In the inexorable crush of user-generated content, journalists are being trampled to the point of becoming an endangered species. The willingness of publishers to pay for original, thoughtful, in-depth work is quickly diminishing in favor of inexpensive, rapid-fire, and often sponsored content. This is especially true for trade journalism, with an advertiser-supported model, but is becoming increasingly true for the mainstream media.
One of my tech journalist counterparts, Brian Fuller, recently left his position leading EETimes in favor of a role managing social and content marketing at Cadence. He quipped on LinkedIn that it was nice to have “hours, not minutes or seconds” to think about posting content while working for a company, not a media outlet. Other high profile tech editors are also bolting for content strategy positions with companies, such as several from Wired. (By disclosure, I also classify myself as a content strategist.)
On the other side, many of us saw the recent manhunt drama near Boston, and the role social media played in real-time wee-hours coverage. I was one of those people who stayed up all night following the drama, beginning from the first report on social media of the MIT officer shooting. Prominent traditional news outlets were hamstrung in live reporting by using terms like “unconfirmed”, “alleged”, and “reportedly” because they feared getting burned running with social media reports – some of which turned out to be right on top of the action as it was unfolding. With the ubiquity of smartphones and their camera and sharing capability, almost any live event is now reported out as rapidly as it occurs, but the quality and veracity of the coverage varies.
Suddenly, photojournalism and its tools in focus. The stakes have become high, given the recent move by the Chicago Sun-Times to jettison their staff of 28 photographers. Organized labor and cost savings considerations aside, the theory is a reporter armed with a smartphone can take pictures good enough for most situations. Certainly the move doesn’t rule out the use of freelance photographers packing advanced digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) equipment, but it does indicate a shift is underway.
We’ve known for some time the camera-equipped smartphone was killing the point-and-shoot digital camera, but the encroachment into professional photojournalism space is noteworthy. An oft-quoted truism says that “the best camera is the one you have,” and in the social age a smartphone that can share any images instantaneously trumps a high-quality DSLR not at the scene. This is why the Sun-Times and others are training reporters on the use of their iPhones to capture images and videos. For the reporter, the big pluses are managing only one device which they are already carrying, and the social sharing capability.
How good are these images from smartphones? One user on a forum pessimistically stated it this way: “You can only get so much engineering for $18,” referring to the approximate bill-of-materials cost of the image sensor. As anyone with experience will tell you, composing a still image or video is sometimes challenging in various lighting and ambient noise environments, even with advanced equipment – there are a lot of fuzzy smartphone shots out there. Smartphone cameras have some scene presets, but up until now users have had little control over shutter speed, f-stop, and other settings. Another consideration is higher quality images are compressed to a web-friendly 72dpi when uploaded to Twitter, Instagram, and other services.
Much of the advantage of the DSLR is in the attached lens itself, which can be interchanged with different models allowing a wider range of zoom and focus capability. Even a relatively inexperienced photographer like me can capture images of surprising quality given some practice, such as this image of baseball legend Todd Helton from 2005. The ball is outgoing off the bat; the threads are stopped and the bat is deflected slightly from the impact, details captured at a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec, a focal length of 220mm, and an f-stop of 5.6.
Smartphone cameras are advancing rapidly. A good place to compare cameras is DxO Labs, with the standardized DxOMark Mobile benchmark comparing the latest mobile devices. An interesting hybrid has just been announced – the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, with a 16 megapixel image sensor, a 10x optical zoom lens, and optical image stabilization.
Nokia has the Lumia 928, with Zeiss optics and features optimizing low light shots which is a typical use case for a smartphone – see a much more thorough discussion on the specifics from Nokia experts. The Apple iPhone 5 platform is also quite competitive, with many tips for getting the most out of iPhone cameras, and there are add-on lenses from olloclip and Photojojo to extend capability further.
Most photography enthusiasts are familiar with Adobe Photoshop, but those capabilities are quickly being incorporated directly into smartphones and sharing. NVIDIA, makers of the Tegra 4 chip in many mobile devices, have an entire treatise on how they use the computation elements of the graphics processing unit to optimize photos natively in situations such as high dynamic range (HDR). Google also announced at their recent developer conference that when photos are uploaded to Google+, they will automatically be optimized using similar techniques to Photoshop.
These and other advancements combine to make a smartphone in the hands of an intermediately skilled user on the scene a formidable engine for documenting events in real time. We will see if smartphone journalism can match the quality of professional photojournalists. A striking example of professional photojournalism is this image, shot in Moore OK with a DSLR on May 20, 2013 and conveying a range of emotions in one breathtaking scene. There is more to composing an image than just the camera.
As the crossover occurs, and smartphones replace point-and-shoot cameras, the capability of both the camera and the photographers will improve. DSLRs may be left in only the hands of pure professionals, and the vast majority of photos will be from smartphones – and the stories they will tell will be as varied as the new breed of photographers.