There’s been a tug of war in the last few years in photojournalism. On one hand, you have the skill and excellence of craft with photojournalists doing their jobs with professional DSLR and mirrorless cameras, and on the other you have reporters doing a “good enough” job with smartphones.
The dichotomy raises the question: If an iPhone-wielding reporter can draw as many clicks as a trained photojournalist taking a photo for a story, is it even necessary to know how to use a professional DSLR or mirrorless camera? In most cases, the public can’t tell the difference, nor do they necessarily care.
It’s something that, as a photojournalism educator, I’ve struggled with. I’ve firmly been (and still am) on the side of teaching budding visual journalists how to use a professional camera, because it’s not possible to shoot sports or photograph in the dark on a smartphone. Nor will you capture breathtaking wide-angle landscapes or scene setters with lighting just the way you want it.
Except that now, you can. Sort of, anyway.
The new iPhone 11’s wide-angle lens came as a surprise. Now sweeping landscapes and scene-setting shots are possible without resorting to weird panorama modes. Likewise, I’ve been impressed with Google’s implementation of computational imaging to produce useful imaging modes, such as Night Sight with its Pixel 3a phone. However, I’ve been less impressed with portrait mode and still question computational imaging as a whole for journalistic usage. Apple’s also playing in this space with its “Deep Fusion” AI in its new phones that will process an image “pixel-by-pixel” using machine learning.
With the extra lenses and sophisticated software on modern phones, they are capable of producing images that belie sensor size and optics. Software enables the phones to defy the laws of physics to produce images once only possible with specialized cameras and lenses. If one doesn’t worry about the ethical questions for journalists around the use of this software, then a world of photographic possibility exists in these devices.
Which brings me back to the original question: Is it necessary to know how to use a mirrorless or DSLR if you’re engaging in journalism? Yes, for now specialized journalists such as sports photographers will need their large telephoto lenses and cameras, as the zoom lens on an iPhone 11 Pro is probably not going to have quite the reach of a 400mm lens, but the day is coming where even this may be possible.
Then there are the other unseen advantages: It’s a less steep learning curve for reporters to learn to take pictures on a phone, and it’s a less intimidating view for the people on the other side of the camera. Photojournalists stealthily taking photos with a DSLR still also get thrown out of places more often than people with cell phones taking pictures out in the open, too. I was recently at Destiny USA mall in Syracuse, NY standing in what was labeled a “Photo Spot” on the floor and got stopped by mall staff and security every time I used a my Fujifilm X-T1, but never when I used my phone, so there’s that.
Does photojournalism still need interchangeable lens cameras, or are we at an age where learning such an ancient art isn’t necessary to produce good journalism? What would you do if you were training the next generation of journalists?