Finding the best camera for street photography for you is a question of narrowing down your priorities, says Damien Demolder, but aiming for small, light and quick to operate makes a good starting point
I’ve heard on many occasions that it doesn’t matter what camera you use for street photography, and that any camera will do. On a basic level that is absolutely true. Just as it is true you can get from London to Edinburgh on a donkey, and you can play football in flip flops. I’ve shot successful street pictures with medium format digital cameras, my phone and vintage film cameras.
Actually, pretty much every camera I’ve ever tested has been used at some point to scratch my street photography itch. However, while I have recorded some good pictures with all of these cameras I’ve also made some pretty bad ones. More importantly, there are many, many moments that I missed because the camera got in the way, wasn’t quick enough or was so big that passers-by kept well away to avoid whatever projectile I was about to launch.
You can use any camera to take street pictures, as is evidenced by the wealth of fabulous pictures taken by the pioneers of the last century. But the right modern camera will not only make your life easier, it will also allow you to improve your hit-rate, to react more quickly and to capture moments that might otherwise elude you. Crucially too, the right camera will make you feel more comfortable and confident, and won’t become a drag when you want to spend the whole day shooting with it.
There are a number of things that make a camera particularly suitable for street photography, and of those size and weight is probably the most important. However big and strong you are a heavy camera system will eventually become a pain, you will get tired, and you will stop shooting and go home before you would if you camera was lightweight. You will also take a small camera with you to more places, take it out more often and actually use it – because it won’t be a drag to carry around. This is not just my opinion.
If you are a little apprehensive about street photography (and that’s okay, a lot of people are) a smaller camera will make you feel that you can blend in more, that you are not being obvious and that you aren’t drawing attention to yourself. This will make you feel more confident that you can shoot discretely and not be noticed. This bit is very important for most people.
A good autofocus system will be useful if you want to shoot moving people close to you, and a camera that reacts immediately when you ask it to take a picture is a must. Most mirrorless and compact cameras will have a silent mode too, so you don’t make a clatter and give the game away.
Here are our suggestions for a range of cameras that fit the bill and which will help you to reach your street goals.
Price: £599 with Lumix G Vario 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS
At a glance:
- 20.3MP MOS Sensor
- 5-Axis Dual IS with 4 stops of stabilisation
- Touch screen shutter
- Flip-up EVF and rear screen
Launched at the beginning of 2018 the Lumix GX9 may well be the oldest camera in this group, but it still holds its own with a number of special features. The rangefinder style reduces the number of sticking-out bits, so it remains compact and easy to fit in a coat pocket or a small bag, and despite a nice solid build that withstands drops and scrapes it weighs only 450g.
Although not fitted with the same 20MP sensor as is used in the top-of-the-line Lumix G9, the Lumix GX9 produces excellent image quality, plenty of dynamic range, nice colour and it is capable of recording a great deal of fine detail. RAW files are excellent, and JPEG users will enjoy masses of control.
The collapsible kit lens is handy and surprisingly sharp, but designed to a price that doesn’t make the most of the camera’s AF system. Street photographers might consider the Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 or the Leica DG 15mm f/1.7 as alternatives that will bring out the best in the camera and still keep it very small.
Built-in stabilisation helps in street photography not so much for compensating for the wobble of long lenses as much as for holding off camera-shake in low light conditions without us having to crank the ISO too far. The stabilisation is very effective (though the 4 stops of compensation is a little short of the very latest models) and when combined with a fast aperture lens, it’s surprising how good results can be achieved in very dim conditions.
The rear screen flips up and down, which is less useful for uprights than for horizontal compositions, but it is bright, clear and almost always easy to see. The EVF is housed in a hinged chimney affair that also flips up so we can look down into it while shooting at right angles – like a waist-level finder. The viewfinder experience though is only average, and I almost never use it.
Touch Shutter – The highlight of this camera for street photographers is the quality of the touch screen and touch functions. Users can very quickly adjust the size and position of the AF area, and by touching the screen can focus and trigger the shutter at the same moment. This feature is becoming more common in other cameras, but few I’ve used can compete for the speed of reaction that this little camera manages when fitted with a good lens. The quality of this feature is one of the main reasons I still use the GX9 as my principle street camera – it allows me to get pictures that would otherwise be impossible.
