Tuesday, September 23, 2014

For reporters taking pictures: the Panasonic Lumix FZ200

I worked for more than three decades as a staff photographer at a couple of daily newspapers in Ontario, Canada. I hesitate to use the term photojournalist. I was a photographer. I was more concerned with image quality -- art and with craft -- than with raw reporting.

Over the years I came to understand that many shooters working in the news business were more photographer than photojournalist. Right from my very first day on the job, I learned newspaper shooters were not adverse to setting up pictures but did so on a daily basis.

The image of the two girls chatting, one topless, ran in a Canadian paper and was distributed by the wire services in both Canada and the United States. It was claimed the image documented the topless look many Canadian women had adopted when relaxing on a Canadian beach. It was a lie. The two girls were models. The photographer hired models when it proved impossible to find topless women on any beach in the area. The photographer illustrated the story and not reality.

Ann Coulter shot with Canon S90.
I am opening this post with this story because newspaper staff photographers use incredible photo equipment. They often have two or more camera bodies complete with lens hanging from their necks. They wear photo vests bulging with extra lenses, spare batteries and at least one flash and maybe two. If they don't wear a vest, they carry a camera bag.

News shooters carry all this equipment because they claim to be photojournalists. (I would put the accent on photo and go light on the journalist.) Reporters forced to take pictures are also photojournalists but with the accent this time on journalist. The demands of a photographer/photojournalist are usually different from than those of a reporter/photojournalist.

Photographers wants the best gear, period. No compromises. To accomplish this, they carry massive amounts of photo gear. Reporters wants simplicity and compromise is often the name of the game.

Since retiring, I have done some work for an online publication and shot some stuff for folk around town as a favour. My photo kit today is essentially two cameras: a fit-in-your-pocket point-and-shoot and a heavier, bulkier super zoom.

What to look for in the perfect camera for reporters:

A fast f/1.8 wide angle and small size makes this a keeper.
1. The lens should be fast -- at least f/2.8 but faster is better. The smaller the f-stop number the faster the lens. Fast lenses let in a lot of light. This allows the use of faster shutter speeds when shooting available light. Faster shutter speeds help stop subject movement. My choice here is the Canon S120. It offers f/1.8 when the zoom lens is set to 24mm (35mm film equivalent).

2. A viewfinder and not just a large screen on the back of the camera is a plus. Unfortunately, the Canon S120 does not have a viewfinder, which brings us to the Panasonic FZ200 which does. This super zoom has an f/2.8 lens. This is one and a third stops slower than the Canon S120 but this lens has another trick up its sleeve. It offers this fast speed right across the zoom range. Set to wide angle or zoomed to the max, this lens offers a fast f/2.8 when set to wide open. When I was a working pro, my lens kit held a number of constant f/stop zooms. Not one of which was faster than f/2.8 at its fastest.

FZ200: f/2.8 offered at all lens settings
Sadly, with most amateur cameras zoom the lens from wide angle to telephoto and the maximum f/stop gets progressively slower. At the long lens settings many amateur cameras are just about unusable unless the pop-up flash is activated. If you didn't know, pop-up flashes pump out ugly light. I have always tried to stay clear of these built-in strobes.

The Panasonic FZ200 is heavier and a little slower than the Canon S120 but the f/2.8 setting available at all lens settings is a real plus. If the FZ200 weight is not a deal breaker, it tips the scales at little more than a pound (588 grams), then the FZ200 is the camera.

3. Note the pop up flash with the Canon S120. Not good. The Panasonic offers a hot shoe. This is another nice, pro-shooter touch. Panasonic offers three external flashes for this camera and these flashes are all TTL -- through the lens metering. I always looked for a flash with a rotating, tilting head. The more it can be adjusted the better. This makes bounce flash photography easy. A high guide number is also good. No one wants to get back to the newsroom without the picture. Lots of power is good insurance that your flash will be up to the job.

I've read some complaints about these Panasonic flashes. They can take too long to recharge between flashes. I assume that if one uses TTL and a wide aperture, like f/4.0 or wider, the recharge times will be shortened. With TTL the flash only pumps out the light needed to properly expose the image. Any energy not used to create the flash is recycled back into the battery.

External flashes are heavy and expensive. For these two reasons, amateurs tend to shy away from these flashes. I shake my head in disbelief. Buy a good flash, one with adequate power, and keep it handy. It does not have to be on the camera at all times. It just needs to be near by. A reporter can sling a small camera bag stuffed with a camera, a spare battery, a small charger and a flash and be set to tackle anything needed for the paper. (This assumes that the really tricky stuff requiring super fast response times and ultra-short shutter release times will still be handled by a staff photographer.)

A long lens and ability to fire a burst of shots makes this easy.
4. Any camera that has a fast lens, a good zoom range, a viewfinder and a hot-shoe for a TTL external flash will meet the needs of most reporters. The Panasonic FZ200 has a 25-600mm lens expressed as a 35mm SLR equivalent. This is a range that should never let a reporter down. In more than three decades working as a pro shooter, I almost never needed a lens longer than 600mm.

The ability to fire off a burst of five or six pictures is also a plus. But this feature should be offered by any camera that answers the first three demands. Check to make sure that I am not wrong but I'd be surprised to learn otherwise. The FZ200 can crank off up to 12 frames per second. If auto-focus tracking is needed, the maximum rate drops to 5.5 fps.

What I would carry if I were a reporter forced to take pictures.

  • a small camera bag holding . . .
  • a Panasonic Lumix FZ200
  • an external rotating, tilting head TTL flash
  • two extra Panasonic Li-ion Battery Packs plus a charger
  • a cable to download photos (this will come packaged with camera)
  • one extra SD card
  • a small umbrella for those hard to light shots (I'd keep this in the trunk of my car most of the time. I'll post a link to instructions on hand holding a photo umbrella.)
  • a small tripod. Must be strong enough to carry weight of camera. Keep in car trunk with umbrella.There are little wire-legged tripods that will do quite nicely in a pinch.

I no longer have an expensive DSLR from Canon or Nikon. I get by with a point and shoot and a super zoom. I have yet to fail to come back with a picture. I am no longer shooting hockey, a tough sport even using the best equipment, so I cannot say my replacement kit does all my previous $25,000 kit did. But, for under a thousand dollars, my present kit delivers.

A super zoom using a short burst of shots quickly delivered this image.

The small sensors in amateur cameras mean one must fill the frame for good reproduction.
Dancers shot with Fuji FinePix HS10. A Panasonic FZ200 would have done even better.
Shot of fireworks at a neighbourhood park taken with simple Canon SD10.
A zoom lens can almost do it all. A camera bag full of lenses is no longer necessary.

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