A guide to buying a camera for Street Photography

A guide to buying a camera for Street Photography

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A guide to buying the best digital camera for Street Photography

Update

After quite a few suggestions from you, the StreetHunters.net Readers, this post has been updated. We have re-written the previous DOF paragraph. It is now about Image Quality. DOF is irrelevant. Thank you very much for all your support and your suggestions. We are on a journey of photographic self awareness that would not have been possible without your valuable participation.


Note: This post is about what to think about before buying a digital camera for Street Photography. If you are looking to buy a film camera, this post will only help you partially.

Introduction

Street Photography is a genre of Photography that is versatile and has many definitions. Each member of Street Hunters has their own opinion which you can read by clicking the links below:

I have a feeling that similar posts from other Street Hunters will follow. On the web you can find tens more other posts like the above, each Photographer explaining in their own words what Street Photography is to them. The reason I am making this introduction is to justify my point, which is that you can buy any camera you like for Street Photography, as long as it makes you feel as creative and as inspired as you need to feel when taking photos with it.

At this point you could say, “ok Spyro, thanks for the tip, what’s the rest of the post for?”.

Well my fellow Street Photographers, the point of this post is to help you understand which is the camera that takes you personally, to that creative place. Because, yes, you could buy any camera but how will you know it is the right one for you specifically? This is what this post is about.

About you and about your future camera.

Useful stuff to know

Before I bought my Sony NEX-6 I examined many, many other options. I watched YouTube reviews, I read posts, I joined communities and forums to see what people could do with their gear. Because I live in Crete -which is kind of remote- I couldn’t actually test any camera I was interested in, so I had to develop a methodology that would help me narrow down my choices until I decided upon the camera I wanted.

Yes, the camera I wanted, not needed. Because, according to the book I am reading now called “Seductive Interaction Design: Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences”, it is not how easy something is that makes it useful and enjoyable, but how much you want it. That means that if you buy the camera you really want, no matter how hard it might seem to use, or no matter how “non Street Photography” it might feel, once you have it, once you are holding the object of your desire, it will become an extension of your self without you even noticing the effort you put into learning it. The first time you try out each feature, each setting, it will automatically be imprinted in your subconscious. I would also like to quote the late Steve Jobs here that used to say “We must make things look so good you’ll want to lick them”. This is the exact same principle. The reason he wanted this was to make apple product buyers want his devices so much, that when they got them they preached how awesome they were and how easy to use. But enough with history and psychology. Let’s get to business.

Guide to buying a digital camera for Street Photography

STEP 1 – Reality check (budget)

The first thing you have to do before you start looking into cameras for Street Photography is to do a really good Reality check. For example, when I was looking for Street Photography cameras I kept finding myself looking at the Leica M9 which was the Leica available at the time. I wasted lots and lots of valuable time, watching reviews and reading posts about a camera that I could not afford. My financial status just did not allow this kind of purchase.

This is why I urge you to take a Reality check before you take any further steps. Eliminate from your wish list any camera that is NOT within your budget and also eliminate it from you thoughts. Pretend it does not exist for you. If you don’t do this, you can’t find satisfaction in anything else. Whatever camera you end up buying will unfortunately never be good enough for you unless it is your dream camera and this will affect your photography. You will end up blaming your gear and saying that you should have saved up for 5 years to buy a camera that is worth as much as a small / medium car. Miserable. So do the Reality Check now.

STEP 2 – Do you like it Big?

Personally, I like mine small. This was one of the very first things I was certain about when I was looking to buy my NEX-6. I really like Big DSLRs as cameras, I just don’t like them for Street Photography. That is my personal opinion. It is not the correct choice, it is just my choice. This small size was important to me when I was making my choice. So, at this step of the process, choose your size. Do you want a Big or a Small camera? Do you want your camera to fit in your pocket? Do you want it to fit in your bag, do you not mind having it hanging around your neck? Keep in mind that you can not make a wrong choice. You can only make the choice that makes you feel great. So, think about it and choose. At this point I would recommend you took a look at the following posts we have written. They might come in handy:

STEP 3 – Do you need a viewfinder?