At a glance:
- 24.2MP APS-C Sensor
- Top quality 18mm (28mm equiv) f/2.8 lens
- 4 stops of stabilisation
- 257g, and 33mm thick
- Snap focus mode
I’m not the only person who has been a big fan of the Ricoh GR series since the original GR1 film camera – which I still have. The series has been legendary in the street and travel photography communities for a few very good reasons: compact dimensions, rugged build and outstanding lens quality. For me the series went a little off the boil in the early digital days, but the GR III certainly recovers that lost ground and is an excellent performer.
The key attraction has been the combination of a truly compact camera and first rate images, and the latest version offers both of these qualities. The width of the focal length might seem a little tricky for street work, but the size of the camera allows us to use it in really close proximity to people in the street without them paying much attention – ideal for crowded places. This new model has an updated AF system that is very quick and accurate, and the combined efforts of the sensor and the optics means we get very sharp and detailed images.
It’s worth noting that you don’t get a viewfinder at all with this camera, and that the rear screen, that we have to use for live view, is fixed in position. This rather limits the range of angles we can shoot from easily, but the screen is of good quality and offers a clear view even when not directly in front of your face. A couple of accessory viewfinders are available, including one that matches a wide-angle converter, but while they look cool they make the kit bigger and are frankly unnecessary.
Snap Focus – I don’t usually encourage people to take snaps, and I’m sure you twitch when anyone refers to your pictures using that word, but Snap Focus in the Ricoh GR series is a different kettle of fish. It is a very basic idea that allows us to set a focus distance manually for the camera to work to so that we can reduce the delay between pressing the shutter and the camera taking the picture. A neat depth-of-field scale on-screen shows how the aperture we are using combines with the Snap Focus distance to show to range of distances that will appear sharp in the final image. With these parameters set we can shoot anything that falls within that range and know it will be focused. This makes off-centre subjects much easier to shoot as the camera’s AF system doesn’t need to find them and then focus – it just shoots.
Price: £6750 body only
At a glance:
- 24MP full frame sensor
- Very quiet shutter
- Solid build
- Access to excellent lens range
- Touch-screen controls
We could hardly discuss cameras for street photography without including Leica. It is for a good reason that this manufacturer is considered the father of the best cameras for documenting life whereever it is happening. The M10 series represents the pinnacle of what the brand has achieved so far, and we have a choice of the straight version, the speeded-up P version, a Monochrom version as well as a high resolution version in the M10-R. I’ve picked the P for this article as it represents what is typical about the series, without the specialisations, and it’s nice and fast.
What appeals to some photographers about the Leica M10 cameras is their simplicity, and that they don’t have more features than we need. You will need to focus manually though, so life isn’t all that simple unless you stop down and use zone focusing for anything that’s moving towards you – which is what a lot of photographers do. In a small concession to modern living Leica has allowed a touch screen on this model, but in a manual focus camera it functions to direct the magnified area when shooting in live view and to help scroll and inspect already captured images.
The camera is small(ish) but by no means lightweight as it’s solidly built and designed to last a long time, and the M mount gives you access to some very nice lenses. The downside of moving into the Leica M system of course is the price. Both the cameras and the lenses are unexpectedly costly.
Quiet Shutter – Leica claims the M10-P is the stealthiest M camera it has ever made, and indeed the shutter unit is 50% less noisy than the standard M10 and even that its click is half as audible as the cloth shutters in its film cameras. Not that Leica M cameras were particularly loud to start with, but this new shutter is actually a pleasure to listen (carefully) to and does certainly make it much less likely that anyone will hear it. This has been achieved through the use of a rubber-bearing suspension system used in the points where the shutter unit is mounted to the body to reduce vibration.
It isn’t so much the change in volume of the shutter that makes it less noticeable in the street but the pitch and resonance. The click is replaced by a dampened clunk that sounds like an empty wooden box in a cloth bag being placed gently on a table. It is a deadened low frequency sound that doesn’t travel as well as the usual metallic high-pitched click.
