Is there an ideal camera for street photography?
Perhaps there is but ask a dozen different street photographers and you might get a similar number of answers. As the much-overused saying goes ‘the camera that you have with you is the best one to use’, but it does not really matter what make or model it is. That said there are certain characteristics of a camera that will almost certainly help you achieve better results. It is not the case that one camera will enable you to better compose a picture than another. Using a better-quality lens might produce better colour rendition, sharpness or shallower depth of field, but neither the camera or lens is going to make a difference in terms of you ‘seeing’ the shot in the first place and getting in the right place to shoot it.
My preference, and the preference of most serious street photographers is for a small camera, with a reasonably big sensor (APS-C and above), with as silent a shutter as possible, and fitted with a fast, wide angle lens.
I have shot with film cameras, with big SLR’s, with Leica rangefinders, even with medium format cameras. Not one of these cameras made any difference to the way I viewed a shot. What did make a difference though was the way people reacted to me when I was using these various tools.
Large cameras draw attention, and this is not usually what you want as a street photographer. You need to be as invisible as possible and a big shiny SLR around your neck is not going help with this. Most larger cameras also have quite noisy focusing mechanisms and shutters. Sometimes this is fine but in most cases it’s not what you want to use on the street.
That’s not to rubbish SLR’s because they excel at other types of photography, where a smaller camera would have problems. If you are lucky enough to have the choice, do not use a big SLR for street photography.
In any case as your own street photography improves and you become more enthusiastic about it, then you will probably naturally gravitate to a rangefinder / mirrorless style camera. If you can afford it then you might invest in a Leica. They are beautiful, the lenses are amazingly sharp, the bokeh is sublime, and they make some people at least think they are treading in the footsteps of the past masters. However, they are expensive! That said if you have the money to buy a Leica in the first place, you may find it a better investment than some other manufacturers. Leica’s tend to hold their value very well so when it comes to trading in you might get a much better price for a Leica than any other camera, meaning the cost of ownership has in fact been very low.
Perhaps now is a good time to be honest with each other – we all know gear makes no difference, but we love it anyway and will find any excuse to justify whatever we spend on our beloved pursuit of the iconic image. We know a new camera will not get us any closer to it, but it’s not going to stop us trying so we spend the money anyway!
It’s not really my intention in this book to either review or recommend any particular camera. Everyone’s’ needs and budgets are different. In my early days of shooting street photography, I probably switched cameras every 6 months. I used to think the camera was the reason I was not getting the shots I wanted. To a degree this may have been true with one or two of them, but it was mostly my own technique and powers of observation that were at fault.
When I started with photography digital cameras did not exist, but when digital got to a decent quality at an affordable price I was an early adopter. Let’s face it most digital cameras in the early days were not up to much and therefore I could justifiably put some of the blame on my equipment.
These days though, things are different. You can get a perfectly decent rangefinder style camera and lens these days for under £500, buy it used if you have too. OK, it might not have the biggest sensor, and it’s likely to have a fixed lens but that can be good, and the beauty of digital is that once you have the camera the cost of using it is minimal (assuming you already have a reasonably new computer and plenty of disk storage space). In the old days there were always costs that came in after a day’s shoot. Film needed to be developed and images printed. When most of them turned out to be rubbish this always seemed like money down the drain. Today you can pretty much instantly view your images on a computer, and only print those that you want to display.
I try to stick to just one camera at a time (at least I only take one out with me, rather than a bag full). I now most regularly shoot with a Leica Q but also use the Fuji-x series of cameras which are great value.
At least at the time of writing Fuji seem to have invested heavily in making cameras that are pretty much perfect for street photography. I personally love the ‘old school’ controls – the aperture ring on the lens, the exposure compensation and the shutter speed dials on top of the camera. I like to be able to use the camera and change most of the settings without needing to access the menu systems.
Other manufacturers to consider though are Sony and Panasonic. My advice to you is invest in lenses rather than the body. If you go with Sony, you can buy a Carl Zeiss lens to use with it. If you go with Panasonic, a Leica lens would be a great investment. I use the amazing Fuji XF lenses with all my Fuji X-mount cameras. Otherwise stick to the fixed lens models from your chosen manufacturer. The chances are you will be able to buy a camera complete with a fixed and fast wide-angle lens that will be perfect for your needs.