All modern cameras have LCD screens but not all of them have viewfinders. Depending on the type of camera you choose, you might have a viewfinder or not. So think carefully. Is this something that is absolutely necessary for you? If you don’t have a viewfinder will you feel that something is missing? I live in Crete, Greece. The days are usually bright and sunny. No matter how good an LCD screen is, on the brightest days there is no way you can make out what is displayed on it. So for me the viewfinder was a non disputable must.

STEP 4 – Do you care about image quality?

The general idea is that the larger your sensor size the better the image quality. That means that your photos will get a look that resembles the look & feeling you get when taking a photograph using good old 35mm film.

This has nothing to do with the count of megapixels a camera has. It has to do strictly with the sensor size. The only thing that more megapixels offer are larger images, not better image quality. For me, image quality is determined by how accurately colours are rendered, how good a dynamic range your camera has, what technology is powering your sensor and of course your lens.

For example the Sony A7s is a camera with a 12MP full frame sensor. It produces better results than a Sony NEX-6 with a 16MP APS-C sensor.

Saying that, if this is something you are interested in, then you must make sure that your camera’s image sensor is at least a Micro 4/3 or larger to get the IQ you are looking for. This was something that was very important to me when I was looking for cameras. I felt that even a Micro 4/3 sensor wasn’t big enough for me. Again, this is a personal thing. I know of Street Photographers that get really good results with Micro 4/3 sensor cameras and good lenses. As for me, at the time I was looking to purchase my new gear, I chose to look at APS-C sensor cameras in order to be sure that I would get the image quality that I wanted.

STEP 5 – Do you care about shutter speed?

There are many types of Street Photography. You can check out the post “The Types of Street Photography” for more on that subject. Depending on what you want to do you may need a fast shutter speed or a really fast shutter speed. The faster the shutter speed is, the better you can freeze time. But there is another very important thing why a fast shutter speed is great to have. When using lenses at a wide aperture, let’s say f1.8 on a sunny day, your photos will most likely get “burned out”, go white. No matter what exposure compensation you use, they will just go white! Why? Because when you use f1.8 or f2.0 or anything wide on a sunny day, your camera uses fast shutter speeds to try and slow down the light smashing into your sensor. So, if your camera has a typical 2000th of a second max shutter speed, you will notice that you just can’t shoot with anything wider than f2.8 on a sunny day without burning your images. If on the other hand your camera can go up to a 4000th of a second or even an 8000th of a second, then you can take your shots, without worrying about white shots. I was advised about this from a friend luckily before I got my camera. I never thought it was so important since I couldn’t imagine myself doing sports or action shots. I thought that the typical 2000th of a second would always be enough. I am happy I listened and chose a camera with a max shutter speed of a 4000th of a second.

STEP 6 – Are you going to be shooting at night?

The night is a completely different realm in Photography. You might be able to take shots using any camera during the day, but if you are going to do Night Photography, you most certainly need to have the right camera and gear. Take a look at “How to shoot Night Street Photography! Gear, Techniques and Tips” for more info on Night Street Photography. But if you don’t have the time to read it, I will sum it up in one short phrase, “Large Image Sensor”. Before I bought my camera I knew I wanted to be nocturnal. So, this was an easy decision. I needed a camera with at least a Micro 4/3 sensor size. Since I had already decided that I wanted an APS-C sensor, which is even bigger, I was ok.

STEP 7 – What is your focal length preference?

Focal lengths in Street Photography can vary. There are Street Photographers like me that prefer to work at standard focal lengths and for that reason we use prime lenses and there are other people  that prefer to use zoom lenses that offer a many different focal lengths. Have you ever thought about this? Could you own a camera that only has one focal length like the amazing Fujifilm X100S? Do you want a camera with interchangeable lenses? Do you want a camera with a built in fixed zoom lens? These are questions that you must answer to your self before you make the choice of camera you want to purchase. I wanted interchangeable lenses. I needed to have options for the use of different primes. I couldn’t live with one focal length. That is why even though the Fujifilm X100S has been a tremendous success, I couldn’t buy it. I would feel suffocated by the single fixed prime focal length. On the other hand I don’t like zooms, so I wouldn’t go for a camera with one fixed lens with zooming abilities. The choice of cameras for me had really narrowed down to two models at this moment and the NEX-6 was one of them.

STEP 8 – Are you a tech freak?

