Best kit for documentary photography: the cameras and lenses for every assignment

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Muhammed Muheisen advises on the best cameras and lenses for getting started in photojournalism.
A girl looks out from a stationary bus window. Reflected in the glass are lots of large tents and several people wearing high-vis clothing.

Shortly after crossing the Ukrainian border to Siret, Romania, Nikol, a 12-year-old Ukrainian refugee from Kharkiv, rests in a bus with her mother Maryana and her six-year-old brother Vladyslav, in this image taken by National Geographic photographer and photojournalist Muhammed Muheisen. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2 and ISO50. © Muhammed Muheisen

Photojournalism is one of the most important and exciting genres of photography, but as two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, National Geographic photographer and Canon Ambassador Muhammed Muheisen explains, you need to be very sensitive towards the people you're photographing.

"Sometimes you photograph events in which you have to put yourself on the other side of the camera," he explains. "You need a camera that allows you to capture moments in time without invading the subject's privacy or their personal space."

Muhammed, also a mentor on the recent Canon Student Development Programme 2022 , fell in love with photography at an early age and steadily built a successful career. "I became passionate about capturing moments in time and then I combined my passion with my education to be a good storyteller," he says. "Working hard, endlessly seeking knowledge and improving my skills helped me get noticed by agencies and big media outlets."

When you're starting your photojournalistic career, choosing the best kit while working within a tight budget can be difficult. It's a situation with which Muhammed is familiar. "When I started out, back in 2001, it was the birth of the digital era and we didn't have many (camera) options like today," he continues. "At that time, I used the Canon EOS 30D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) and year by year I tried various Canon cameras and now I use the EOS R5 – it's a huge step-up in quality.

"Each period has its own highlight, but back then I would have loved to have been able to use the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens that I'm using now. That lens makes it easier for me to be focused on the moment I want to capture – it's incredibly fast and the image quality is indescribable."

Here, Muhammed gives his views on the best kit for photojournalism today, with additional insights from Canon Europe Senior Product Specialist, Mike Burnhill.

Two people leaning in to look at the back of a Canon camera.

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A wide path through a park, lined with large cherry blossoms. Many people are walking on and around the path, and in the foreground a child leans against a tree holding two balloons.

People enjoying a spring day under the blooming cherry blossoms in Amsterdam's Westerpark, Netherlands. Using an aperture of f/2 has allowed Muhammed to isolate the girl with balloons in the foreground. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 62mm, 1/1250 sec, f/2 and ISO50. © Muhammed Muheisen

Best camera for discreet photojournalism: Canon EOS R5

Muhammed has been using the 45MP full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R5 alongside his EOS 5D Mark IV since it was first introduced. Canon's mirrorless cameras offer a number of advantages over DSLRs for photojournalism, including silent shooting, smaller body size and weight, excellent low-light performance, fast frame-rates and autofocusing plus In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS).

He says, "The EOS R5 is one of those cameras that allows you to be invisible. It's light but well-built and it gives me the image quality I want as well as the discretion I need. When I work in hostile environments or on a long-term project, I want to become part of the landscape and the EOS R5 allows me to do that.

"It also gives me the option to shoot 8K video and extract 36MP stills if I want. That's another element the camera has added to my work as a photojournalist that wasn't available before."

A Canon EOS R5 camera.

Canon EOS R5

The EOS R5's uncompromising performance will revolutionise your photography and filmmaking.

Best camera for low-light situations: Canon EOS R6

Canon Europe's Mike Burnhill says the 20MP, full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R6 is particularly suitable for shooting in low light: "The physics of the camera's technology means that the sensor delivers a cleaner signal and superior noise performance, which is ideal for low-light conditions. It's also able to focus quickly in low light and the image stabilisation extends its usefulness in dark conditions.

"The electronic viewfinder (EVF) also plays an important role because it means you can see what you're photographing in dark conditions. Also, thanks to a firmware update, the frame rate of the EVF can be set to a minimum of 30 frames per second, so you don't get a jumpy, slow or blurry image in the viewfinder in low light like with some other cameras. That's important for photojournalism when you're likely to need to follow a moving subject in low light."


Canon EOS R6

Whatever you shoot, however you shoot it, the EOS R6 lets you be creative in ways you never thought possible.
A large, pink full moon is seen directly above and seemingly almost touching the ruins of an ancient temple on the crest of a hill.

Occasionally, Muhammed uses telephoto lenses to capture images in order to add further layers to the story he is telling. Here, the moon is shown rising behind the ancient temple of Poseidon in Cape Sounion, Greece. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens and Canon Extender EF 1.4x III at 560mm, 1/250 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Muhammed Muheisen

Best camera for news: Canon EOS R3

Canon designed and built the EOS R3 with news photography and videography, wildlife and sport in mind. Its 24.1MP full-frame stacked, back-illuminated CMOS sensor is so quick users are able to freeze fast movement without worrying about 'rolling shutter' distortion. "The engineers drew on feedback from news agencies and newspapers, and basically, it's all about speed for image capture and handling," elaborates Mike.

"There's the speed for capturing decisive news and sports moments, but its wired LAN socket, 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi and Mobile File Transfer app compatibility mean it can also deliver the images quickly to the agencies."

