Street photography was first made famous by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his focus on movement and the typical Parisian. It spread to America where Robert Frank developed a raw expression outside of mainstream photography, often linked with the Beat Movement. This fresh street style was noted for its spontaneity, intimacy with the subject and interesting perspective.
While street photography is always evolving, one of its enduring key elements is capturing the decisive moment. Everyone has an individual style, but usually you need to be unobtrusive, quick and in a "flow" of shooting.
The gear you use plays a critical role in helping you reach this zone. A large, bulky DSLR is obtrusive and frequently off-putting to people, which can make that decisive moment a bit more difficult to get. Having lightweight gear with advanced technology to give you maximum control over the image is crucial in capturing that moment. Today, camera manufacturers make a variety of cameras that meet the key criteria for street photographers, namely speed, image quality and a low profile.
In addition to these main features, camera makers are responding to advances in smartphones that have camera technology and the connectivity of social media and other apps. Camera makers now include many of these connectivity functions in cameras that have advanced manual control and professional-level image quality.
We’re looking at three categories of cameras that can make excellent street shooters. Each class has different strengths. Finding the right one for you is a matter of matching those strengths with your shooting style.
Traditionally, compact "point-and-shoot" cameras have had small sensors, measured in fractions of an inch. Today, manufacturers such as Fujifilm, Nikon, Samsung, Sigma and Sony are building cameras with APS-C and full-frame sensors into compact housings with fixed lenses. These large sensors capture more light, yielding greater detail and less noise, in addition to increased performance in low-light (high-ISO) situations.
This new generation of large-sensor compact cameras has evolved from having simple autofocus capabilities to having full manual controls for both still and HD video, making them a good option for a professional street shooter.
While the small size and high image quality of these cameras are attractive, some of the performance can be reminiscent of consumer point-and-shoot cameras. Some models still exhibit shutter lag, and AF performance can be slow, especially in low light. Also, most professionals will find an optical viewfinder to be comfortable to work with and easier to use in many situations. Some of these compacts have optical viewfinders built in, while for others it’s an additional accessory. We highly recommend the accessory viewfinder.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 is loaded with a full-frame CMOS sensor (the same sensor as the pro DSLR Sony A99) and a 35mm ƒ/2 Carl Zeiss lens, giving you the ability to shoot in low-light conditions, as well as create a shallow depth of field. The ISO sensitivity ranges from 50-25,600. It can shoot RAW still files and 1080p HD video, and a dedicated aperture ring, focus ring and shutter speed dial make changing these settings fast in street-shooting situations. Estimated Street Price: $2,799.
Nikon recently announced the Coolpix A large-sensor compact camera. Its APS-C-sized CMOS sensor is similar to the sensor in the popular Nikon D7000 DSLR camera. The lens is a fixed 28mm ƒ/2.8, and the camera has an ISO range of 100-25,600. It captures RAW files, as well as full HD video. Manual focus is controlled through a focus ring, and other manual controls are adjusted through the menu system. Estimated Street Price: $1,099.
Additional options for large-sensor compact cameras include the Sigma DP3 Merrill ($999), Fujifilm FinePix X100S ($1,200) and Leica X2 ($1,995).
MIRRORLESS INTERCHANGEABLE-LENS CAMERAS
For more flexibility and control in lens choices, you may be willing to sacrifice some size and choose a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (sometimes called MILC). The MILCs do away with the SLR’s moving-mirror reflex system to make a smaller overall package. Many MILCs are available with large APS-C sensors, and we expect to see full-frame models in the near future.
By removing the mirror while maintaining the large sensor, the manual control and the interchangeable lenses that a consumer point-and-shoot camera doesn’t have, professional street shooters get a lot of creative control with minimal size and weight. With external dials and focus rings, more of the manual options are located on the body of the camera instead of inside menus, making camera operation more intuitive for the professional photographer.
In terms of speed and spontaneity, most MILCs display little, if any, shutter lag, but they’re often still slightly slower than pro DSLRs. Interchangeable lenses mean you have more options, and even with a few lenses and the camera body, you can build a small and highly capable street-shooting package. Most MILCs have contrast-detect AF systems and some manufacturers, Sony, for example, offer an adapter that allows you to attach DSLR lenses and get phase-detect AF performance. This adds some bulk, but makes the MILC system even more useful for a pro.
The Canon EOS M uses a new EF-M lens mount, which is optimized for its 18-megapixel APS-C sensor. The ISO range is 100-12,800, expanded to 25,600. Manual rings and dials are set up congruently to EOS DSLRs, giving a familiar feel for Canon users. The Canon EOS M has a touch screen with an intuitive design. It shoots both RAW and full HD video. It’s currently selling as a kit with a 22mm f/
2 lens for $799. An adapter is available to allow you to connect Canon EOS DSLR lenses, which dramatically broadens the number of usable lenses.
The Sony NEX-7 has a 24-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor with ISO sensitivity ranging from 100-16,000. It touts a "triple-dial control," dedicating one external dial for each exposure control—aperture, shutter speed and ISO. It also incorporates an electronic first-curtain shutter, cutting response time from 100 ms to 20 ms. The NEX-7 has the Sony E-mount, and with an accessory adapter, you can use the Sony A-mount lenses and get full-time phase-detect AF. Estimated Street Price: $1,198.
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a retro-looking MILC with a 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor. It can shoot RAW stills and HD video. The ISO sensitivity ranges from 200-25,600. With dials for aperture and shutter speed control, it’s similar to the DSLR feel, and with a touch-screen menu, it’s intuitive for smartphone users, as well. The camera has Olympus’ 5-axis stabilization system to
minimize motion blur from handheld use. Because the stabilization system is built into the body, it works with any attached lens. Estimated Street Price: $999.
These are just a few examples of mirrorless street shooters. Some additional models to consider include the Fujifilm X-E1 ($1,399), Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 ($1,298) and Samsung NX300 ($749).
Closest to your workhorse DSLR in functionality is the compact DSLR. It has the same mirror trigger functionality, similar placement of controls and an intuitive feel in your hand. These compact DSLRs are typically marketed more toward entry-level and enthusiast shooters, but professionals will find value in their ability to shoot RAW files and for their ability to use the same lenses and accessories as your main DSLR.
While the compact DSLR has more size and weight than the fixed-lens cameras, it also has the most versatility and speed. Shutter lag is nonexistent in these cameras, so you can capture the moment as it happens, and the phase-detect AF systems tend to be better in a broad range of lighting conditions. Additionally, frame rates get slightly quicker, adding speed for action shots.
If you’re going to use a DSLR as a dedicated street shooter, but your main pro body is just too big and heavy, think about a mid-level or even an entry-level DSLR from the same manufacturer as your pro body. You’ll be able to use any of your lenses and accessories, and many of the entry-level bodies are much smaller than the pro models.
Compact DSLR models to consider include the Canon EOS Rebel T5i ($749) or EOS Rebel SL1 ($649), Pentax K-30 ($680), Nikon 5200 ($796) and Sony SLT-A58 ($598).