If you can afford it of course then a Leica is a beautifully built, incredible piece of engineering, but this will also mean you are left with absolutely no excuses if your images are anything less than stunning! See the Shooting Street website for occasional, hands on camera reviews. (link on the resources page)
You will almost certainly already know that Leica M’s with prime lenses were used by many of the photographers of the past that we have heard of. In the day they were the very best cameras to use for street style photography. It’s easy to think that if we too use a Leica M then it will be easy to replicate the shots of the past masters. Not true I am afraid, and I think, deep down you already know this to be the case!
However, have you ever wondered if the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson would still use a Leica M if he were shooting today? Would he instead embrace digital and perhaps experiment with autofocus, even try shooting with some of the other rangefinder style cameras from other manufacturers? Food for thought!
Prime or Zoom
These days zoom lenses can be amazing and I do use a Fuji camera with a beautiful 16-55 zoom (APS-C sensor so about 24-80 in 35mm equivalent). However, I do not often use this camera for street photography. It’s not so much the zoom that is the problem, it’s more the fact that the lens is big and heavy so not suited to carrying around all day. The image quality however is amazing so for certain types of photography it is a great combination, I always take it when I travel just in case I find a subject requirement that longer lens.
For street photography most people think that a fixed focal length wide angle prime lens is the way to go. I am one of these people.
Wide Angle Lenses
This comes down to personal preference. For street photography I shoot anywhere from about 21mm through to 35mm, rarely bigger than this. I am most comfortable somewhere in the middle range at about 28mm.
Depending on the camera you use you will either have a fixed lens (as with my Leica Q or my little Fuji X70) or the facility for interchangeable lenses (as with the Fuji X-Pro2 or Sony a6000 for example).
Try out different lenses and see what works for you. When you first start using a wide-angle lens, it can be alarming just how close you need to get to your subject. Do not let this put you off. Persevere and over time you will get more comfortable with this focal length and your photographs will be that much more powerful as a result. In the ‘techniques’ chapter I will give ideas and suggestions of how to develop your skills with your wide-angle lens and you will learn how to get the best from its many advantages.
It can be good to stick to a certain fixed focal length for a period of time. This will allow you to become one with the lens. You will get to instinctively know how close you need to be, and you will hopefully get comfortable being that close.
Using a zoom lens for some people, me included, can be distracting. It makes you lazy and confuses things by giving you too many options and potential points of view. A fixed focal length concentrates the mind and as you get familiar with whatever length you have settled on you get to know where you need to be and develop a sense of the perfect angle for the shot you are trying to get. Do not expect amazing results from day one. It takes time but it’s worth persevering.
Another thing about a wide-angle lens is that you can often get right next to someone and have them in shot, but to them it appears that you are taking a picture of something else since you are not pointing the camera directly at them. Particularly if you pause for a little time once they are actually out of shot, keeping your camera to your eye. They may have sensed you were taking a shot of them, but they weren’t certain. Clearly with the camera still to your eye you must be taking a shot of something else right! It takes a bit of practice but it’s fun when you crack it. I will cover more of this in the techniques chapter.
Bags & Accessories
There is a chapter coming up that starts with a note about the importance of blending into your surroundings. If you have 3 lumbering SLRs’ around your neck and a huge camera bag hanging off your shoulder then not only will you be pretty uncomfortable, especially after a day of shooting, you will not blend in particularly well.
I rarely carry any bag at all. If I am going to an unfamiliar place, then I might have a few things that I carry that I would otherwise not need so I might have a small bag. If I do carry a bag it is most likely to be a messenger bag, of a type that many non-photographers use every day. Importantly it will not mark me out as a photographer. I do my best to look like a clueless tourist as often as I can.
So, if you are not carrying a bag where are you going to put all those photography related accessories? There’s the tripod, the 6 other lenses you have, the various lens cleaning cloths, spare lens caps, straps, batteries, etc. With the single exception of spare batteries (I usually carry several) you do not need any of this stuff for street photography. I carry what I need in my pockets. Two or three spare batteries and a lens cleaning pen is about as bulky as it gets for me. Anything else you might need on a day’s shoot you can buy on the move – water, food etc.
When I shoot, I tend to pick one camera and one lens for the day. This means I can be light on my feet, I am unencumbered by the weight of things I simply do not need, and this means I can concentrate purely on the shots I want to get.
Off-load everything except the camera – it’s incredibly liberating!