Sunday, November 29, 2015

What camera and lens should I use for street photography?

What gear do you need for street photography?

This is a pretty common question and depending on who you ask you will get different answers. But since you are here and asking me I'll give you a run down of the options so you can decide which one works best for you.


First things first, you can use any camera for street photography. Your phone, a dslr, a mirrorless camera. Anything will do.

With that being said there are obviously advantages to each one. For street photography you want a camera you can carry all day, use without drawing alot of attention to yourself, get good quality in most situations, and operate quickly with manual controls. I choose a m43 camera for its combination of sophisticated features, very good image quality, and small system size with great manual control. Here are the other options.

1. Cell Phones

Your cell phone is probably a very capable device. Most have a wide angle lens, more than 10 megapixels, and give very good image quality when there is alot of light. You always have it with you, its small and pretty discrete, and you can upload or share images instantly. However, they have very small sensors and become very noisy in low light. They also suffer from offering only one focal length unless you buy add on lenses. Still the best camera is the one you have with you.

-Good image quality in bright light
-Always with you

-Bad image quality in low light
-small sensor means no dof control
-most smartphones lag when taking photos
-Overall image quality is not as good as dedicated cameras
-fixed focal length

2. Point and Shoot Cameras

Point and shoot cameras are the next step up from a cell phone. They have larger sensors, more megapixels, a bit more manual control, and they usually offer a long zoom range. Overall point and shoots are more flexible than their cell phone counterparts.

-long zoom ranges
-more manual control than most phones

-image quality not much better than a phone
-sensor is small and lenses are usually slow.
-low light image quality is not good
-not as well connected as the cell phone. Harder to upload images.
-You might not bring it when you have your phone available

3. High end fixed lens compact

These are to point and shoot cameras what Lamborghinis are to Ford escorts.
They are sleeker, faster, better quality, and waaay sexier.  High end fixed lens compacts like the Panasonic lx100k or the Sony RX100 series are fantastic. They have high quality lenses, large sensors, and all the manual control you could want. Sizes range from m43 cameras like the Panasonic Lx100k to the 35mm Sony RX100 IV and Leica's Q

Of these three great options both the Panasonic and the Sony offer 4k video. They all have built in viewfinders as well. The Panasonic and Sony offer high quality 24-70mm equivalent lenses with the Leica Q offering a very fast 28mm f1.7 fixed focal length lens.

-High image quality
-Great manual controls
-Good build quality
-Great lenses
-Great quality video!

-Larger than Point and shoot cameras
-Lenses are not interchangeable, you get what you paid for and that's it.
-Not as flexible as interchangeable lens cameras
-Not as well connected as a smartphone
-Lenses not as fast as those offered for ILC. (Interchangeable Lens Cameras)
-Can be expensive when ILC's are available for the same price or even lower.

4. 35MM DSLR'S/Mirrorless

Photograph By Dustin Gaffke. Used with Creative Commons from his Flickr. Thanks Dustin!!

These are the current beasts of image quality in the photography world. They are fast, high quality, and expensive. Having lots of lens options means you can change your kit to suit your type of photography and your specific needs. If you need the absolute best image quality you can get without spending a small fortune on a medium format digital camera then 35mm DSLR'S are what you want. Kind of.

These all use a pentaprism design. That means they have a mirror inside that lets you see your shot through the viewfinder. Because the lenses and the camera have to be designed with this mirror in mind they are typically very big cameras. While 35mm Film slr's were not very big their digital descendants have come to look like hulking monsters. Don't believe me? A Canon 5d Mark III weighs over 2lbs with the battery inserted and without a lens. My Canon AE1 Film SLR weighs less than that with a 50mm f1.4 attached. A Mirrorless 35mm Camera like the Sony A7rII is smaller, however lenses are just as large as for the dslr's.

Because they are large and dslrs are generally associated with professional photography dslrs tend to draw alot of attention. They are hard to be discrete with and may make you even more unwelcome in some situations. The image quality may also not be worth the size, expense, and weight of the system.

-Best Quality within a reasonable price
-Great autofocus speed
-huge selection of lenses available
-35mm systems are offered by Canon, Nikon, Sony, Leica, and soon Pentax

-Large and heavy
-May be difficult for people with small hands to operate
-Very Expensive
-Each manufacturers system is supported by that manufacturer alone. Only Canon makes EOS cameras. Only Nikon makes Nikon compatible cameras etc, The Sony A7 cameras can use Canon or Nikon lenses but is limited in its operation somewhat. This is being improved with each new model.
-Not very discrete. Most dslr's draw attention very quickly and are easily noticed. This can make street photography a bit more difficult.

