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Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer trades in his gear for a toy camera

Oded Balilty, Cheap Camera Challenge

“All the gear, no idea” is a quip often thrown at photographers weighed down with a ton of kit that they don’t know how to use, or whose images fall well short of expectation.

It’s a taunt that could certainly never be leveled at Oded Balilty, an Israeli documentary photographer who has proved himself time and time again during more than 15 years behind the lens.

A man with all the gear and lots of ideas, Balilty’s work — much of it these days for the Associated Press (AP) — earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2007, though his résumé also reveals numerous other awards during his illustrious career.

Balilty was recently game enough to take up DigitalRev’s popular “Cheap Camera Challenge,” which, as its name suggests, hands a pro photographer an extremely basic device to see what kind of results they can achieve.

His regular work kit includes a well-used Canon 5D Mk III, so it’s little surprise that he looks somewhat bemused when he sets eyes on the colorful toy camera that he’s handed for the challenge.


Despite its basic design, the diminutive digital device offers a burst mode and can also shoot in black and white, the latter feature clearly appealing to Balilty as he handles the camera for the first time.

The challenge kicks off with an hour at an outdoor car show in Tel Aviv. Surveying the busy scene, Balilty describes how he likes to be “in a big crowd where there’s a big mess, then I like to reorganize it, to clean the mess with my pictures.”

Aiming to capture the essence of the car show, the AP photographer says he’s particularly looking for images that show a strong connection between the cars and the people.

As Balilty later makes his way around some of the narrow, cobbled streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in search of more images, he points out his chief annoyance with the toy camera — that it takes 20 seconds for it to turn on and be ready to shoot. “Do you know how many pictures you can miss in 20 seconds,” he says with a look of despair.

But with his eye for a great shot, and a super-basic camera in his hand, Balilty still manages to capture some remarkable images during the challenge.

The award-winning photographer also reveals how the toy camera even has some advantages over his regular kit, most notably that its simple design gives him more access to more situations, “and access is more important than quality, especially in what I’m doing. [With this camera, nobody is asking] who are you? What are you doing with your camera?”

Less weight on his back was another reason to prefer the smaller camera, Balilty said, who finished by saying he would consider buying “lighter and smaller gear.”

DigitalRev’s cheap-camera challenge has also seen professional sports shooters grapple with VTech Kidizoom action cameras, an exercise that also resulted in some impressive captures.

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Trevor Mogg
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