The fast-paced, chaotic streets of New York City are the ideal place to quickly find out if a camera is up to street photography...and therefore, just about anything.
You can learn a lot about a digital camera very quickly by doing street photography with it. In fact, whenever I get a new camera to evaluate these days, I try doing some street shots, to see if it can handle the demands of capturing the decisive moment accurately. This is especially true with the growing number of interchangeable-lens compacts and stand-alone compact cameras with eye-level viewfinders and retro designs, all of which are available at Adorama, that cry out "street camera" that have been introduced recently. And so, the Street Photography Stress Test, an exclusive Adorama Learning Center feature, was born.
Here’s a guide for the perplexed.
When I put a camera through its paces on the street, what am I looking for, and how might the results that I get be relevant to the kind of pictures you'll shoot with the same camera—even if you don't plan on doing street photography?
Not every digital camera can be as quick and responsive as my old Leica M3, but a growing number are designed and marketed as if they were, and recent improvements in lag time have made them contenders. The Street Photography Stress Test separates the real deals from the wannabes.
Lab vs. The Street
The Street Photography Stress Test is the antithesis of a lab test. A lot of websites and magazines run exhaustive lab tests of new cameras, which provide quantifiable results under a variety of standardized, consistent, repeatable conditions. One of these is Adorama's lab testing partner, DxOLabs. Exposure accuracy, resolution, grain, color fidelity and dynamic range are all carefully measured. This is all very good information, a basis for comparison that can and should help you make a buying decision.
In fact, whenever possible, we are proud to be able to incorporate DxOMark’s RAW sensor quality test results into our product reviews, with DxO’s gracious permission, and have been designated a DxOMark Expert Partner for providing such information. But these kind of lab test results need a context, and that context is the camera’s ergonomics, responsiveness, handling…in other words, it may be smart and image quality may be fantastic, but is it street smart?
We all know that in the real world, shooting conditions vary. When doing street photography—where lighting changes from moment to moment, people are moving at a fast pace (especially in New York City, where I do almost all of my street shooting), and even extreme heat or cold can effect image quality and battery life, nothing is predictable. Can a camera handle this unpredictability? Street photography is real-world camera testing on steroids.
When reading a Stress Test, keep in mind that it isn’t comprehensive; its primary purpose is to see how responsive a camera is and what kind of quality it can deliver under duress, and doesn’t address things like flash coverage or performance, video, or telephoto AF. A full User Report, which will be available separately in most cases, will tackle those issues as well as lab test results.
Success: Some street shots that made the grade
Photos by Mason Resnick
Failures: These pictures told me how a camera was not up to the job of street photography
Photos by Mason Resnick
Why it should matter to you
A camera’s ability to handle street shooting conditions may seem like a limited-interest area, but it how a camera comports itself on the street has implications for how it can handle many other forms of photography:
Sports/action: If you photograph sports, timing is essential, as it is for street photography, and so a camera’s responsiveness, its ability to instantly focus on a subject, track a subject's movement through the frame and to trigger the shutter with as negligible as possible lag time is important.
Available light: Street photographers don’t add to the light, they use the light they find. Is the light very low? Shoot at a wide aperture, a slow shutter speed, a higher ISO, or a combination of all of the above. How is the grain in low light? We’ll know soon. Some cameras, when in JPEG mode, mix ISOs within the image to improve shadow and highlight details, which is a boon to street photographers.
Photojournalism: When in the midst of fast-changing real-life situations and trying to capture breaking news, photographers depend on a camera that is reliable, won’t freeze up unexpectedly, and can handle a wide range of subjects and lighting. The street offers many of the shooting conditions photojournalists come across daily.
Family photos: OK, we've dealt with high-end uses, but what about snapshots? How often has this happened to you? You pose everybody, tell ‘em to “say cheese” and press the shutter release…and wait…and wait…and finally, the shutter goes off. Lag time is no good on the street, but it’s also no good when you’re photographing the family get-together and people can only hold their smiles for so long.
A new breed of compact cameras that promises high resolution and performance have recently hit the market. Some of them have been deliberately designed to evoke classic rangefinder cameras—the kind Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, or Lisette Modell used. But just because it looks like a classic street camera doesn’t mean it can shoot like one. Is it too slow? Are the controls laid out so you can easily manually change settings, or not? The best way to discover this is to bring the camera out onto the street and take pictures.
What I look for
Unlike lab results, I’ll state up front that the images I get from one test to another are totally unpredictable, and my interpretation is subjective but it can, nevertheless, be useful. What am I looking for?
• Performance: When I press the shutter release, is there a pause of any kind? Does the camera hesitate between shots? Does the camera/lens focus decisively, or does it search? Does manual focus speed things up? Do I miss anything due to slight hesitation by the camera? Does RAW or JPEG make a difference in processing speed? Are autoexposure and focus simple, quick and accurate in rapidly-changing light while shooting fast-moving subjects?
• Simple operation: Technology shouldn’t get in the way. Can I easily focus and set exposure manually? Can the auto-everything modes take over and give me satisfactory results?
• Image quality: How do these images look as 11x14-inch prints? Is grain obvious at ISO 800? Is there a good range of detail between shadow and highlights (dynamic range)?
• Ergonomics: Are the controls logically placed? If I want to change a function, can I get to it and make the change in a second, or do I have to scroll through menus? Is the camera too heavy or light? Too big or small? Will I get muscle fatigue holding it for hours at a time, or will it fit like a glove? Is the viewfinder adequate and provide clear, good framing info that I can see at a quick glance?
The Sony NEX-7, available at Adorama, is typical of the new breed of digital cameras that are designed to do well on the street and, in fact, it did very well, indeed!
Every camera I test I approach with a dose of pessimism, based on over 30 years of street photography with a variety of cameras. After all, few cameras can rightly claim that magic combination of top quality, responsiveness, and ease of use, but I always hope I’ll be surprised and find the ultimate digital street camera. And hopefully, what I learn along the way will be useful to you.
Visit the Learning Center's Focus on Street Photography for the latest Stress Tests. See you on the streets!