Is technology important for you? Do you want your camera to record it’s GPS location on your photos? Do you want a WiFi connection? Do you want a touch screen for focusing? Is it important for you that your camera can post directly to facebook? These are features that some of the modern cameras share. You can find them (the features) in pocket cameras also. Can you live without them? Can you settle for a simple USB cable connection with your computer? I know that I had to have a camera with Wifi. Why? Because I have to be able to upload photos to my blog from selected events as they happen. I can’t wait to get back to my Mac and upload. Access to the web, must be immediate. When I was looking for cameras, at this point I knew that there was only one camera that could work for me and the other two questions on my list were not important to me personally. My choice was made. The NEX-6 was going to be my next camera.

STEP 9 – Do you care about looks?

Some people are into camera looks. They get a better vibe from a camera that has a vintage look & feel to it, even though it is a modern, up to date camera. Is this something that is important to you? Have you considered if holding a modern looking camera makes you feel less like a Photographer than holding a vintage looking camera? This sounds like a silly question, but there are people that buy cameras for their looks. I can relate to that. Definately. I don’t mind what my camera looks like, but I do mind about what my Laptop looks like. If it isn’t aluminium with a glowing apple on it, I don’t want it. As I mentioned before, my camera’s looks were not important to me. I had already made up my mind before I reached this point in my list.

STEP 10 – Do you want to shoot in bad weather?

Do you need a weatherproof kit? Are you going to do Street Photography in the pouring rain? Will you be shooting photos in Alaska during winter? Do you think you will have to Photograph someone walking through a blizzard? If weather proofing is an important factor for you, then you must definitely consider this. Personally, I didn’t care much about this, so my choice of camera didn’t change. I use an umbrella when shooting in rain and stick membrane all over my camera. Nothing get’s through it.

STEP 11 – Get psyched about your upcoming purchase!

You must make your self really believe that you are getting the best possible camera for you. You must convince yourself that you are buying the camera that will turn you into the best Photographer out there! Why? You must do this to kick your subconscious into action, so when you finally get your camera you will find it a delight to use. Remember, the easiest and most enjoyable user experience is always felt when we use the things we love the most. So, love your camera, want it, before you even “meet” it.

Conclusion

When you have successfully answered all the above questions, you will have a complete and unmistakable profile of the camera you want. When I say profile, I mean you will know what you want your camera to do and what you want it to look like. Knowing these things will help you narrow down your search. That way you will not waste time with useless researching and reviewing. So for example, when I had made up my mind about all the above, I kind of already knew that the NEX-6 was going to be my camera. I had narrowed down my wants to only a couple of choices and then it was just a matter of personal preference. I prefered the Sony to the other camera I found with the same features so, I got it. So in other words that was the camera for me. Undoubtedly and unmistakably. I couldn’t wait to get it on my hands and during the wait I got my self all psyched about finally having it. When I got it, the psychological mechanisms I mentioned in the beginning of my post kicked in and I found myself learning how to use my new camera in days. I had made the right choice and even today I feel the same way.

One more thing (Infographic)

You can view this information in the form of an infographic by visiting https://infogr.am/A-GUIDE-TO-BUYING-A-CAMERA-FOR-STREET-PHOTOGRAPHY/.

Sometimes the images on infogr.am don’t work. Don’t worry. If you check another time you can see them.

21 COMMENTS

  1. "The larger your sensor size the shallower the depth of field"
    This is not true! I see your point and what you mean, but stating the above is not true. I see this all over the Internet and even people like Zack Arias don’t understand this (I saw him in a Creative Live video where he mess this subject up really bad).
    DOF is only affected by the following:
    1. Aperture
    2. Focal length
    3. Distance to subject

    So it is the focal length that changes the DOF when comparing different senzor sizes. A camera with a small sensor must have a shorter focal length to achieve the same field of view as a a camera with a larger sensor, given everything else is unchanged.

    "I felt that even a Micro 4/3 sensor wasn’t big enough for me."
    There are several lenses (Voigtländer f/0.95) for MFT that will give you the same, or even better DOF than for APS-C cameras. So I would regard MFT and APS-C as very similar in the possibility to get shallow DOF.

    I would say that it is a benefit to use shorter lenses (along with smaller sensors) for street shooting in many situations, because it will give you the opportunity to use large aperture optics and still get enough DOF for your frame.

