(Updated on March 26, 2013 – updated camera list, added more microphone recommendations)
One of the most frequently asked questions I get at the end of the semester, after I’ve (I hope) convinced my students of the power of visual journalism, is ‘What camera should I buy?’
I’m going to try to answer that one as best I can, though it won’t be cheap, unfortunately. Good visuals require at the very least decent equipment. It’s true what they say about the eye behind the camera being the most important thing (Just look at the work being done by Dan Chung at the Olympics – with an iPhone!), but a 1D sure makes the job a lot easier and the results a lot better.
Sure, you could shoot for the budget end of the market, buying a Flip camera and call it a day – but I urge you not to. The results you create with it will be a direct reflection of you – do you want poor quality video or photos with your name on them?
So with that, I’ll focus on the best bang-for-the buck segment of the market right now: Video-capable DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras. For one price, you get great HD video and good still images in one device. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about anything else these days.
Right after the which camera question, I get this one.
Without a doubt the two biggest fish in this sea are Nikon and Canon, and students should focus their dollars on one of those two when it comes to DSLRs. The variety of lenses and accessories both on the new and used markets make these safe bets. What you pick from their lineup should be determined by which camera feels comfortable in your hand and has the features you are looking for. You are going to be using these things all day, after all.
There are other offerings out there, for instance, Panasonic and Olympus make a very good case on value with their Micro Four-Thirds system, though you make some compromises (more on that later).
What features should I look for?
Most DSLR cameras on the market offer video and photos, but that doesn’t mean they are all equal.
There is one key feature on the spec sheet that journalists should look for when choosing a camera, and unfortunately that means that most entry levels are ruled out: an audio input. Make this the guiding factor in the camera you buy – without one, you’ll only be forced to pay more to upgrade later when you get serious about committing journalism with your camera.
Buying a camera with an audio input means you can use external microphones and record high quality audio directly into the camera. This means you don’t need a separate device (and more expense and hassle) to record audio, it’s all in one place. Using the tiny, built-in microphones as your only source of audio is a recipe for disaster when it comes to journalism.
I’ve been able to use all sorts of microphones with success on DSLR models with video – lavaliers, stick, shotgun, wireless – they all work fine.
If you’re feeling spendy, then the latest high-end models come with headphone jacks. and audio meters (though the latter is trickling down – even the D3200, on the lower end of Nikon’s lineup, has adjustable audio with the meters to see that your levels are OK).
Here’s a list of what’s available that meets this criteria, arranged in order from low end to high end, with a decent (not necessarily cheapest) lens, where applicable. You may be able to find better deals by searching for these cameras “body only” and then adding a lens yourself:
Anything with a “*” next to it denotes a model that also has a headphone jack for monitoring audio during capture. A handy feature, for sure.
All of the cameras on the list above shoot 1080p, which is the highest quality HD video, with the exception of the Nikon D300s and D3s, which are previous generation cameras that shoot 720p. All have an audio input. Sure, the prices are steep on some of these, but if you look at it as getting two cameras (a video and a still camera) for the price of one, then it makes a lot more financial sense.
Don’t concern yourself with the megapixel ratings on any of these cameras – anything that you buy today will have enough resolution for web, print and broadcast journalism applications.
But that audio input is critical – audio is as important as video when it comes to journalism – don’t skimp and get a camera that can’t use microphones.
What about a lens?
Most cameras on the market come with a basic 18-55 millimeter lens. Sometimes you can get a two lens kit that includes a cheap telephoto lens (usually 50-250 or 55-200 or something like that) and then you get more range. This is a bad idea, especially when you are starting out. Don’t buy these kits and avoid these lenses, if you can afford it. The 18-55mm range that you get out of the box is not really much at all anyway.
Think of it this way – 18-55mm will give you a wide angle view to a view that is about what your eyes can see, maybe a little more. You’ll definitely want more zoom than that.
Most manufacturers offer better lenses than the kit lenses and telephoto zooms that come in the packages. In fact, most of the better lenses cover most of the range of those two lenses in one lens, something that will save you from carrying an extra lens, but also save you from having the wrong lens on at a critical moment. Sure, you make some compromises with an all-in-one type lens, but the flexibility of having one lens for everything makes life easier, especially in video. As you progress, you can add more specialized lenses to your kit.
Here’s a list of some good, all-purpose lenses that will give you a fairly large flexible zoom range. If you can get the camera with one of these lenses, or can buy the camera “body only” (without a lens) then do that and get one of these. All of these are image stabilized and a great bang for the buck (again, in price order):
I own both the Nikon 18-200mm VR DX and the Canon 18-135mm IS, and the image quality out of them is fantastic, as is the range offered by both – easily worth the money.
