Camera-buying advice for the student journalist

This guide has been updated over on my new site, www.picture.guide! Please see the newer version of this over there – it’s much more up to date:

http://picture.guide/2016/11/22/buying-a-camera-for-the-student-journalist/

(Updated on February 19, 2014 – 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.

Which brand?

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:

In Canon, the(as of 2/19/14) models with an audio input are the Rebel SL1, Rebel T2i (discontinued), Rebel T3i, Rebel T4i (discontinued), Rebel T5i, 60D, 70D, 7D, 6D, 5D Mark II, 5D Mark III*, 1D Mark IV, and 1D X*.

In Nikon, the (as of 2/19/14) models with an audio input are the D3200, D3300, D5100 (discontinued), D5200, D5300, D7000, D7100*, D300s (body only available), D600* (body only available), D610*, D3s (discontinued), D800* (body only), D800E* (body only), and D4* (body only).

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):

In Canon (note, they won’t work on the 6D, or 5D and 1D series): EF-S 18-135mm IS STM, EF-S 18-200mm IS, or the EF-S 15-85mm IS.

And in Nikon (note, these lenses won’t work at full resolution on D600, D700, D800, D800E or D3x, D3, D3s, or D4 models): 18-105mm VR DX, 16-85mm VR DX, 18-300mm VR DX or the 18-200mm VR DX.

I own both the Nikon 18-200mm VR DX and the Canon 18-135mm IS (the older version without the STM, which is a silent motor for video), 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.

While in my own work, I’m usually using a Rode Videomic and a Sennheiser EW G3 series wireless lavalier, that’s generally out of the price range for student journalists. Another wireless lavalier recommendation, the Azden 105UPR/15BT set, comes from Graham Chedd, a visiting professor at Stony Brook University‘s School of Journalism. While I haven’t personally used this series itself and it seems to have less physical controls than the Sennheiser, the sounds comes out well and the kit is half the price.

In any case, if you’re on a budget, 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. (About $80)

Alternatives are the Nikon ME-1 ($129 – I also have this because it’s very portable) and the Sennheiser MKE 400 ($200).

Audio-Technica ATR3350IS 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. (About $25)

An alternative that is about the same is the Polsen OLM-10 (About $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. (About $25)

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 want to go with a brick and mortar operation, New York City is home to 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. Personally, I buy almost all of my gear from B&H, whether it’s online or in the store. Their customer service is great.

Another camera retailer that comes highly recommended is Adorama is at 18th Street and 6th Avenue, and they are a little smaller, but have a good selection of items. I’ve only had two dealings with them (one on used gear, one on new) and unfortunately, both were very poor customer service experiences, but most other people report better experiences than I have had. Take that for what you will.

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.

24 thoughts on “Camera-buying advice for the student journalist

  1. Pingback: Buying a camera? See this guide.

  2. Great guide! One more lens I would suggest adding to this list is the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 with Optical Stabilization. It’s a great all around lens. The fast aperture makes for a nice shallow depth of field and is excellent in low light. And the best part is that it works at f/2.8 all the way through.

    At about $670 it’s a little expensive, but it’s about half the price of the Canon and Nikon equivalents. If I was buying a camera right now, I would definitely make this one my first lens and keep it in my kit. Get this and a nice telephoto and you’ll be pretty set.

    Here’s a link to it on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/Sigma-17-50mm-2-8-Aperture-Standard/dp/B003A6H1OY

    • Steve,

      Thanks for taking a look!

      My take on third-party lenses – they’re a great value if you intend to hold on to your current body and lens setup for a while, but in most cases, I’d have to caution against buying them.

      The old adage of “You get what you pay for” holds true here – Canon and Nikon lenses were engineered by the companies that made the camera bodies – and so they’re guaranteed to work and to work well. Third party manufacturers essentially have to reverse engineer the lens mounts, and while there is usually not a problem, sometimes there is.

      Tamron had an incident recently where its equivalent 17-50 lens wouldn’t use the cross-type sensors on certain Canon bodies. Oops: http://www.canonrumors.com/forum/index.php?topic=286.0

      True, there are some Canons on that list that don’t work as well, but they are extremely old lenses, compared to a relatively new third party lens.

