"What's the best digital camera for street photography? I can't afford a Leica" is one of the most common questions I've gotten from fellow street photographers and students. After years of conducting Street Photo Stress Tests, here are my personal favorite street photography digital camera/lens/accessory combos.
Let's get this out of the way right up front: The best camera for street photography is the one you have in your hands. The second best is the Leica M,. Why second best? Because it costs about $8,700 with a lens—give or take a grand—and most mortals can't afford that. The third best is the one you can afford (which may also be the best). First, I'll explain why the M (and, in fact, any M-series Leica) is the spare-no-expense best camera for street photography in the hands of a knowledgeable user. If you can afford a Leica M, more power to ya. But most of us can't, and if you are among those special few who have Cartier-Bresson aspirations but lack an MD's or dentist's disposable income, this street photography camera buying guide is for you.
What is street photography? Read this.
As someone who has been doing street photography since the mid-70s, has taught street photography, and is constantly running Street Photography Stress Tests on new cameras that seem like contenders, I feel I have a few thoughts I can contribute to the question: “I can't afford a Leica M9; what digital camera is good for street photography that won't cost so much money?”
Some things to consider when looking for a street camera:
Autofocus isn't fast enough. Some street photographers' style is to prowl the streets and when they see something, they stop, focus, compose, and shoot. For their multi-step process, Autofocus is useful. Others approach street photography in the unstructured, reflex-dependent Winogrand-style “walk-and-shoot” approach, which is too fast for autofocus. Being able to quickly and accurately anticipate and set focus in advance of the shot is essential, because aiming the camera at a fast moving subject and waiting for focus to lock in, even if it takes a quarter of a second, makes it obvious that you're taking a picture, and can ruin the moment. Therefore, a good street camera should make it easy to manually focus quickly and accurately, even before you bring the camera to your eye.
A loud shutter will spook the people in the picture. If the camera makes a loud “click” when you shoot, that's it, you may have lost the opportunity to take a second shot because the sound will get peoples' attention. Therefore, the shutter should be silent or at least very quiet.
Street photography is too fast for slow buffers. You need to be able to shoot many shots very quickly. I'm not talking about a burst rate; I'm talking about buffer refresh rates. An image may evolve in front of you slowly, or change dramatically in a split second. If you've taken a shot then a split second later it gets even better, you should be able to take that picture. The camera that hesitates is lost. Therefore, the camera's buffer capacity should be big enough so that you can continue shooting while the previous image is being transferred, with no hesitation (assuming you're using the fastest memory card available).
Intuitive operation of exposure controls is essential. Autoexposure can slow a camera down; good street shooters should be able to calculate the correct exposure in their heads (if you can't do this yet, practice!). I change exposure settings as I cross the street, or if I turn from front-lit to back-lit subjects, and I don't want to have to bother with scrolling through menus or stare at LCD monitors to make sure my settings are accurate. Therefore, a camera should have physical dials or rings that put all the shutter speeds and apertures at your fingertips.
We need (shutter) speed: I'm talking about fast shutter speeds and reasonable image quality at higher ISOs. I generally shoot on the street at ISO 800, and pump it up to 1600 on heavy overcast days. Most APS sensor cameras can handle this range with very little noise; Micro Four Thirds sensors can handle ISO 800 but 1600 may be pushing it. Smaller sensor cameras might give you OK quality up to ISO 400. Add a stop if you're converting your images to black-and-white since (in my opinion) digital noise doesn't look as objectionable when turned to monochrome.
Depth of Field Indicator is a requirement! Street photographers rely on hyperfocal distance to get out of trouble. You see, focusing accurately is great if you can do it, but there are times when things move too fast and you want to capture a range of simultaneous activity happening at a range of distances. If you want to get as much as possible in focus, you need to know that when you're focused to 10 feet at f/11, that everything form about 4 feet to infinity will be in focus when using a 28mm lens, or that at f/2.8 only what's at 10 feet will be in focus. While such calculations may be possible in your head, a depth of field scale (either digital or, even better, physical engraved on the lens) is a necessity.