- Any Leica rangefinder
- 2016 Vauxhall Corsa 1.4i Turbo
At a glance:
- 26.1MP APS-C X-Trans sensor
- Hybrid viewfinder
- Lovely design
- Great quality 35mm f/2 (equiv) lens
- Pocketable size
The whole X100 series has been a favourite with street photographers looking for a properly advanced compact camera. What you get in essence is a lot of the controls of the X-Pro and X-T cameras in a smallish body that has a fixed lens. It’s not just any lens either, but a highly regarded lens with a nice wide aperture. While the focal length of this lens is the same 35mm equivalent as that in the X100F it is definitely sharper across the frame and offers quite a lot more contrast – which makes it an even better choice than the already very good previous model.
Of course many people are attracted to the way this camera looks, and as we aren’t all robots that might be a good enough reason to buy on its own. Of course looks are nothing without practical handling and good performance – and this model has both. Physical dials and buttons give the camera an air of simple operation – which it indeed has – but diving into the menu you’ll see a host of controls, features and functions, as well as Fujifilm’s extensive collection of film simulation presets for JPEG shooters. Fuji is famous for its colour and monochrome looks, and consequently plenty of Fuji users don’t bother to shoot in RAW.
Hybrid finder – One of the highlights of the X100 series is the hybrid viewfinder that the cameras share with the X-Pro series. This comprises what looks like a regular optical viewfinder that can be turned into a full digital electronic viewfinder at the flick of a switch. I say ‘looks like a regular optical viewfinder’ because it actually isn’t – the optical viewfinder has an information display overlaid on the scene, so we can see all the settings we’d see with an EVF but dropped onto a real-life view. This means you can combine the digital level with an optical view, which is important in the street as we want to get those buildings straight.
The optical viewfinder is great, but when you want to preview your exposure, white balance, depth-of-field and film simulation the lever on the front of the camera switches the finder to EVF mode and displays exactly all of those things. It’s not a new genius idea, but it is still thrilling – and no one else has thought to copy it. As someone who generally doesn’t use a viewfinder unless I have to, I am surprised by how enthused I am by this one.
Price: £629 body only
At a glance:
- 20.3 MP Four Thirds sensor
- In-body stabilisation
- DSLR styling
- Small and lightweight
- Flip up/down rear screen
The E-M10 series is officially the beginner’s entry into the Olympus OM-D camera system, but as this model is now on its fourth incarnation, and has improved each time, there isn’t too much it doesn’t do. The build is perhaps not as rugged as the OM-D E-M1 series bodies, but with the care most enthusiasts take of their kit I don’t suppose that will matter too much.
For the street photographer the E-M10 IV provides a nice flip-up screen that slides away from the body when in the waist-level position so there’s a very good angle of view without the viewfinder housing obscuring the display. The screen also flips down and below the camera so you can do selfies – though you might prefer to use this to take pictures over your shoulder. The screen provides responsive touch-shutter, and a silent mode with electronic shutter gives us shutter speeds as short as 1/16,000sec. In-body image stabilisation steadies current as well as vintage and 3rd party lenses, and high-drive settings make shooting at 15 frames a seconds possible for action sequences. The camera’s AF system is snappy for still and slower moving subjects where tracking isn’t a priority, and image quality is very nice indeed – sharp pictures, good colour and plenty of dynamic range.
Aside from the quality of the body-build and the absolute sophistication of the AF system, the E-M10 IV doesn’t differ from the E-M5 and E-M1 series bodies in many ways of significant importance when it comes to street photography, so using this body instead of one higher up the range shouldn’t disadvantage you very much at all.
DSLR styling – Many photographers brought up on SLRs find it hard to shift away from that familiar body shape, and struggle to get to grips with compact cameras and smaller mirrorless models. The E-M10 IV offers something of a compromise, with its small and lightweight body but at the same time providing a traditional right-hand grip and a viewfinder in the ‘right’ place. With your eye to the finder, which is electronic rather than optical (you can’t have everything the old way), all the main controls can be accessed with the fingers and thumbs of the shooting hand.
The gripped body makes working with longer lenses more comfortable if you are the snipping sort of street photographer, and the viewfinder makes seeing what is going on clearer for those who can’t get on with shooting via the rear screen. Even if you aren’t going to hold it to your eye, you will appreciate the new deeper grip that will make you feel more secure in your grasp of the camera.