Picking the right camera for the street


Virtually any camera can be used for the street, but some work better than others. Whether we set out to buy a camera for street photography or pick one out of our existing stable, which one is best for us? That's a question that each photographer has to answer for themselves as no one can answer it for you.

Whenever we read articles on cameras for the street, they're usually strong on the technical specifications and general capabilities of the cameras. They usually don't go any deeper than that. I'd like to take things a bit further and ask the sort of questions we should be asking of ourselves. It's a checklist for picking the right camera.

Style of working:
Cameras for street photography

I think of this as a spectrum from super stealthy all the way to 'in yer face'. The 'in yer face' photographer can use pretty well anything for a camera as it really doesn't matter. These photographers are right in front of us, taking our picture with our full knowledge even if our acquiescence may be lacking.

At the stealthy end, we have to pay attention to the camera for it should be innocuous, quiet, quick to operate and suitable for being used at waist level as well as eye level. A small, black camera, prime lens (zooms are big and slow) with a tilt screen, probably fits the bill. The further along the spectrum we go toward 'in yer face' the less these features are important.

Style of Street Photography:
While I'm sure we can come up with all sorts of ways to describe style, for the purpose of this post I only think of two styles: the ambush predator and the prowler. The ambush predator lies in wait for life to enter the frame. With that slow, deliberate, patient style, we can work with a camera that is slower to operate. We can also indulge in more of the capabilities of modern digital cameras: things like selecting AF points, etc. We have the time to utilize these functions, plan our shots and wait for life to happen.

Prowlers can't afford to be playing around with their cameras as it slows them down and attracts attention. Speed and simplicity matter. The camera should be easy to preset (e.g. zone focusing) and then work with those presets throughout the shoot with only the occasional alteration. Some cameras have a snap shoot mode presets that are made exactly for this. No focusing is needed, we just have to be sure our subject is in the zone for that mode.

Comfort with Automatics:
If we tend to trust the automatics of a camera to pick the right focus and exposure, then there's no reason to pick a camera festooned with dials and buttons. There are some simple automatics out there that do a great job of getting it right, so for those of us who do not like to fuss, these cameras are a great way to go. Small automatics usually are the most pocketable since they lack the knobs and dials of manual cameras, plus their zoom lenses retract. There are a few pocket automatics out there with a fixed prime lens and the street photographer is their target market.

Whichever automatic camera we choose, the AF has to be accurate and fast. Face detection offers significant advantages with AF, but not all cameras have this feature and some that do, don't handle it well. We have to make sure that the AF fits how we work if we're going to rely on the automatics.

Comfort with Manual Controls:
Some of us are control freaks who like to be in charge of everything. That takes well placed, easy to use, easy to see, manual controls. Shutter speed dials, aperture rings, and other easily accessed controls make our day. Most modern digitals aimed at the enthusiast market have manual controls, the only issue being how easy is it to use those controls? If the manual controls require menu diving and peering at screens, then stay away from that camera.

Manual controls are also excellent for speed of use, in fact a camera on manual can produce the fastest reacting configuration. AF and other auto functions can slow down the functioning of the camera. I have missed numerous shots thanks to balky automatic functions, particularly when relying on a slow, hesitant AF. If speed is of the essence, then preset all to manual and fire away as fast as the buffer can handle it.

Power Zooms vs. Primes:
Yup, I realize there are also zooms that aren't powered, but I'm choosing between two extremes here. Powered zooms tend to be slow, have small maximum apertures, often noisy, and in the case of bridge cameras, large. They're hardly the quick, stealthy, run and gun style of lens. Zone focusing can be a challenge with some of them thanks to a lack of distance scales and depth of field indicators. The bottom line is that they take time to frame well and can be imprecise, especially the ones on small, pocket automatics. While bridge cameras can have zoom focal length markings, the small automatics tend to give no clue as to what focal length has been selected, unless we're keeping a watch on a small indicator on the screen.

If we're into run and gun, then these power zooms usually end up being used at only one end of the range. If that is the case then that suggests we should be using a prime lens of that focal length instead. Small in size with large apertures and quick to use, primes are often the best for run and gun. We get to a point, when using the same prime lens all of the time, where we know what the lens will cover in the scene before we even bring the camera to our face. We never get a chance to develop that knowledge with zooms.

If our shooting style gives us time to carefully frame, then the power zoom is fine. If we don't mind being conspicuous, then the power zoom is fine. Otherwise think prime lenses or at least a discreet manual zoom.

Shooting Conditions:
Are we the hardy, all weather kind of photographer or only like being out on nice days? The harsher the conditions we like to enjoy, the more important dust and weather sealing becomes.

Post Processing and Ultimate Use:
This is really about sensor size and sophistication. If we're shooting JPEGs most of the time and using the image more or less as it comes out of the camera, then frankly, sensor size isn't that big of a deal. Unless we're printing huge posters, even a little half inch sensor can turn out great results. Some of my best images were produced on half inch sensor, pocketable automatics.

If we're into producing large prints or prefer to shoot in RAW and post process, then sensor size becomes an issue. There's no need to buy more sensor than our end use justifies.

Bottom line:
Select the camera that suits our style of street photography, rather than one labeled as a 'street' camera by some reviewer or marketing type, for it may not fit how we work. We need to enjoy a significant level of comfort with our gear for we're in a genre where we seldom get second chances.

My cameras in the photo from top to bottom:
Panasonic FZ1000 bridge camera with 25mm to 400mm equivalent power zoom, 1" sensor
Fujifilm X-Pro1 with Voigtländer 40mm f1.4 Nokton or 25mm f4 Color-Skopar, APS-C sensor
Fujifilm X100T with 23mm f2 fixed prime, APS-C sensor
Fujifilm X-T10 with 27mm f2.8 or 35mm f2, 50mm f2 , APS-C sensor
Panasonic DMC LX100 with 24mm to 75mm equivalent power zoom, cropped MFT sensor
Olympus TG-5 with 25mm to 100mm equivalent power zoom, ½" sensor
(Image shot with my iPhone 6, my last resort)