By Paula Wethington / Monroe on a Budget

A couple of months ago, a retired newspaper copy editor who likes to visit our newsroom lamented how journalists are expected to multitask these days on reporting, photography and even video –  tasks that were considered separate skills a generation ago.

I looked at him in all seriousness and said, “This is nothing new.”

Twenty-five years ago, I reminded him, I was a reporter at a much smaller newspaper in which it was  common for the “real” photographer to not be available on short notice. As a result, the 35mm SLR got placed on my desk because someone had to get a picture to go with the story.

I did receive a basic Minolta camera body and 50 mm lens to go with it for my college graduation gift, but barely knew how to use it when I started that job.

Through a combination of “school of hard knocks,” two community college classes in photography, watching how the photo team worked on assignment, and buying additional equipment here and there, I quickly moved beyond panicked reporter status.

I am not as good a shooter as those whose degrees were in photography. I don’t know how to set up the lighting for studio portraits. I don’t have experience in shooting football or other high school sports. Furthermore, if you send me on a news assignment, I’m probably also writing the story and can’t focus 100 percent attention on getting the best picture.

But I did earn several amateur photography awards while living in northwest Ohio and earned street cred as a reliable backup photographer for breaking news and basic features.

My photography hobby crashed in the mid-2000s. The Minolta camera was no longer reliable and even two replacement camera bodies purchased used just prolonged the agony.

For all practical purposes, I had no camera at all. My first camera cell phone could provide images sufficient for a web site or grainy snapshots, but not for the newspaper. When the iPhones were introduced in 2007, the $600 upfront cost was too much money for me although we agreed my husband needed one ASAP for reasons that had nothing to do with pictures.

Eventually, I coughed up the money to buy a used Olympus E-520 DSLR set from my brother. He works at a camera store and has a photography business of his own. By the time I combined what I bought second hand with what I could salvage from my previous setup, I had a camera body, a 14-42 lens, a 50-150 lens, a monopod, bounce flash, three digital photo cards, a filter set that still needs a different size attachment ring to be useful now, and two sets of camera batteries.

Despite the eventual savings with digital pictures over film, I cringed at the cost of buying even used equipment. I had to make the payments over two months, and would not have made the investment if I could get decent quality pictures via cell phone at the time.

But I’m glad I made the purchase, and here’s why:

Soon after I got that camera, I was sent on a newspaper assignment in which I had to get the photo. It was an evening vigil on Veteran’s Day in Milan, Mich. I panicked when I saw how poor the lighting conditions were at the event. But the new-to-me DSLR could handle it, and the photo ran on page 1. Yay!

After iPhones became more affordable, I bought one and the Olympus mostly sat in its bag. Even the earliest iPhones could provide newspaper quality images, so I never questioned that I could manage breaking news or a simple news feature on the spot.

In fact, the experience I gained with SLR cameras about how to set up a shot and what the newsroom is looking for means that my iPhone pictures are pretty good. I had one printed in the paper just last week.

That being said, an iPhone camera is basically a very good snapshot camera with digital filters and video capability. There are terrific images one can only get with the advanced features and interchangeable lenses of an SLR camera.

I’ll run into one of those situations this weekend, on a feature assignment in which for schedule reasons I couldn’t team up with of the staff photographers who shoots better than I do. I’ll be a “one man show.”

Luckily, I shot some pictures two years ago on my Olympus that are similar to what I’m looking for, and showed them to my co-workers so they know what I can do and have in mind. We’re all fine with it, and so it is a go.

I’ve spent most of my free time the past week re-reading instruction manuals, making sure everything still works and doing test shoots. Here’s a selfie that I took with the iPhone when I was at Sterling State Park doing a test run on the Olympus to see how the settings worked on various images.

photoselfie

That is the backstory of how and why a reporter you might not expect to have spent money on expensive professional photography equipment actually does happens to own such stuff – and can use it.

P.S. Check out my photos at monroenews.smugmug.com.

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