t say Canon or Nikon, but they are very capable and offer bang for the buck (in the first two cases) and snob appeal (in the last case). Ready to not follow the crowd so you can get shots that stand out? Read on:
Pentax K-7 (under $900)
Ruggedized, reliable and fast, the 14.6MP K-7 is one of the smallest, lightest DSLRs in its class, and yet its 5.2fps burst rate rivals that of most of the Nikon and Canon alternative cameras. It has a 100% viewfinder, a top shutter speed of 1/8000 sec, and it can capture 720p HD Video and has an external microphone jack for high-quality sound. It may not have the extensive line of lenses (you’d have to go to an indie manufacturer for an f/2.8 zoom), but when used in concert with Pentax’s line of pancake prime lenses, it is a great camera for unobtrusive shooting.
Olympus E-3 ($1,020)
Found in more studios than you might imagine, the E-3 is a low-light marvel and is claimed to be one of the fastest-focusing cameras on the planet—both key features worth serious consideration for phtojournalists and sports shooters—as well as a competitive 5fps burst rate. The 10MP Four Thirds sensor delivers plenty of resolution for publication-quality images. But the E-3 lacks video recording capabilities, which may knock it out of contention for most users.
Leica M9 ($7,000)
No, it doesn’t shoot video, and you probably can’t afford it anyway and yes, you can probably get more bang for the buck by going with any of the cameras described above. But if you are shooting documentary work and need a camera that’s small and quiet (the M9 is the smallest full-frame camera in the world), and you are already a Leica shooter with a bag full of great Leica glass, the M9 is worth waiting for (there’s a wait right now because demand far exceeds Leica’s current ability to produce these hand-made jewels.)