Focus, Damn It!
The “best camera that’s with you” shouldn’t be an iPhone if you’re a modern journalist
The iPhone and similar smartphones with decent built-in cameras aren’t as good as a real camera when you’re taking photos to accompany reporting. There are times when it is the best camera — because, as Chase Jarvis’s book notes, The Best Camera Is the One That’s with You. But don’t confuse utility with quality or a stylistic statement.
I spoke not long ago with photojournalist John D. McHugh, who a few years ago received a bullet wound in Afghanistan on assignment, recovered, and still travels to war zones all over. He created Marksta, a tool for watermarking pictures taken on or loaded onto mobile phones and tablets. Despite having an array of DSLRs to choose from, McHugh says he often shoots with an iPhone because it doesn’t cause subjects to pose for him or get suspicious. It’s also been an easy phone for him to use when he smuggles himself into a country or region, and doesn’t want to appear like a photographer. (He’s perverse, though, once bringing a 4-by-5 film camera into Afghanistan, which required developing chemicals that are, in raw form, bags of white powder.)
Most of us are not in the caves of Afghanistan struggling with a satellite phone to upload a picture of breaking news that, even full of noise or slightly blurry, has value. Rather, as a reader of blogs and online-only publications, and as the editor of The Magazine, I’m seeing plenty of photos taken for reported features that should be better.
The photos fail to tell the story well by falling short of basic photojournalism requirements: good composition, sharp focus, and a decent dynamic range. Some shots benefit from pushing back against those givens; most do not. A photo accompanying an article as documentary fact should tell a story to the reader as well as the words it complements. Shortcomings in photos are more immediately obvious to readers than shortcomings in words.
Reporters rely on their iPhone, Android phone, or other devices for a wide range of circumstances in which they don’t work, and that reduces the value of their reporting in an age when freelancer writers should be able to produce words, pictures, audio, and video — and even package that combination into a pitch, if not a final deliverable product.
Some reporting works better in the form of words alone, or just as pictures or a standalone interview, of course. I’m not arguing everything has to be multimedia. (We are most concerned with words and still images at The Magazine.) But I do assert that it is far past time for every reporter to equip herself or himself with the right tools, one of which is a camera that can take pictures in a wide range of circumstances, especially where a phone’s camera cannot.
The iPhone lacks an optical zoom lens, which is often quite useful for reporting. (Some phones offers this and more will.) Auto-focus is often extremely slow, missing a moment. Phone cameras typically lack mechanical auto-stabilization for stills or videos. In low light, especially in interior shots, the pictures and movies are full of noise, which is difficult to remove without spoiling the results. In shots with movement, even in bright light, it’s likely you get a blur or the picture is captured too late.
Even a $200 point-and-shoot digital camera can outperform most smartphones. Move up to the $500 range, and you can still purchase something compact, sometimes with interchangeable lenses or the ability to take lens extensions (as with Canon’s G series), and which has a wider range of f-stops (apertures) and a decent image sensor. I’m delighted with the $900 combo of a Sony NEX-6 with a 25–75mm equivalent power-zoom, auto-stabilizing lens.
Most cameras now capture good-to-great audio and video, too — most of the time, the quality with the right lighting and without too much background noise is fine for Web streaming, and sometimes good enough for podcasting, radio, and even broadcast television.
I wrote up how delighted the Sony camera has made me in an article about rediscovering the joys of photography after a 20-year “meh” period. As I wrote there, having a camera that can capture a very shallow depth of field precisely in focus conveys an incredible sense of being there; that’s a sense that contributes to the documentary nature of photography intended to accompany an article. It takes a lot of doing with a smartphone, and typically works only in close-up macro shots.
The future of reporting relies heavily on journalists who can encompass a range of media while they work. Photographers have become interviewers and videographers; written-word reporters need to pay more than just lip service to recording audio, video, and images. For freelancers to compete, it’s not enough just to snap pictures and capture wobbly, noisy video. You need to take real shots.
A real camera gets you far closer to documenting the reality of your story than the best camera you happen to otherwise carry around.
I received a lot of interesting and some hostile feedback about this item. Marco Arment wrote a follow-up explaining further that if you buy a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, you need to budget for a lens better than the “kit” or included one, as those are often of such low quality that they produce photographs that fail to meet a required bar of quality for publication. Both of us were accused of being gadget fetishists.
I should address two points in particular.
No amount of gear makes you a better photographer. You still need to learn how to compose shots and capture the right moment. Take classes and take lots of pictures, and cull the worst and examine why your best seem the best to you.
That said, for writers who are taking photos for articles, the intended audience of this essay, a smartphone’s camera handicaps their ability (especially indoors) to take a competent picture that is in focus, framed correctly, and has enough dynamic range. If your camera cannot focus and you cannot change the circumstances under which a picture is taken, you cannot get a good shot.
Smartphones can take fantastic pictures. Many people who responded to this essay seemed to read between the lines an intent I don’t have: that smartphones such as the iPhone are incapable of taking documentary photos. Absolutely not. I shoot with my iPhone every day, and I often get good and great results.
But in this particular case, a less-trained photographer shooting photos for a news story or other feature, the number of pictures that may be taken is often limited and the circumstances constrained. It is less likely that a smartphone will produce a good photo in such cases, as opposed to the general realm of photography, than nearly any standalone camera.
Erin McCann, a copy editor at the U.S. edition of The Guardian, and an avid photographer, made a superb observation via Twitter:
I know several amazing street photogs who do iPhone documentary very well, but it’s a learned skill. If you’re a good photojournalist, you’re good no matter what gear. If you’re bad, nothing will save you, especially gear.
As I note early on, John D. McHugh, a war photojournalist, sometimes carries just an iPhone and other times is festooned with DSLRs and other gear. John wrote this to me on Twitter:
The camera argument is endless, and endlessly tedious. I love photography, but too many people worship only the tools. But why not use the very best tools available rather than hamper oneself unnecessarily? Different tools for different tasks.