Thanks to improvements in image quality and shutter responsiveness, a handful of compact digital cameras have become viable options for street photography. Here's how to get the most out of small-sensor cameras on the street.
In an article I wrote for the Adorama Learning Center a short while ago, Digital Cameras for Street Photography: An Opinionated Guide, the response was clear: "By the time I buy a camera, lens and accessories, this is gonna cost me a couple of grand, or even more. I can't afford that! Whatcha got for us poor folks?" My answer is: If you're willing to compromise, you can get a very serviceable street camera in the $500 range. Here's how to choose 'em—and use 'em.
While high-end rangefinders, like the Leica M, and premium rangefinder-inspired interchangeable-lens cameras, such as the Sony NEX-7 and Fujifilm X-Pro 1, may offer amazing image quality, even at high ISOs, intuitive controls, and stealthy qualities street photographers desire, some of us just don't have the thousand-plus dollars needed to buy into the elite street photography world. Is there a camera for the rest of us? Yes, there are—if you are willing to make some compromises.
There is a growing number of options for well under a grand. If you go for a premium compact digital camera with a smaller sensor, such as the Canon G15, Panasonic LX7, or Fujifilm X-10—which cost between $449 and $599 at Adorama—you can get a camera that is just fine for quick street shooting with reasonably good image quality. No, it won't be as tack sharp as what you'll get with a Leica M and a 28mm Summicron, but at 8x10 or even 11x14, if you're shooting at ISO 400 you probably won't notice the difference. You almost certainly won't see any difference if all you want to do is share your images online.
The Pansonic Lumix LX-7: There's no viewfinder, but for compositional reference purposes I mounted a 28mm optical finder similar to the Voigtlander 28mm finder on the flash shoe, then zoomed in slightly to approximately match the angle of view.
If you choose to go with a compact rather than one of the $1,000-and-up models, here are some things to know to help you get the best possible photos on the street, low-budget edition:
1. Choose the right camera: Look for the following specs when buying a compact camera for street photography: Manual focus; manual exposure; an eye-level viewfinder (digital or optical) and/or a flash shoe (get an optical flash-mount type viewfinder that you can use for eye-level compositional reference). Check reviews and user chat to find out if the camera has any lag time. With autofocus turned off, you should use a camera with no more than 0.1 second of lag time. Remember: When shooting on the street, split-second timing will make or break a shot.
2. Take advantage of the small sensor's strengths: A small sensor requires a shorter focal length lens to cover a 35mm equivalent angle of view. For street shooters, that means you'll get really deep focus, even at the smallest apertures. I recently shot with the new Panasonic LX7, which has an f/1.4 lens. As you can see in the above image, shot at f/4, everything from 3 feet to nearly infinity was in focus!
3. Understand the small sensor's limits: Don't expect high image quality when shooting above ISO 200; you might be able to get away with using ISO 400 if you apply noise reduction in post-processing (turn off or minimize noise reduction in-camera) and get acceptable 8x10 or even 11x14-inch prints.
4. Go stealth: Turn off the camera's beeps and alerts so you don't attract attention while shooting candidly. Another reason to shoot manual focus: The AF assist light is a beacon saying “hey everybody, I'm taking your picture!!!” The good news? Since your camera is inevitably smaller than most larger-sensor cameras, you and your camera will be less visible or intimidating when you approach strangers on the street. Tip: When choosing a camera color, leave the fashion statements to the window displays (see photo, above, shot with the Panasonic LX7) and avoid brightly-colored cameras. Black or silver are best.
5. Break the speed limit: Use the highest shutter speed you can get away with, given the ISO limits, to better freeze the action and reduce camera movement. Try to keep your speed at a minimum of 1/250 sec, higher if possible. Remember, you can use the widest aperture and still get great depth of field; use that to your advantage to keep shutter speeds high.
6. Take a ton of photos: Memory is cheap! Shoot like crazy, and don't edit yourself. You can do that later. Photograph anything that looks interesting, get close (work that wide-angle lens!) and keep shooting.
7. Frame quickly and carefully: An eye-level viewfinder is important because it is easier to frame an image that way; using an LCD monitor can be awkward. In the photo above, even though it looks casually composed, I studied this scene and composed carefully. Also, since the Panasonic LX7 I was using has virtually no shutter lag, I was able to capture the woman's fleeting expression and awkward body language. (An exception: If your camera has a flip-up LCD, you can shoot as if you are using an old-fashioned waist-level Twin Lens Reflex camera, as many classic street shooters like Diane Arbus, Vivian Meier, and Harry Callahan did, and which I did in the shot below with a Polaroid Z340.)
Learn more at the Adorama Learning Center: Read What's so great about street photography? Plenty!