I first started getting into photography while I studied abroad in southwest China in 2011. I had a Sony Cybershot HX9 point-and-shoot camera. With that I was able to get some really strong, high-resolution photos, arguably as good as any mid-range DSLR could do. A couple of years later I upgraded to a Nikon D5100 DSLR, which is my main piece today. There are differences.
As Lu-Hai said, the DSLR is less discreet. You have very little time when you arrive on a scene to snap truly candid photos before people notice that a photographer is in their midst. The point-and-shoot is not immune to this, but it’s easier to sneak by undetected with one than a DSLR, if that’s what you’re trying to do. Typically, I don’t worry about hiding my picture taking. If someone doesn’t want their photo taken they should be able to see me doing it and let me know themselves (and many people have).
Another point. It’s assumed DSLR photos are always going to be of a superior quality but this isn’t true. Point-and-shoot technology is really fantastic these days. Makers like Sony and Leica produce some superb point-and-shoots that can capture as good or better images than mid-range DSLRs. Really, what makes a DSLR better depends on the lens you have on it.
I was unimpressed with the stock lens that my D5100 came with so I bought a $140 Nikon 50mm prime lens from Best Buy. It was incapable of zoom or auto-focus but it took in a lot of light and produced some really high-resolution photos—when you got the focus right. Its limited frame, inability to zoom and manual focus made it a challenge but also a teacher. I learned to take care in each image and, while I lost a lot of potentially good photos to blurriness, that lens made me a better photographer.
It was the only lens I had on a recent jaunt through China and Burma and I got a bunch of photo essays published with it. I was able to capture images that I probably wouldn’t have thought of taking with my compact. It didn’t necessarily allow me to take better photos, but its limitations forced me to adopt a different perspective. In photography, that’s everything.
Brent Crane is a journalist with bylines in The Atlantic, Daily Telegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane.
His previous guest post is here.
Lately I have been using my digital SLR. It’s a Canon 450D (also known as a Digital Rebel XTi). I’ve had my DSLR since 2008 but in the past two years I’ve neglected it, preferring to use my compact point-and-shoot: a Canon Powershot S120.
I dug out the DSLR as I wanted to walk around my neighborhood, shooting. It’s a very different experience. It’s the physical tangibility, that reassuring weight of a DSLR that is, I think, most influential in changing the approach you take to photography.
However, on journalism assignments and on freelance trips — to Burma, to North Korea — I have left behind the DSLR, and only brought my little camera. This is because the agility of the S120 and the ease of taking a usable photo with it is far quicker and more efficient than a DSLR.
Another thing I noticed when I was out and about with the DSLR was that the mere sight of it, the fact I was stopping and using this quite obviously noticeable camera changed my surroundings. People noticed me more, people actively tried to avoid the camera’s glare, and I, in turn, tried to be more conspicuous.
This is perhaps even more important.
If I used my DSLR in North Korea I would’ve taken fewer pictures and fewer photos of sensitive things, and the North Koreans would’ve been more sensitive to my presence. People have an almost instinctive reaction to a big, professional-looking camera far more than they do to a little compact.
Also, the quality produced by my point-and-shoot compared to the photos coming out of the DSLR are not massively different. With a DSLR, you can see more clarity, more cinematic colours, more depth of field, things that contribute to a more “3D” effect in the photo. But looking at photos taken with my S120 on the internet, you barely register the “inferiority”. For evidence see the photo galleries, which I took with the point-and-shoot, here and here.
I’ve sold photos using the S120 and the value of those images are in the fact they tell a story. The camera was inconsequential.
Sometimes I do feel wistful when I see fellow freelancers scoring photo galleries that I know would be difficult to manage with a compact camera. My friend Brent Crane’s photo story for Condé Nast Traveler is a case in point. The 12-picture gallery — ‘China to Pakistan: Road Tripping Across the World’s Highest Border’ — was shot on Brent’s DSLR and the vibrancy and sweep of the landscape shots are quite detailed in the way only the larger sensors found in DSLRs are capable of.
But I still trust in my little Canon compact to deliver the goods and I don’t foresee myself replacing it with a DSLR on journalism assignments.
It has been over a month since I quit my regular script-editing job at the TV company. And since then I have only been surviving on my freelancing income.
Since I came back from my Burma trip, which cost too much due to a mishap with flights, I have been more or less broke — having had to ask for an extension on paying my rent, and for a personal loan to bail myself out.
I have had two job interviews. One of these jobs would’ve been perfect; offering a flexible schedule and a great salary. I did not get it however. The other job is for a big news agency where competition is tough so I am unsure about my prospects.
I had a lot of stop and starts when I first came out here – gigs that fell through, pitches that were lame, a bank account that was at zero so many times I nearly packed it in and went back home (on multiple occasions). — Kate Hodal, freelancer turned Southeast Asia correspondent
When I read these words from Kate Hodal, I always feel better knowing that those before me, and also my peers, have struggled financially doing journalism.
But equally, when I see freelancers who are for more prolific than I am I feel spurred on to work harder and to find my own spread of amenable publications.
