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.

Photo taken indoors at a school on an iPhone 5. © Glenn Fleishman

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.