Index World Press Photo
February 2008 | Edition Nine     

In Cool Kit, we examine some of the latest equipment and tools currently available to photojournalists.

And in this edition, we pose a question – do you still need a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera for professional photojournalism?

Or are some compact (and much cheaper) cameras now sophisticated enough for pros to use on a regular basis?

Certainly, the cost of DSLRs has fallen sharply and what would only have been available for many thousands of dollars five years ago can now be bought for fewer than three thousand. And the new cameras are far technically superior.

We are talking about models with full-size sensors producing thirteen megapixels. But then, that’s just for the body. A top-quality lens can cost another two thousands dollars.

Many professionals do carry a compact camera for backup but at least one award-winner manages very well working only with a compact costing just a few hundred dollars, though he does carry several of them at a time.

Magnum photographer Alex Majoli was shooting stories for Newsweek Magazine in 2003 and the following year picked up several top awards including the U.S. National Press Photographers Association's Best of Photojournalism Magazine Photographer of the Year Award and the U.S. Overseas Press Club's Feature Photography Award.

And far from using one of the bulky and costly DSLRs of the time, he was happily working with a five megapixel, fixed-lens point-and-shoot Olympus C5050.

"I was interested in finding a camera that gives me some new way to approach the subject," Majoli was quoted as saying at the time. “This camera, you can shoot in a different way.”

He had employed an even lower-specification four megapixel C4040 on an early book assignment

"I found the C-4040 amazing," he said. "So small. And it made a great file. So this was the big thing, the size of the camera and the quality of the file."

Alex tells Enter that he now uses the Olympus 7070 compact but as the company has not developed a newer "point and shoot" model, he does also carry the E-3 DSLR.

There are drawbacks to using compacts he says - they don't react as quickly and there is the question of quality, though that is not as important to him. And he does not encounter very much resistance from photo editors when they discover his images have been captured on a compact.

The fact that a compact is much smaller and therefore less obtrusive and obvious than DSLR cameras – as well as being lighter to carry – is seen by some pros as a big advantage.

And compacts have developed well. Although for the consumer market some manufacturers have dropped RAW file ability, at the top end of the range specifications really do have a professional look about them.

Canon’s new G9, for instance, offers 12 megapixel RAW file shooting with six times optical zoom in a camera which will fit in the pocket although, of course, it is still fixed-lens. Other manufacturers market similar models - such as the Nikon Coolpix P5100 - though few offer what many picture editors often consider the all-important RAW file format.

There are at least two other advantages of small cameras with high resolution capabilities and better lenses. Optical zooms are sufficiently powerful so the digital variety, which easily destroy image quality, can be left well alone at all times. And with memory cards now cheaper than ever, pictures should be taken at the highest quality setting as a matter of course.

So how soon will it be before newspapers and magazines are comfortable commissioning shoots with compacts? Not in the near future, it seems.

Volker Lensch, Stern’s picture editor, tells Enter: “It always depends on the story. If we assign a photographer to do reportage he should be equipped with a professional camera and able to transmit, just in case. We always need a very high technical quality besides the perfect eye of the photographer.

“When starting the layout we don’t know which photographs might be published as a spread. So we ask the photographer to set the camera on the highest quality level.

But it could be important to carry a compact camera. In some situations it would be dangerous or disturbing to use professional equipment.”

Compatriot Tina Ahrens, a senior photo editor for the GEO magazine group based in New York says: “We definitely want photographers to be frank about the equipment they use. We can check the Metadata anyway and we always ask for the RAW files, too. We discourage photographers working for us to use compact cameras.

"We are not a newspaper, we are a high end magazine, and we produce our magazine with rotogravure printing, so flaws in the files will always show. For us, equipment is not a minor issue.”

But what about the new generation of compact cameras offering high-resolution images bordering on those from a DSLR? If a major news story has been captured only on a compact, would that matter?

“It really depends on the particular file in question,” says Tina.” We ask - is it printable and it does not only depend on file size, but also on focus, possible luminance and chroma noise.

“We don't rule out an image categorically because of the camera it has been shot with. Our main concern is that it is compatible with GEO standards.
“So, if the subject matter is sufficiently valuable and the file printable we would publish that image.”

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Copyright 2008, all rights reserved by the photographers