What about microphones?
So with all of the talk about mic inputs on these cameras, what do you use to gather audio?
I’ve found that DSLRs tend to be fickle about what microphones they take – in that many will work, but some will have worse-than-average hiss or quality on a DSLR.
So I’ve put together a much more reasonably priced kit, one that works well with both Canon and Nikon DSLR models. It’s actually what we send the students at Stony Brook out with.
Here’s what’s in the bag:
• Azden SMX-10 shotgun mic: Good enough to remove the camera-handling noises you hear with an onboard microphone. ($85)
• Audio-Technica ATR3350 lavalier: A wired lavalier mic with a really long cord. Great for sit-down interviews. Uses a small watch-style battery, but has no indicator of when it’s expended, which is unfortunate. On some DSLR models, it only records into one channel, but this is an easy fix in any editing software – the important thing is that it provides quality interview audio at a reasonable price. ($25)
An alternative that is about the same is the Pearstone OLM-10 ($23).
• Samson R10s stick mic: Strangely, I can only find this mic at Best Buy, but for the price, it works better with DSLR models than our more expensive Sennheisers do. Good audio quality, but you have to be gentle with it – build quality is what you’d expect for the price. ($20)
Total price: $130
Obviously, the list above is of the bare-bones variety (I’ll take my Rode and Sennheisers any day, though I have occasionally used the Samson stick mic taped to a podium at a press conference), but for the money it’s a great mobile setup to give student journalists some options when it comes to audio.
Where to buy?
If you Google search the name of the camera you are looking for, you’ll often come up with a ridiculously cheap price from a camera store you’ve probably never heard of online. Don’t buy it. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Many of those online dealers are scam artists that are fly-by-night operations looking to upsell you into accessories that you don’t want or need – and if you try to refuse, you (and your wallet) will often be taken for a ride. Just read about the horror stories here.
Stick with a reputable seller online. Amazon.com is good (though make sure you are actually getting it from Amazon.com – if it says “sold by XYZ camera underneath the price, then it’s not necessarily Amazon), Newegg is also excellent, and I’ve had occasion to make a phone call to customer service and they’ve treated me very well. KEH.com is a good bet for used camera gear, and they have excellent customer service if the occasional piece of used gear has a problem.
If you must go with a brick and mortar operation, New York City is home to two great shops Adorama camera and B&H Photo. B&H is a block away from Penn Station at the corner of 9th Avenue and 33rd Street. They have a great used department as well, and the whole store is the size of a Super Wal-Mart, only filled with cameras. Adorama is at 18th Street and 6th Avenue, and they are a little smaller, but have a good selection of items.
You may find some of what you need at a Best Buy, but prices there are usually quite a bit higher.
Don’t get taken for a ride – if you see a price that looks fishy, be a journalist and check it out.
Micro Four-Thirds cameras
Panasonic and Olympus have marketed the Micro Four-Thirds system as a viable alternative to traditional DSLR models (though Olympus makes those, too). These models in the system (For Panasonic, the Lumix G2/G3/G5, GF2, GF3, GF5 GH2 and GH3 and the Olympus PEN series) offer DSLR-like image quality because of their large sensors, but they give up the mirrors that make the DSLRs bigger and give you a through-the-lens viewfinder. Instead, you get an electronic viewfinder, which is similar to what you’d see on a camcorder.
These models run the gamut – some, like the Panasonic GF3 or the Olympus EPL-2 look like point-and-shoot models and don’t have a viewfinder at all or any way to get audio in, whereas others, like the Panasonic GH3 offer full manual controls and audio inputs, just like the DSLRs listed above.
This is a category of cameras still in rapid development, but some of these models are quite capable, and could fit the bill just like any of the models I listed above – you just need to read the spec sheet carefully to make sure it can do what it needs to do for journalism.
The final word
The most important thing is to buy a camera you will be able to use to do your job. Buy something that you can grow into, even if that means spending an extra $100 today. That extra money spent to get that extra microphone input or manual video controls will save you the headache of upgrading later or trying to figure out a workaround.
Go to the store. Try out the cameras. See which controls fit nicely into your hand, and which camera feels just right around your neck. You don’t want to buy something heavier than you can hold, or something more complex than you think you can handle.
Use this guide as a starting point, and feel free e-mail me if you have any questions, or just ask in the comments below.