Show what's going on at the moment of exposure. DSLRs black out at the moment of exposure; so do EVFs. Optical viewfinders let you see the scene during the exposure, and the better ones show a bit of what's going on outside the frame, so you can compose and anticipate incoming elements of the scene. (Contrary to popular opinion, the best-known street photos are composed in the eye-level viewfinder, even if that just means a momentary glance into the finder.) No eye-level viewfinder? Got to use the LCD monitor? Forget about it!
The good news? The number of options is growing quickly. No less than five new models were introduced between June and September 2012, and the prices are heading lower—great news! Let's take a look at the cameras. Price estimates are accurate as of October, 2012. First, let's talk about the Leica M.
Why the Leica M9 is the gold standard (and the M Monochrom may be the silver standard) for street photographers
Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M lens
Total Adorama price: $8,695
With one exception, the Leica M, Leica M-E and Leica Monochrom M fulfill all of the above requirements with aplomb. Focus? Each Leica lens has a focus tab, so when your finger is at six-o'clock, you know you are focused to 10 feet, and an engraved depth of field scale next to the aperture ring. The shutter speeds are right at the top of the camera, within reach of your thumb and forefinger. In the Fall of 2012, Leica overhauled its lineup, expanding from a single M9 to three models: The Leica M,, at the Adorama price of $6,500, is the highest-tech Leica rangefinder to date, with a brand-new 24MP sensor, Live View and Live View Focus, 1080p HD video capture, and a rugged body sealed against dust and splashes, and an optional electronic viewfinder., The stripped-down no-nonsense Leica M-E uses the M9's old 18MP Kodak sensor but costs $5,450 at Adorama, the most affordable Leica rangefinder currently available. The $7,950 Leica Monochrom M, a black-and-white only camera (but the B&W image quality is amazing, I am told). Take a look at the New Leica M and M-E, which are expected to arrive by early 2013.
Now, on to the cameras you are more likely to afford.
I've chosen five outstanding interchangeable-lens digital cameras that I have used for street photography whose operation, performance on the street impressed and image quality me, as well as the preferred lenses and eye-level viewfinders, if there are options. In some cases, the combinations are more like mash-ups. Can't afford any of these, either? Read on to the end: You've got options, too.
Also keep in mind that although I recommend Leica lenses in cases where M-mounts or M-mount adapters are available, you could save money by buying swapping out the suggested lens with off-brand M-mount lenses such as the Voigtlander Color-Skopar 21mm f/4, Voigtlander Ultron 28mm f/2, Zeiss Ikon 35mm f/3.5 C Biogon T ZM, Zeiss Ikon 28mm f/2.8 T ZM Biogon, or grab a deal from among our many used lenses. All of them will deliver outstanding results.
Fujifilm X Pro1
Fujifilm XF 18mm f/2 lens
Total cost: Approx. $2,400
Review and Street Photo Stress Test
This recommendation is preliminary, because the Fujifilm X Pro1 is the only camera I haven't gotten my hands on yet, thanks to high demand and very limited availability to date. But early reports are that this camera is quite street worthy: it is said to be fast, comfortable for film Leica people, and delivers outstanding image quality. For just a bit over two grand with the 28mm equivalent lens (there's also a fast 35mm f/1.8 lens that delivers about a 50mm angle of view and costs $599) you don't need anything else. This could be the real deal, and yes, I'm waiting on line for a review model so I can report first-hand. Even better: If you already have a collection of Leica M-mount lenses for your film cameras, the Fujifilm X-Mount Leica M Adapter lets you cross the digital divide.
Coming soon: Fuiifilm X-E1 ($999). The new Fujifilm X-E1, introduced last month and coming soon, will be the first interchangeable-lens Fujifilm “X” camera body priced under $1,000. Like the X Pro 1, it is designed to appeal to photojournalists, street photographers, and others who want a fast, unobtrusive camera. In fact, by replacing the X-Pro 1’s unique hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder with a super-high-resolution EVF-only eye-level finder, Fujifilm managed to trim the camera’s price, as well as its weight and size (by 30%), widening its potential user base. The 16.3MP APS-C CMOS sensor is the same as the X-Pro 1, and the EVF's 2.36 million dot resolution should allay concerns about not having an optical view. In fact, for budget-conscious street shooters, pair it with the same Fujifilm XF 18mm f/2 lens and this may be the better choice.
