Henri Cartier-Bresson was a brilliant photographer who saw the potential of the 35mm Leica M camera for capturing intimate and decisive moments. That Leica changed everything, for photojournalists, in particular. An extremely compact body using 35mm movie film and capable of rendering crisp, clear, sharp photographs, the Leica was nothing short of revolutionary. Compared to slow and bulky Speed Graphics and other cameras of the era, the 35mm Leica became “an extension of the eye as used freely in the hand” that gave Cartier-Bresson and those who followed the freedom to bring their artistic vision to bear without interfering, to record everyday moments in ways not previously possible. Street shooting brought to the viewing public unposed glimpses of life, “freezing” the extraordinary moments in unscripted photographs that could tell real stories of life as it was happening.
While the Leica M blazed a new trail, most photographers ultimately migrated to SLRs and then DSLRs. Over time, these cameras became bulkier and more obtrusive compared to the svelte rangefinder Leica. DSLRs are very fast, but their bulk and distinctive shape, which is so recognizable everywhere in the world, has made them less spontaneous and more noticeable and therefore more difficult to use in many situations. More recently, smartphone cameras have really come into their own and opened up a new age of close-up, spontaneous possibilities, but with some obvious drawbacks (lack of image quality and photographic control looming large among them).
Now, the camera manufacturers strike back. Camera phones are rapidly replacing point-and-shoot cameras, but for more sophisticated photography, a new generation of large-sensor, feature-rich, yet compact digital cameras is becoming available. For the street shooter, these are ideal, as they offer excellent image quality and photographic control, yet are very compact and unobtrusive—most will fit into a jacket pocket with “street” lens attached. Our major criteria for a street-shooter camera in this article are compact size (unobtrusive and easy to carry), excellent image quality (hence, APS-C or larger image sensors) and an eye-level viewfinder (either built in or available as an accessory). We’ve included interchangeable-lens and fixed-lens models to suit your preferences.
It’s also important to note that today’s digital cameras—especially the larger-sensor ones, like those presented here—have low-light capabilities beyond the dreams of Cartier-Bresson and his contemporaries. Not only do they have ISO settings that go well beyond the highest ISO speeds available in films, but image quality of these digital cameras is far better than that of films of equivalent speed. This exemplary high-ISO performance makes these digital cameras especially good for handheld available-light street photography and gives today’s street shooter the ability to record images that simply weren’t possible for the Leica M-wielding photojournalism pioneers. Today, you can use much higher shutter speeds to reduce blur due to camera shake and subject movement, and stop down for additional depth of field, yet still get excellent image quality with ambient light.
Naturally, the choice of focal length is up to your vision. Cartier-Bresson tended to prefer a 50mm “normal” lens (“normal” meaning close in focal length to the diagonal measurement of the image format) on his 35mm Leica, and you can acquire a “normal” lens for any of the interchangeable-lens cameras mentioned here. The Sony Cyber-shot RX1 and Fujifilm FinePix X100 have built-in, slightly wide-angle lenses (35mm for the full-frame RX1 and 23mm for the APS-C X100—equivalent in angle of view to 35mm on a full-frame camera), also very good for street photography. The APS-C-format Sigma DP1 Merrill has a 19mm wide-angle lens, equivalent to 28mm on a full-frame camera, while the DP2 Merrill has a 30mm lens, equivalent to a 45mm normal lens on a full-frame camera.
Leica is still a good source for a modern street shooter. In fact, Leica has just introduced two new digital M-System rangefinder cameras: the M (which likely would be the “M10” except Leica has decided to stop numbering M models) and the M-E (which is an “economy” version of the M9). Both feature legendary Leica quality and rangefinder manual focusing, and use the superb Leica M-series lenses. The M features a 24-megapixel CMOS sensor (previous Leica M digital cameras used CCD sensors) and Leica Maestro processor to deliver improved image quality, a wider ISO range (200-12,800, expandable down to 100), live-viewing on the 3.0-inch, 920K-dot LCD monitor (with focus peaking) and even 1080 full HD video at 24 fps. Besides the M lenses, the new M can use Leica R (SLR) lenses via an optional adapter. The M-E uses the same 18-megapixel CCD sensor as the M9 (with no low-pass filter to maximize sharpness) and provides ISO settings from 160-2500 (expandable down to 80) and a 2.5-inch, 230K-dot LCD with no live view or video. (As Leica says, “Rather than offering all that is technically possible, it is limited to only those functions that create a better image.”) In addition to the built-in rangefinder, the M accepts an optional eye-level electronic viewfinder. Both cameras measure 5.5×3.1×1.7 inches; the M body weighs 23.9 ounces, the M-E, 20.6 ounces. The M body lists for $6,950, and the M-E lists for $5,450.