      What I have also found personally, is that when I’m spending $670 anyway, I might as well spend the little bit extra for the Canon or Nikon equivalent. It always comes back to me when it comes time to sell the lens. I paid $1600 for a Canon 70-200 2.8L IS and sold it for $1400. I paid $1100 for a Canon 70-300 DO IS and the trade in I got from B&H was $850. This was after two years of use on both lenses.

      I’ll toss out a question to you though Steve, as I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts – I recommended some versatile, all-around lenses for the students here, but do you think I should talk about primes or is that just putting the cart ahead of the horse? I think primes would be a cheap way to get some good Nikon or Canon glass in the stable.

      Sorry for all the horse analogies.

  3. I definitely agree with you with some of the issues regarding third-party glass. However, I’ve shot quite a bit with the Tamron 18-270 VC, and have been absolutely in awe of the images produced from a $700 super zoom. In general, I’ve found Tamron and Sigma to be fairly reliable in my experience. Once you start getting into the real knockoff brands like Rokinon, it’s a different story. I’d recommend staying away from those.

    From the research I’ve been doing, the Sigma has been rated to be nearly as sharp as it’s Canon counterpart, and has much quieter AF and IS systems. The lens is so popular right now that it’s sold out for the next few months. It’s been my experience that most glass holds its value pretty well, perhaps the Canon and Nikon glass a bit more so than the third party brands. Still, for someone starting out looking for some all-around lenses, I like what Sigma and Tamron offer.

    I think primes absolutely merit a discussion (perhaps a guide on primes vs. zooms?) I think any student shooting on Canon should own a “thrifty-fifty,” Canon’s 50mm 1.8 lens. I love shooting sit-down interviews with that lens, beautiful bokeh, and all for $100. You can’t beat that.

  4. Thanks for the info. I read your Poytner chat. I bought a Panasonic GH2 mainly because it records video forever (until the card’s full).

    I could have easily bought a T3i or 60D, but the time limits kill me. I normally shoot docs (for revenue) and run-n-gun (for fun/blogs), and experiment with emo stuff. Generally I prefer a fast prime lens. So that’s another reason for the GH2. I bought old cheap primes (with adapters), particularly useful for low-light and interviews. The mic input is OK (4-level AGC), so I use a mixer and dual-audio for serious stuff.

    I don’t know what’s up with Canon & Nikon putting time limits on video shoots. At least offer clean HDMI output for external recorder options.

    • Raqcoon – the GH2 is a great little camera, especially paired with the video-optimized 14-140 lens. The reason you can record on that camera for extended periods of time is because of its more efficient AVCHD codec. That said, AVCHD requires more work to bring into video editing programs.

      Nikon’s limit on its new D7000 is 20 minutes. Canons are at 12 minutes. This is because of a limitation of the FAT32 file system the cards are formatted in – file sizes will be limited to 4 gb of information, and the H.264 or Motion JPEG codecs used by Canon and Nikon, while providing good quality and easy editing, chew through space. Your GH2 can do Motion JPEG as well.

      While this may not work for long speeches, for journalists, this should be mostly fine. If you’re sitting there recording every single word of the interview, then there’s probably a more efficient way to conduct the interview – as I said in the Poynter chat, it’s all about shooting the breeze a bit first and getting a feel for the story, then determining what the important questions are to get on video. You’ll be much more efficient in the field and in the editing bay this way, with less footage to sift through.

      One huge advantage of the Micro Four Thirds system that you brought up, though, is the availability of lenses of all stripes and colors for it. Because the sensor is just a tiny bit smaller than everything else out there, most other systems’ lenses will fit with a converter on the Micro Four Thirds system. You’ll lose autofocus, but most of the time metering is still working. This opens up a huge treasure trove of cheap lenses on sites such as KEH.com.

      Thanks for checking out the Poynter site. I do urge those folks to think long and hard though about this purchase – there are advantages and disadvantages to each system out there, and you shouldn’t dismiss the T3i and 60D so easily – they are excellent tools that you need to learn a different approach to shooting with.

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    • Ever hear the phrase “Don’t gild the lily?”

