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Digital Cameras for Street Photography: An Opinionated Guide

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Mason Resnick is the editor of the Adorama Learning Center and a lifetime photography enthusiast.

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Digital Cameras for Street Photography: An Opinionated Guide

Digital street cameras for the rest of us - Updated for Summer 2014

The most useful tools for street photography have never been more accessible. Now it's up to you to learn how to do it right!


For street photographers (and those who want to join in), there has never been a better time to get started, or to make the switch to digital.

Why? First, the interest in street photography is at an all-time high. A new, comprehensive exhibit of the work of Garry Winogrand, a pioneer of the genre, is touring the country and is accompanied by a resonably priced and incredibly helpful book which I highly recommend for anyone who is serious about street shooting. A new feature film, Everybody Street, featuring New York's iconic street photographers, was recently released and can now be downloaded. Second, a new generation of affordable, street-smart cameras has arrived that are faster and produce better image quality than ever. Gone, for all intents and purposes, are annoying lag times, and you no longer have to compromise between camera size, camera speed, and image quality (until recently, you could only choose one of the three). More new compact street-friendly cameras now have eye-level viewfinders, which make them even more useful on the street.

Until recently, my answer to the question "what's the best camera for street photography?" was, unequivicably, a Leica M-series rangefinder. While the
Leica M, Leica M-E and Leica Monochrom M are all excellent tools (and if you've got the dough, bless you, and go for it) there is a new generation of legitimate alternatives that cost thousands less that will deliver equivalent performance and quality, albeit without some exclusive Leica features.

To the point: You can get a lightning-fast pocket-sized digital camera that will deliver DSLR-quality images for around $1,000-$2,000 (including the lens and viewfinder), something that was unthinkable two years ago.

Good times, indeed!


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. When shooting in New York, I generally shoot on the street at ISO 800, and pump it up to 1600 on heavy overcast days. Most APS sensor cameras can easily handle this range with no noticeable 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. Image quality is improving and the prices are heading lower—great news! Let's take a look at the cameras. Prices and availability are accurate as of July 21, 2014. First, let's talk about the Leica M.



Why the Leica M is the gold standard (and the M Monochrom may be the silver standard) for street photographers

Leica M

Leica M 
Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M lens 
Total Adorama price: $9,200


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 $6,950, 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—read my product review of the Leica Monochrom M for details).



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.

Meet the new kid on the full-frame block!

Sony A7
Leica 28mm f/2.8 lens 
Pro Optic Leica M to NEX adapter 
Total Adorama Price: $3,787.95
The Sony A7, along with its higher-resolution sibling the A7R, introduced in October 2013, is the first non-Leica 35mm-sensored mirrorless compact, and offers many compelling reasons to choose it over the Leica. With a 24MP sensor the A7 is on equal footing with the Leica M, but it costs $1,298 body only. Add the same Leica 28mm f/2.8 via an inexpensive Pro Optic adapter  and you take advantage of Leica's outstanding optics, clear on-lens focus, aperture and depth of field indicators and focus tab for a lot less. If you don't mind the Sony's assignable buttons and dials and hi-res EVF finder rather than the unique Leica rangefinder system, the Sony may be a viable low-cost alternative. (And if you already own a Leica lens, you can just buy the body and adapter.) Now wonder it's causing such a buzz among photographers. Learn more about the Sony A7.

Fujifilm X

 

Fujifilm X Pro1
Fujifilm XF 18mm f/2 lens
Total cost: $1,498
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.

 

Smaller, Lighter, Less Expensive: Fuiifilm X-E2 ($849). Like the X-Pro 1 the Fujifilm X-E2 is 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 X-E2 replaces last year's X-E1, claiming better image quality, super-fast AF (Fujifilm claims it's the world's fastest), focus peaking, and digital split manual focus. For budget-conscious street shooters, pair it with the same Fujifilm XF 18mm f/2 lens and this may be the better choice.  Learn more about the Fujifilm X-E2.

 

 Olympus E-P5
Olympus 12mm f/2.0 Zuiko
Panasonic DMW-VF1 Viewfinder
Total cost: Approx. $1,637.95

Actually, any current-generation Olympus Pen camera (including the Olympus OMD EM-5, which I review here) is fine, thanks to their lack of lag time and quiet operation. I prefer the E-P5, which was introduced this spring, 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) and the more advanced 16MP sensor promises better image quality than previous Digital Pen cameras. 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.

