Guest post by Gordon Lewis
I’ve been practicing street photography for the past forty years, and have done it with practically every brand and type of camera there is. I’ve used rangefinders, SLRs, DSLRs, 35mm, medium-format, and pocket cameras. Some have had interchangable lens mounts, others have had fixed lenses. I’ve even used large format and Polaroid, although not for street photography. I can therefore state with assurance that, if you’re motivated enough, you can use practically any type of camera for street photography, as long as it’s quick and easy to operate and does not require a tripod.
The quick and easy to operate part is essential. If you’re a street shooter, one second can literally mean the difference between capturing the perfect moment or missing it entirely. Street shooters therefore look for a camera that’s ready in an instant, with no startup lag or delay. Once the camera is ready to shoot, any perceptible shutter lag is a deal-breaker. The autofocus (assuming your camera has it) has to be just as responsive and, better yet, accurate.
Easy-to-operate is a bit more subjective. I define it as a camera that, rather than insisting you use it on its own terms, seems able to read your mind and follow your will. A commonly used term to describe this quality is “transparent.” The opposite is a camera so obstinate it makes you want to hurl it against a brick wall and spit on the shattered remnants.
It certainly helps to have a camera with reliable autoexposure and white balance, as well as enough dynamic range to handle high-contrast lighting without blowing out the highlights or turning shadows solid black. If you’re shooting raw, however, these qualities are secondary and can be adjusted after the fact. Low noise at high ISOs is another minor concern when you’re shooting outdoors in decent light. In low light a touch of “grain” adds character.
As simple and obvious as these requirements might seem, cameras that have them all are not easy to find. For example, some cameras are slow to power up and be ready to shoot. Others add to this delay by also being slow to wake up from battery-conserving “sleep mode,” or requiring the lens to also power-up.
There’s also the issue of battery life. Given that all digital cameras and even some film cameras are completely battery-dependent, you have to make sure you have a fully-charged battery or two on hand while you’re out shooting, otherwise you run the risk of holding a paperweight instead of a camera. There are, of course, cameras that will shoot for several days on a full battery charge, but these tend to be larger cameras that have correspondingly larger batteries. Most street shooters prefer small cameras: They attract less attention and are more comfortable to carry for long periods of time.
Exercise Caution: This was shot recently with my old faithful Nikon FM3A with 50mm ƒ/1.8 AI Nikkor, loaded with Kodak Gold 400. It's an examle of the benefits of minimal automation: Because I focused manually and by eye, I knew the camera couldn’t try to refocus as soon as the bicyclist in the foreground appeared in the frame.
One thing to be vigilant for is how often the supposedly sophisticated AF systems in some cameras can misfocus, even when aimed at static or slow-moving subjects. I’ve owned a Nikon D7000 with 39 AF points and micro-focus adjustment and a Canon EOS 60D with 9 AF points and no micro-focus adjustment. Both have focused so inconsistently that I’ve either had to send them in for repair or get rid of them. DSLRs with optical viewfinders offer almost no pre-exposure confirmation of whether the image is in focus or not. The image can look sharp through the optical viewfinder yet be out of focus when you review it.
My limited experience with mirrorless cameras is that they focus more reliably, but not always as quickly, especially in low light. In the past, you could circumvent such AF issues by pre-setting focus manually. Today, few lenses that still have a usable focusing scale, index, and depth-of-field markings that the only other available option is prayer.
My current favorite cameras for street photography are the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 25mm ƒ/1.8 Zuiko, which I have rented but don’t own, and my Nikon FM3A with 50mm ƒ/1.8 AI Nikkor. Both meet almost all of the criteria I’ve listed, although in different ways. I could be missing something though. If you’re a dedicated street photographer and have found the perfect camera for your needs, I’d love to hear about it; that is, unless it’s bulky, heavy, laughably expensive, and notoriously difficult to use, in which case you should probably keep it to yourself.
CORRECTION: "OM-10" should have been "OM-D E-M1." Sorry for the error. —Ed.
©2014 by Gordon Lewis, all rights reserved
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