This is not to say I haven’t been enjoying myself — enjoying the acres of free time, partying with friends. That’s the beauty of China, money goes further: the experience of being broke here is unlike being broke in England, where relative poverty reduces choices more starkly.
But I thank the lord for my bank account’s overdraft.
Writing about traveling is a lot of people’s dream job, combining the joy of expressing the experience of travel and getting paid to do it — it’s occupational paradise (I guess).
I’ve only done one piece of pure travel journalism in my career. A long time ago now.
But I haven’t pitched travel article ideas since I’ve been freelancing from my base in Beijing. Why not? I don’t really know.
Travel journalism is incredibly competitive, and it’s a shrinking industry. With bloggers, vloggers, and hundreds of tips, listicles and guidebooks out there it’s a saturated market.
However the market for unique travel stories, as well as the more literary travel narrative still exists.
I’ve been re-reading a travel book recently, one which I highly recommend. (I bought the book years ago but have been delving into it again as I want to write a travel narrative and want to glean clues about structure and detail).
Rolf Potts’ collection of travel stories ‘Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer’ is both one of the best travel story reading experiences and one of the best travel writing manuals.
The reason why the book also serves as a guide for travel writers is because of the ingenious decision to add a postscript to each story in the book. These postscripts fill you in on the details of the process of writing the travel story; why the author left some details out, and how the narrative came together; little asides on certain experiences; and thoughts on travel itself and modern tourism. The details contained in the postscript are gold-dust and worth more than reading a dozen Q&As with travel writers, simply because the postscript is closely paired to the travel story, so you can gain a kind of skeleton key into how a travel story is formed.
One of the standout stories in the book is about when Potts decided to try to invade the set of The Beach; the 2000 film set in Thailand starring Leo Dicaprio. His attempt is zany and born of a simple desire for adventure.
Adventure…I really should try to do more travel writing.
As a freelance journalist, your entire existence is dependent on coming up with story ideas.
Some of the stories that I find most interesting to report and write about are trend stories — pieces on new social and cultural phenomena.
Once is a freak; twice is a coincidence; three times is a trend
It’s often about noticing the patterns that might be lurking in the environment (are more people wearing funny hats? Why?), or in your social circles.
For example, I noticed that among my Chinese female friends in Beijing, who are in their 20s and tend to be well educated, with high salaries, several seemed to be working as secretaries for their (male) bosses. I wondered whether they were happy with this, if they wanted positions with more executive opportunity, or whether they were in fact happy with their lot. I sent off a pitch outlining why I wanted to explore this. It was rejected (the editor explained that they had already done a lot on the glass ceiling in China), but it was a worthwhile exercise.
The point is, if you happen to notice something, then that noticement (yes, “noticement”), could be spotting a wider trend.
From my reading and from noticing an increasing interest among friends, I successfully pitched a piece about how Chinese people are increasingly becoming Buddhist again. It’s that kind of cultural phenomena I find fascinating. (The piece is here, if you’re interested).
A lot of pitch-able story ideas are about these new changes. It’s interesting, kind of newsy, and importantly helps to capture the zeitgeist.
For the freelance journalist, it almost doesn’t matter if the trend or culture is actually changing. You need only ask the question: is it changing? Then you’re 50% toward a story idea.
Later this year, through some mysterious cocktail of luck, hard work, and sheer determination, my first novel will be published in the U.S. ‘Year of the Goose’ is a dark comedy about the Bashful Goose Snack Company, China’s most successful fictional corporation. The novel weaves together tales of a deadly fat camp, a psychopathic heiress, a hair extension tycoon, a Tibetan monk reincarnated as a talking turtle, some witches, and an anthropomorphic diary-penning goose, among others.
I dreamed up the original idea for the novel back in America, sparked by a short story I wrote while still a student (about the aforementioned fat camp). I’d traveled and lived in China before, and, hailing from a boring small town in Texas, found it to be a treasure trove of inspiration — China is a place where things are happening, present continuous tense.
After I graduated I lived in Los Angeles for a while, where I worked as a glorified babysitter, sent out endless “real job” applications and resumes, and struggled to find my way out of a bad relationship. At twenty-four I gave up and got out, and moved back in with my parents. Depressed, disillusioned, directionless. The only thing I knew I wanted — needed — to do was to write that novel.
As a guiding principle life shrinks and life expands in direct proportion to your willingness to assume risk.
Casey Neistat, filmmaker
There is a huge difference between making it within a system, and making it on your own terms.
Jostling along the path of freelance journalism, I’ve increasingly found that the clutch of bylines I’ve accumulated count for very little. All it means is that when I pitch or when I get emails out of the blue, from editors, I just have that little more cache.
It affords me more freedom; the ability to take up stories that really interest me. And take punts on travel.
But you will never make it.
Not as a freelance journalist.
But you may do as a bonafide writer. Or some other high-powered creative.
So how do you break out of the tiny little achievements that you get as a freelancer? By focusing less on the litany of tasks that require urgent deadlines, and focusing more on the slow long-term creative projects that once produced and completed will be of higher value.
Because that kind of work is hard. And harder to replicate.
That is how your define your own path.