A Canon EOS R3 camera.

Canon EOS R3

Fleeting moments in time, captured on camera in ways that you never thought were possible. Welcome to the future of action photography.

Best camera if you're on a budget: EOS RP

The Canon EOS RP is Canon's smallest-ever full-frame camera and it's very attractively priced for its feature set. Mike explains: "As well as having very good low-light performance, the EOS RP has the same Dual Pixel CMOS AF system that's in the EOS R, plus eye-tracking and silent shooting, which are all perfect for street and documentary photography.

"It's a very advanced little camera and ideal for photographers moving up to full-frame photography or switching over from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera for the first time because, like all EOS R System cameras, it's compatible with all existing EF-mount lenses via an adapter."

Canon EOS RP

Canon EOS RP

A small, light and intuitive full-frame mirrorless camera for superb creativity on the go.

Best lens for reportage on a budget: Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

The Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM weighs just 305g and is only 62.8mm in length, and at that size and weight it's both highly portable and discreet in use. "35mm is the classic focal length for reportage photography and photojournalism," Mike says.

"It allows you to capture a subject within its environment and in context, rather than being isolated. The perspective is also quite neutral, which means there's not too much distortion, and it feels very natural to the human eye. You also have the f/1.8 aperture, so you can shoot in low light and blur out a background for better separation."

Muhammed is a keen user of the 35mm focal length. "I use it on a daily basis and in every assignment," he says. "When I leave home my 35mm lens is attached to my camera because it's the perfect lens when you want to be part of the environment."

The Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens.

Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

A wide-angle prime lens with a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture and macro capabilities.
A girl with long dark hair turns her head to stare intensely into the camera.

For Muhammed, the 50mm focal length is "the best focal length for capturing the soul through the eyes". This shot shows Meral Sardar, an 11-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, living with her family in a camp north of Athens, Greece. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens and a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R at 1/3200 sec, f/1.2 and ISO50. © Muhammed Muheisen

A girl with long hair in plaits turns to look up towards the camera.

Sometimes, Muhammed's work requires him to shoot quiet and considered portraits at the longest end of his RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens. This image shows Zahra Mahmoud, a young Syrian refugee living with her family in a tented settlement in Jordan. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 70mm, 1/50 sec, f/2 and ISO50. © Muhammed Muheisen

Best lens for photographing people: Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

50mm is another classic focal length for reportage photography. "A 50mm lens gives a very neutral perspective and flattering compression, plus the roll-off at f/1.2 ensures a really nice skin tone," says Mike.

"A lens can be too sharp when you're photographing people, because you see every hair and blemish. However, with the RF 50mm F1.2L USM at f/1.2, you can have the eyes bitingly sharp and it's forgiving on any skin imperfections. It's also a lens you can use anywhere because you can turn any background into something that looks beautiful."

Muhammed often swaps between a 50mm lens and a 35mm. "Whenever I want to get closer to my subject to capture portraits, focusing directly on the eyes, I swap to my EF 50mm f/1.2L USM mounted on my EOS R5 via an adapter, or on my EOS 5D Mark IV," he explains. "It's the best focal length for capturing the soul through the eyes, but I have to get closer with the 50mm and that makes me more visible."

The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens.

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

A 50mm f/1.2 prime lens for supreme sharpness, plus remarkable low-light performance.

Best lens if you can only take one: Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM or Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

Mike says, "This lens is often described as the 'professional workhorse'. It's used by many photographers because it does everything that they need on so many occasions. The RF 24-70MM F2.8L IS USM can be used for shooting landscapes to portraits and everything in between and the image quality is almost comparable to the best primes."

Mike describes the RF 28-70mm F2L USM that Muhammed uses as "a lens that people fall in love with, because of its superb image quality and the f/2 maximum aperture – it makes a significant difference when you want to isolate your subject".

Muhammed adds, "This lens gives me a 28mm, 35mm and 50mm lens in one – it's like three prime lenses combined – while f/2 is the perfect aperture for me."

The Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens.

Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

Part of Canon's trinity of essential f/2.8 RF zoom lenses, the RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM boasts a fast aperture and image stabilisation plus a Nano USM motor for silent focusing.

Best starter lens: Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM

Although it spans a wider focal length than the RF 24-70MM F2.8L IS USM, the RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM weighs just 396g and measures 76.6 x 88.8mm, so it's wonderfully portable. "It's an all-rounder lens that gives you such a wide range of options for stills and video," explains Mike.

"It's a one-stop lens that can be used for all types of photography and it delivers great image quality. Its 5-axis, 5-stop image stabilisation system also means you can shoot in low light and the STM focus motor gives smooth focusing which is great for video."

The Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens.

Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM

Enjoy all the benefits of the full-frame EOS R range with a versatile, all-purpose 24-105mm lens with in-built optical Image Stabilizer that keeps your images and movies steady.

In a few final words of advice for students setting out on a career in photojournalism, Muhammed says: "Be passionate, believe in the power of visual storytelling and aim for your photography to make a difference, while keeping in mind that it's not a 100 metre sprint, but a marathon."

Angela Nicholson

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