Panasonic GX7 
Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 lens
Total Cost: $1,296.95
With one of the highest-resolution EVF viewfinders available and a 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensor that produces image quality comparable to some APS sensors, the GX7 is a small but powerful tool. It offers with fast AF but more importantly, it has focus peaking to aid manual focus photographers (highly recommended focusing approach for street shooters). Match it with the Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens (which gives you the equivalent angle of view of a 28mm lens) and you've got a wonderfully unobtrusive setup.

 

 

APS Sensor Compact Digital Cameras

Two new camera introductions in recent months (the Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR) have turned this into a competitive category for photographers who want to spend less and get a pocket-sized (or near pocket-sized) self-contained camera with a built-in prime lens.

 

Fujifilm X100s 
Cost: Approx. $1,299


I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Fujifilm X100s. Fujifilm claims that the successor to the X-100 offers the world's fastest focus acquisition—0.08 seconds—as well as a 0.01 shutter lag. That's a major improvement over its predecessor, which sometimes suffered from pokey shutter lag. Fujfilm claims the X100s provides a 25% increase in resolution (which was already very good) along with a 30% decrease in noise, compared with its predecessor. With the same 23mm f/2 fixed prime lens as its predecessor, the highly-regarded Fujifilm X100, the Fujifilm X100S features a new 16.3MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS II sensor with built-in Phase Detection pixels. A "Digital Split Image" feature, which allows users to align dual images to confirm focus along with a Focus Peak Highlight function, are both designed to enhance the camera's abilities for manual focusing. A wide-angle conversion lens is available to expand the built-in lens (35mm equivalent: 35mm) to cover a 28mm equivalent field of view. It's the biggest of this batch, but the X100 has already garnered a loyal following among street photographers.

 

Voigtlander Brightline Viewfinder

Leica X2 
Voigtlander Brightline Viewfinder for 28mm
Total cost: Apoprox. $2,204
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.

 

Nikon Coolpix A
Nikon DF-CP1 Optical Viewfinder
Total cost: Approx. $1,493.90

The Nikon Coolpix A can almost fit in a shirt pocket, and yet it has a 16MP CMOS sensor that, according to independent DxOMark tests, delivers image quality comparable to today's top APS sensor DSLRs. It is quick and nimble on the street, and the intuitive focusing ring surrounding the base of the lens barrel makes it easy to simply pick up and start shooting. Shooting in manual focus, I found there to be no discernable lag time. It is missing a viewfinder; Nikon makes the DF-CP1, although if you want to save a few bucks the Voigtlander 28mm will do the job. Either way, an optical viewfinder is a must in order to really use this camera for serious street shooting. Read my full review of the Nikon Coolpix A.

Ricoh GR
Voigtlander 28mm Viewfinder
Total cost: Approx. $905.95

The Ricoh GR's no-nonsenese, logical, classic camera-inspired design and features haven't changed much over the years, but there have been many changes under the hood, mostly via firmware updates. The basic shirt-pocket-fitting design is virtually untouched. But instead of a thumbnail-sized sensor, it has a big 16MP APS CMOS sensor that delivers DSLR-quality images. I found this to be one of the most responsive of all compact digital cameras with no lag time in manual focus mode. Snap Focus lets you pre-set a default focus distance, and all control knobs and buttons can be custom-programmed to fit your needs. The B&W image quality is remarkable. Is this the holy grail of digital street photography? Read my full report.

 

3 Street Cameras for $600 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, and which all have eye-level viewfinders thanks to a welcome new trend; you should get acceptable image quality at least through 8x10, and possibly larger.

Canon Powershot G16
Adorma 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 while autofocus is faster. The G16 also is the first G-series camera with Wi-Fi. It's the only camera in its class with an optical eye-level viewfinder. 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.  Learn more about the Canon G16.

Nikon P7800 
Adorma price: $546.95

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. The big news? Nikon has brought back the eye-level viewfinder in this version (it was conspicuously missing from its predecessor) but as a high-resolution EVF. Learn more about the Nikon P7800.

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