Following their famous sit-down at the White House days after the 2016 presidential election, President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump made some statements. They were blandly positive. “I’ve been very encouraged in the interest in President-elect Trump’s wanting to work with my team on many of the issues our great country faces,” Obama said.
Perhaps. Thing was, it was difficult to make out his exact words with all the cameras clicking around him. Clearly Washington’s top political photographers didn’t want to miss a single grimace, a single killer look. “Listen to DSLR Shutters Drowning Out Trump’s Meeting with Obama,” read the headline on a tech site, referring to Digital Single-Lens Reflex technology.
“We talked about click click click click click click…,” griped one commenter below a YouTube video of the meeting. And: “Can they have quieter cameras!?”
As a matter of fact, yes. In a fascinating discussion with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, Doug Mills, a longtime White House photographer for the New York Times, spoke about his own conversion from a noisy to a silent camera. “I can take your picture right now and you can’t hear it. You can’t hear even a whisper of a noise,” said Mills to Lamb. For more than 35 years, he said, he had used Canon cameras, a brand that, along with Nikon, has dominated Beltway political photography for decades. Sony approached him about using its A9 camera, a mirrorless camera that makes no shutter noise. “Sony came to me and asked if I’d be willing to try it. I remember saying to one of the technicians, ‘This is a game-changer,'” he said.
Within a year or two, Mills predicted, silent cameras will replace their boisterous forebears. So the rush of clicking cameras — a glorious whirr — appears poised to go the way of the flash, another nostalgic marker of big news events that’s been obviated by technological advance. Enjoy the sound of breaking news while it’s still with us. “I suspect that press events might be a bit more boring without the cameras firing away and maybe they will have to add music to increase the drama,” notes Lucian Perkins, a former staff photographer for The Post and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
On the other hand, people might be able to hear what the president is actually saying. For decades, TV and radio folks have complained about how the clicking of cameras ruins the sound they gather for their viewers and listeners. In his interview with Lamb, Mills cited Fox News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts as a cheerleader for wider adoption of silent-camera technology. “Every time there’s a photo op where they can’t hear the president because of the cameras, he will say to me, ‘I wish everybody would do what Doug Mills is using.’ And use the A9 because it’s silent. I think it helps for a lot of reasons,” said Mills. “Believe me: I hate having that sound drown out what the president is saying or whoever you’re photographing. But again, it does make it feel like a news event.”
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings last year in Da Nang, Vietnam, says Roberts, it was difficult to hear statements from the participants. “The shutters are so loud on some occasions and so close to the microphone that we can’t hear the president speak. You just hear click click click,” Roberts told the Erik Wemple Blog. Cameras from the foreign press, Roberts was told, were largely responsible for the cacophony. “Pictures are important but the sound is important too,” adds Roberts, who understands that the embrace of silent cameras will be gradual.
Breakthroughs are afoot, however. Jim Bourg, the vice president of the White House News Photographers Association, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that in the past, he and his shutterbug coterie were unable to position a still camera just behind the president at the State of the Union address. Too much noise. For last month’s address, however, Bourg positioned a Reuters Sony A9 as a pool still camera right alongside the pool video camera and used it to feed images to news outlets that participate in the photo collective organized by the U.S. Senate Press Photographers’ Gallery. “I would say that it’s significant to be able to capture images that we’d never been able to before, thanks to the new technology,” says Bourg.
The White House Correspondents’ Association has already addressed what can best be described as pool-spray noise pollution. About a year ago, the group secured agreement with still photographers to limit shutter noise for events at the Oval Office, the Roosevelt Room and the Cabinet Room, according to informed sources.
The technology that maximizes audibility of Obamacare condemnations is a bit complex. As laid out in this explainer, the shutter on a DSLR camera consists of a mirrorbox, a bottom door and a top door. Light filters in through the lens and hits the mirrors. Explains Bourg: “At the moment when you press the shutter button, the mirror flips out of the way, then a shutter curtain moves out of the way of the sensor, allowing the sensor to capture the image.” Flap-click!
Mirrorless cameras, obviously, don’t have a mirror flipping out of the way and causing all manner of ruckus.
MaryAnne Golon, director of photography at The Post, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the newspaper’s two photojournalists roaming Capitol Hill and the White House — Melina Mara and Jabin Botsford — are now using Sony A9 mirrorless cameras, one purchased by the photographer and one on loan. AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton tells this blog that the wire service has “no plans to switch to silent-shutter cameras in the foreseeable future.” Other news organizations didn’t respond by deadline. Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the New York Times, says that there’s no newsroom-wide move toward silence. “Our photographers use a range of equipment based on the needs of their areas of coverage (sports, White House, conflict, red carpet, etc ),” writes Ha in an email. According to Bourg, Reuters, AFP, Getty and the European Pressphoto Agency have also tried out mirrorless digital cameras.
Cost explains why any change may take some time. The Sony A9 camera body costs around $4,500. Any competitive photographer should have two of them — one for a short lens and another for a long lens. Budget another $7,000-$8,000 — at the very least — for lenses. “Switching over to another brand … is a huge cost for an organization,” notes Pablo Martínez Monsiváis, a staff photographer for the Associated Press. Consider The Post, which has 17 staff photographers outfitted with Nikon gear, representing an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Most big-time news outlets purchase camera equipment for their staffers. Switching cameras, much less brands, can therefore involve meetings, approvals, red tape. Jim Lo Scalzo, staffer for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), buys his own equipment with a stipend from his employer. A full switchover to Sony’s A9, he says, would cost $30,000 or so. Silent technology, says Lo Scalzo, assists not only in covering White House events, but also with more intimate assignments as well. “The idea is to disappear when you’re a photographer and this really helps,” says Lo Scalzo. “It empowers you.”
On Jan. 9, Mills snapped this look at President Trump’s hands at that much-remarked-upon meeting with Capitol Hill leaders that was attended by the media for nearly an hour.
Before the session, Mills hadn’t seen “45” embroidered on Trump’s shirts. “When I took it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is different it’s unique,'” Mills told Lamb. “It’s a very competitive thing: I’m not telling my other colleagues because there are probably eight to 10 other photographers in the room at the same time.” With the silent camera, “I can be standing next to my colleagues and formerly they could hear me taking pictures but now they can’t hear. They’re completely silent. So that helped to make that image because I think if I had been photographing while he wasn’t speaking or something like that, somebody’d say, ‘What’s Mills shooting? What’s going on?'”