Olympus 12mm f/2.0 Zuiko
Panasonic DMW-VF1 Viewfinder
Total cost: Approx. $1,840
Street Photo Stress Test
Actually, any current-generation Olympus Pen camera is fine, thanks to its lack of lag time and quiet operation. I prefer the E-P3 because its control layout puts the aperture and shutter speeds at your fingertips (less costly models make you work a bit harder to access manual exposure controls). Buffer empties quickly and I was able to shoot at a fast pace when needed without getting my timing messed up. I chose the 12mm f/2.0 Zuiko because it is simply the best lens I've tested for a MILC. Pull the focus ring forward to reveal an honest-to-goodness depth of field scale. Image quality was excellent at ISO 800. I used the Panasonic viewfinder, which is designed for use with the Lumix LX-5 but its 24mm angle of view matches the 12mm lens's coverage.
Ricoh M-Mount Module
Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M Lens
Sigma VF-21 Viewfinder
Total cost: Approx. $3,350 (read on for a much less expensive alternative!)
Street Photo Stress Test
Until Ricoh announced the M-Mount Module for the unique GX-R (read about what makes this camera unique), I was more than satisfied with the outstanding, lag time-free performance of the 28mm (equivalent) module, and said so in this Street Photo Stress Test. It is still a very good option that will save you a bundle over the cost of buying a Leica M-Mount lens (assuming you don't already have M's from your film days). In fact, for just around $1,000, that combination may be the best buy of all. However, when I created a mash-up with a 28mm lens and a viewfinder that covers a little more than the 35mm angle of view I'd get factoring in the module's APS sensor, I had the added convenience of the always-useful Leica focusing tab and the ability to adjust the aperture by simply turning an aperture ring. For me, that (along with the superior Leica optics) was worth the extra cost because it gave me an extra fraction of a second so I could walk and shoot and keep everything I needed in focus.
Leica 24mm f/3.8 lens
Novoflex Leica-to-NEX adapter
Total cost: Approx. $4,050
Street Photo Stress Test
The Sony NEX-7 uses the best APS sensor currently available (it can be found in the top five APS cameras tested by DxOMark labs), so how cool would it be to mate it with a Leica 24mm f/3.8 lens using the Novoflex adapter. Very cool, it turns out! In manual exposure mode, turn the left knob to adjust aperture and the lens aperture ring to adjust aperture, and of course you get the invaluable Leica focus tab. You can pick up a used Leica 21 (which gives you the equivalent angle of coverage of a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera) or a 28mm if you are OK with a 35mm angle of coverage, and a 35mm if you want a 50mm prime equivalent. Save more by buying a Voigtlander lens, which still gives you outstanding image quality. Another reason to love the NEX-7 (besides the lag-free shutter and minimal lag between quick shots)? The viewfinder is right where it should be, on the upper left corner of the camera; I'll make an exception and forgive Sony for making it an EVF, because it is very sharp and high resolution!
Coming soon: Sony NEX-6. The Sony NEX-6 offers many of the features that made the NEX-7 a hit with serious shooters: high-quality finder, fast shutter release, and killer image quality, but at the Adorama price of $848 it is the lowest-priced street camera in the APS sensor space. The NEX 7's distinctive physical control knobs are gone, and you need to be willing to accept a more typical digital camera design to access manual exposure control. That ergonomic compromise be worth the considerable savings.
A couple of posh compact cameras with serious street aspirations are competing for your heart and mind, and a recent firmware upgrade (Fuji) and a revised, tweaked and improved new model (Leica) have improved the street-worthiness of this pair of cameras dramatically.