      You’re being charged a $120 premium for items that don’t amount to nearly that much. I always recommend a UV (protection) filter and lens cleaning kit, but even if you purchase a good brand UV filter, a cleaning kit, and a memory card, it will amount to half that price. You can use the remainder of the money to buy a bag for the camera that you actually want.

      Regarding the protection plan, it’s from a third party, not Canon or B&H, so I’d tread carefully there. I insure my gear through my insurance company, which essentially provides the same protection, and if I need repairs, I would use Canon Professional Services. Canon gives you a 1 year warranty with the camera as well.

      My Rebel is almost 6 years old now and it works as good as the day I bought it, and hasn’t needed any service in all of that time.

      I think you’ll be fine with the camera and lens.

  7. I was just wondering what kind of flash to get for a first year journalism student?

    Thanks,
    /Brian

    • Hello Brian,

      If you’re shooting Canon, I’d recommend a 430 EX II ($300) or a 580 EX II ($450). They are a bit pricey, but they will last you forever and have many features you can grow into. The big difference, aside from a little bit of power, is that the more expensive flash can trigger other flashes wirelessly, so you can experiment with off-camera, studio-type work in the future. The 430 EX II cannot do this, but it can be used as a “remote” flash.

      In Nikon, the SB-700 ($330) and the SB-900 ($500) are the ones to beat. They are actually almost identical except in terms of power. Either one can act as a master or remote flash, so again, you can grow into these flashes. There are older models, such as the SB-600 and SB-800, but Nikon made huge improvements in the controls of the flashes, and for a beginner, the 700 and 900 are much easier to understand.

      All of these flashes have fully articulating heads – the whole reason for buying them, essentially. You can point the light in any direction, bounce off walls, ceilings, etc. Some of the lower models don’t do this.

      I would avoid going to any lower models than these, because you’ll quickly hit the limits of what you can do with anything less.

      For the record, I own all of the above flashes except the SB-900, and They are all built like tanks, work in any and all situations, and have just been worth every penny.

      Hope that helps.

      • Thanks Wasim,

        We have just purchased the 60D and the EF-S 18-200mm IS on based on your guidence. I had bought a cheaper flash and will exhcange to the 430EXII.

        Cheers and thanks again,
        /Brian

      • That’s a great all-around video/photo setup. As a bonus, the 60D is one of the few Canon cameras at the moment that come built-in with a wireless flash transmitter, so you can actually use the 430 EX II as a remote without needing the higher model flash. Happy shooting!

  8. Thanks for the post Wasim, I’m looking to get into the freelance journalism gig at some point after I graduate and although I’m in Australia this post remains helpful and relevant. After research here and many (too many) places elsewhere I think I’m sold on the Canon 60D with the 18-135mm lens. Thanks for the help mate.

    • Happy to help, Quinten. Don’t sweat the gear too much – anything on that list – including the setup you’re about to buy – will help you make good pictures and video.

  9. Hello Wasim, May I ask why you have not included the EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens in your piece? Reviews I have seen suggest that it may be a bit more reliable and provide a sharper image than, say the 18-200mm. I’ve also read that it performs better in low light. I’m curious to hear your thoughts and why you have chosen not to mention it above. Thanks.

    • Hello Nick,

      The 28-135mm lens is a great lens – but not for a smaller sensor body such as a Rebel/60D/7D. When you put any lens onto one of those bodies, the image is “cropped” so to speak such that it magnifies the focal length by 1.6 – your 28mm lens starts at 45mm now, which means that you don’t have very much wide angle at all.

      The equation changes if you’re using a 5D Mark II or other Canon “full frame” camera – the larger sensor makes 28mm an actual 28mm, so your wide angle to mild-telephoto 28-135mm lens actually works that way.

      Since I’m gearing this toward student photographers – I imagine budgets are a bit thin and most won’t be starting with a 5D Mark II, so I picked lenses that are a better match for the sensors on the cameras below that level.

      I hope that answers your question! Feel free to e-mail or comment if I just got confusing.

  10. Thank you Wasim, that answers it! One more question, just a matter of opinion, but do you ever find yourself wanting for that extra 65mm? Being that you have the 18-135mm… and the 18-200mm is only a difference of a couple hundred dollars….