5. M43 Mirrorless

Photo by Henry Soderlund. Check out his flickr

My personal choice.

The m43 system offers a variety of cameras, lenses, and body manufacturers that all work together. You can take the lens off of a Panasonic GH4, and put it right onto a Black Magic Cinema Camera, then right onto an Olympus OMD EM-1. They all use a standard mount so all lenses produced for m43 work on all bodies with only one or two exceptions. The largest m43 cameras are still quite small compared to the majority of 35mm offerings and in many circumstances the image quality will be very similar. The overall quality is not quite as good as a 35mm camera but is still very good and in return you get a much smaller system overall. The lenses are almost all fantastic as well.

M43 cameras all use constant live view technology. This means that what you see on the screen or in the viewfinder is the same as the image you get. For street shooting where you don't get a second chance at the same shot this is very valuable. With a dslr you can only trust the metering of the camera to provide you with the exposure you wanted. Mirrorless cameras also do manual focus much better than any dslr.

Olympus and Panasonic both offer cameras with I.B.I.S. (In body Image Stabilization) allowing you to use any lens you can get on the camera with high quality stabilization.

The combination of great quality, small size, affordable high quality lenses, speed, ibis, live view operation, and multiple manufacturers supporting one system makes m43 my choice for the best value and the camera system best suited to the streets.

My personal kit consists of the Olympus E-M5 Mark II, the Voigtlander Nokton 25mm f/0.95
, the Voigtlander Nokton 10.5mm F0.95, and a Canon FL 85mm F1.8 film lens which I have adapted to m43 with a speedbooster.

-Smaller than a dslr
-Great image quality
-Large selection of great lenses
-Live view in the viewfinder
-In body image stabilization is much better than alternatives
-A number of great features offered by Panasonic and Olympus like 4k, live composite, live bulb, focus stacking and more.
-6 different camera manufacturers and counting

-The largest models are nearly as big as the Sony a7 models (before lenses are added), however there are much smaller models.
-Only the recent models from Panasonic and the Olympus em1 have good c-af and tracking. However these models are very good.
-12 bit raw not 14 bit. Won't be noticeable 99% of the time but worth mentioning.
-In some situations less dof control than a 35mm camera. Not a big difference but again worth mentioning.

So that's it for the cameras, what about lenses?

Well if you choose an interchangeable lens camera like a m43 camera or a dslr you have to decide on what lenses to use. Most street shooters will tell you to use a normal or semi wide lens for your street shooting. This is because lenses in the semi wide or normal range are pretty close to the way we see naturally and help create the feeling of being where the photographer was. I will tell you the same thing. As part of your kit you should have one lens in the normal range. It is a solid foundation to build on and if you want you can shoot everything with that one lens. Henry Cartier Bresson did almost all his photography with a 50mm lens on his Leica rangefinder.

I'm not as uptight as others though. I think it is ok to play with your focal lengths. If you are shy and not used to the streets yet you might want to try a portrait length lens. It gives you some more space from your subjects. If you want to squeeze everything into a shot and really make people feel like they are able to touch the subjects you might want to use an ultra wide lens. My point is that the lens you use should work for you. While the 35mm (for a 35mm dslr, its 17.5 with m43) and 50mm (25mm) lenses are consider the classic focal lengths you can go wider or narrower as long as it suits your personality and photographic vision. Start with the classics, but don't be afraid to branch off and try other things.

I do prefer prime lenses for street photography. You become intimately familiar with your field of view and can begin to see potential shots. You learn to work with that one focal length very well. It will make your street photography faster, easier, and more consistent than a zoom.

I also prefer manual focus lenses. This is a personal preference however it can benefit others as well. When shooting with a manual focus lens (or at least with an auto focus lens and the camera set to manual) you have to be more aware to catch a shot. You are responsible for focus, settings adjustments, etc. No camera to blame. Shooting manual lenses forces you to get your mind in the game and make street shooting your primary concern for the outing. You will be more focused and miss less opportunities. If you don't want to use manual focus at least use manual settings on the camera. It will make a difference in your photography.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it follow us and sign up for the email feed for notifications on new articles. If you have any questions leave them in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them.

Joshua Son

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