Cost: Approx. $1,200
Street Photo Stress Test
When the X100 first came out, its autofocus and lag time were a problem, but a recent software update has transformed this model—which garnered so much interest when it was introduced—into a quick-reacting, street-worthy camera, as you can see here. Basic exposure controls are logically placed: Shutter speeds on a dial atop the camera, aperture and focus rings on the lens. The Fujifilm X100 is reminiscent of the Konica Hexar (which was a legendary low-cost alternative to the film Leica M's), but has its unique optical/electronic hybrid viewfinder I mastered after about an hour of shooting. Nice touch: An on-screen depth-of-field scale tells you exactly where the focus range falls at any aperture, although it reacts a bit slowly. If you want a wider angle of view than the fixed 35mm equivalent lens offers, Fujifilm has just announced the WCL-X100 converter, which turns it into the equivalent of a 28mm lens—a focal length many street shooters prefer.
Voigtlander Brightline Viewfinder for 28mm
Total cost: Apoprox. $2,200
Street Photo Stress Test
Leica's X2 reminds me of an old screw-mount-series Leica rangefinder, but is much faster than its predecessor, the X1. It is small and light, and its simple controls (aperture and shutter speed dials on top, focus dial on the back) were easy to use. Focus worked fine thanks to the on-screen depth of field scale, which reacted instantly as I changed the aperture. I tried the X2 with the digital viewfinder and while it holds a lot of info, I found that it froze the scene at the moment of the shoot, which I didn't like. Better to get the Voigtlander 28mm optical viewfinder and use the LCD for focus and exposure confirmation.
3 Street Cameras for $500 or less...but there's a catch
"OK," you say. "Nice cameras. Too bad I can't afford them. Whatcha got for me?" There is a handful of compact, self-contained digital cameras that are fine as long as you are willing to give up some image quality due to the smaller sensors. I've chosen three models that use slightly bigger sensors; you should get acceptable image quality at least through 8x10, and possibly larger.
Canon PowerShot G15
Adorama price: $499
A favorite of many pro shooters and street photographers, the Canon PowerShot G series has been upgraded with a zoom lens that starts at 28mm (35mm equivalent) and f/1.8. But the biggest upgrade is responsiveness. Canon claims lag time has been reduced by more than 50 percent, to about a fifth of a second—welcome news for street shooters who need split-second timing. An advantage of the G15 over the others in this category is it is the only compact camera with a built-in eye-level viewfinder—you don't have to pay extra for one. Sure, it doesn't show the entire image (more like 70 pecrent of it), but it is a helpful compositional tool and it zooms with the lens. If you want to shoot waist-level, the flip-out LCD monitor is another option.
Adorama price: $496.75
Nikon streamlined its P series flagship compact line, adding a faster 10x zoom lens that starts at 28mm (35mm equivalent) and f/2, an articulated, 3-inch LCD that flips out in all directions, and puts focus and exposure controls at your fingertips via dials. Its 12MP 1/1.7-inch sensor delivers better-than-average image quality for a compact camera. Notably missing? The built-in optical viewfinder that can be found on previous models. You could put an optical 28mm finder on the flash shoe for eye-level viewing, but that would add to the cost.
Panasonic DMW-VF1 Optical Viewfinder
Total Adorama price: $638.95
Panasonic was one of the first compact camera makers to give high priority to reducing shutter lag time, and the LX series has been a leader in the small sensor camera field. The camera, with its 1/1.7 inch 10MP sensor, is capable of producing images that will look great as 8x10 prints, and will hold their own at 11x14 at up to ISO 400. If you can work within that limit, the LX7 offers plenty to make a street photographer smile: A nice, wide-angle zoom (25mm, 35mm equivalent), a category-leading f/1.4 maximum aperture, and dials that control aperture, shutter speed and manual (or zone) focusing. If your street photography includes shallow depth of field, this camera will give your work a distinctive look. For an eye-level viewfinder, you can choose either the optical DMW-VF1, or the electronic, 1,440k resolution LVF2. You will definitely need one or the other.