    • In most cases, nope. In the few cases that I do, I have the 70-200 f/4L.

      The Rebel T2i, 18-135, and 70-200 is my day-to-day shooting kit for stuff.

      For something that requires more low-light photography or extensive flashwork, I shoot a Nikon D700 and a few f/2.8 lenses and fast primes.

      The 70-200 f/4L is a bargain at the $500 price when I got it a while ago (it’s more expensive now, $675 everywhere). It’s probably one of the sharpest lenses I have ever used, far more worthy of the “L” designation than most other zooms.

  11. Hi,
    I found your article really interesting. I am a Creative Writing Student and I am looking to buy into a DSLR, because I am unsure of what road I will be taking in the future (Whether it be Journalism, or writing books/poetry) I am unsure of which DSLR to buy. You mentioned that Journalist students should get a camera with an audio input but personally I don’t think I will ever be recording interviews, documentaries, short films as I prefer to write stories and non-fiction articles for magazines. What type camera could you recommend for me?

    Thanks,
    Lady Ardour

    • Thank you for your comment. It’s a reminder I need to update this post.

      At this point every single camera in Canon’s lineup (the 1DS Mark III – which doesn’t shoot video) and Rebel T3 are exceptions) have a microphone input.

      In Nikon, every new model has a microphone input, though some old ones (D90, D3X, D700, D3000, D3100 and D5000) are still hanging around in their lineup for some reason that don’t. So pretty much most things you can buy new will have one, and the price difference isn’t much.

      If this is your first SLR and you are not sure if an SLR is for you, I’ve been using a lot of Micro Four-Thirds cameras and I can say that their still photo capabilities are basically on par with most under $1000 SLR models. And they are a lot smaller, lighter and cheaper. Video quality is a wash – I’ve shot a few things with my Panasonic GF-series cameras that looked OK, but I didn’t have much control and couldn’t plug in microphones.

      That said, I paid $325 for a Panasonic GF3 with a lens, which is significantly cheaper than an SLR, and it’s become the camera I use most often. There are many, even cheaper models than this that will produce the same image quality (Olympus’ E-PL1 comes to mind).

      I hope that helps – the short version – almost all but the bottom-rung cameras in Canon and Nikon have audio inputs, so buy what feels most comfortable to you. And take a strong look at Micro Four Thirds cameras for excellent value.

  12. Hi, I’ve been in photography for about three years now. I started out with a nikon d3000, then went onto a d200, and have reason purchased a D7000 as store demo for $750.( I absolutely love this camera) My question is what would be a good lens for a more wide angle if I start to do journalism stuff ad working for newspaper. I currently have many been doing portraits, and did a shoot for a hotels website this summer. The lens I current own is 35mm f1.8( don’t really like it on my d7000) and older 35-70f2.8 on my d200, a 85mm f1.8 af-d which is great for the d7000, and also a junk 55-200 zoom lens. The one lens I had my eye on was the 18-35mm f3.5-4.5 af-d, 10-24mm f3.5-4.5, 12-24mm f4 af-s? Any suggestions?

    • Hi there,

      Indeed, 35mm isn’t very wide on a D7000, D200 or D3000 – the reason being is that their sensor size is smaller than “full frame” and so the focal length appears as 1.5x the actual listed length (see here for an explanation: http://www.journographica.com/2012/03/04/the-5d-mark-iii-d800-and-why-big-sensors-matter/)

      If you are looking for a good, all-purpose zoom that goes from mostly wide to mild telephoto, consider Nikon’s older 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S DX. It used to be a kit lens on the D80 and it’s not that expensive. This is a DX lens, not full frame.

      If money is no object, consider the 14-24 f/2.8 – it’s a full-frame lens that will be wide enough on your D7000, but will take on a whole new dimension should you ever upgrade to full frame (D600 and up). That said, it’s $2000.

      The 10-24 and 12-24 are both good choices, but note that they are DX, and so if you ever upgrade to a full-frame camera, you will not be able to use either of these and will have to pay again for another wide angle (this is also true of my 18-135 recommendation above).

      For good used lenses, I always buy from http://www.keh.com – they have great customer service and their inventory is in much better shape than used gear I have purchased from other places.

      I hope that helps.

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