    I do some shooting for sport events (especially rowing) where you are located on land and shoot the boats with 400mm. I use APS-C sensor cameras and they give the same DOF as my fellow photographers standing beside me with full frame sensors using the same 400mm optics. The only difference is, I will have a 1.6x crop advantage, and hence come closer to my subjects.

    • Hello there Hans and thanks a bunch for taking the time to read my post and to provide such useful feedback!

      My opinion is that the parameters you mention definitely are the ones that determine the DOF. I will not disagree but I still think that sensor size also plays a defining role in DOF.

      I conducted an experiment with my Panasonic LX7 at 1.8 with a 50mm focal length ( equivalent in 35mm film) and the same settings with my NEX which has a much larger sensor shooting from the same distance and the results show that the larger sensor does play an important role in how shallow DOF works. I can post the results tomorrow on my G+ page if you like.

      So I would say that we are both right but I should have mentioned the parameters you did.

      Again, thank you very much for your comment and I hope to have you commenting on more of our posts in the future!

      Cheers!

      • I think the problem might be that it’s generally accepted to talk about focal length of lenses in the “35mm equivalent” sense, but when talking about the maths behind DOF we should be using the actual focal length. I think you might find that a 50mm 1.7 on a full frame camera would have the same DOF as a 50mm on Micro 4/3 (100mm equivalent) (M4/3 has a nice and easy 2x crop).

    • Hello Hans! I know i t has been a while but I just wanted you to know that today, I changed my post. I removed the DOF section completely. I replaced it with IQ instead. You were right. I needed much, much more practical hands on experimenting to understand that DOF has nothing to do with sensor size. It is all about the Aperture.

      Thank you for planting that seed in my mind 10 months ago. It never stopped bugging me.
      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

  2. "I conducted an experiment with my Panasonic LX7 at 1.8 with a 50mm focal length ( equivalent in 35mm film) and the same settings with my NEX which has a much larger sensor shooting from the same distance and the results show that the larger sensor does play an important role in how shallow DOF works. I can post the results tomorrow on my G+ page if you like."

    50mm "equivalent" on your LX7 is 50mm/4,55 (crop factor) = 11mm, so you are using a focal length of 11mm (not 50).
    This is exactly what I explained in my first comment. 50mm lens on your NEX is "equivalent" to 75mm. To get 50mm "equivalent" on your NEX you need a 33,3mm lens 50/1,5=33,33 to get the same field of view as the LX7 at 11mm (50mm equivalent). So 11mm vs 33,3mm will give you the same FOV but not the same DOF because you are using a shorter focal length on you LX7 for that FOV. The sensor is cropping your image but has nothing to do with the physics of DOF. You are using a 3x longer focal length on the NEX than on the LX7 and THAT is what gives you the shorter DOF.

    The only reason the smaller sensor camera gives you a longer DOF is because it has a lens with a shorter focal length to allow you to shoot wide angle shots, because the small sensor will only save the center area of the image circle.

    Best Regards
    Hans G Bäckman

    • Hello Hans,

      I understand the differences between the sensor sizes and the crop factors. The Panasonic LX7 gives you specific "as full frame" focal lengths. So, I don’t have to estimate or calculate anything. So for example if I look through my LX7 and it says it is at 28mm then it is at the 28mm full frame equivalent. So, let me rephrase:

      I had my LX7 set for 50mm (as it would appear through a FF camera).
      I had my APS-C NEX equipped withe the 35mm which in FF is 50mm.

      I set them up and aimed at the same target, one after the other, from the same exact spot.
      The NEX has much better shallow DOF.

      Thank you

      • This is not a fair comparison at all.

        Set the LX7 at 50mm. (forget FF equivalent)
        Set the NEX at 50mm. (forget FF equivalent)
        Same aperture same distance.

        This will yield same DOF.

        The only difference is the “crop” you will get.

        Here is a video explaining it:

        • Actually this is not possible with the LX7, since it gives you 35mm equivalent focal lengths. So unfortunately I can’t set it to 50mm by forgetting the equivalent. That means that I am forced to perform the test like this. Also, I don’t have other digital cameras 🙂

  3. "I understand the differences between the sensor sizes and the crop factors. The Panasonic LX7 gives you specific "as full frame" focal lengths. So, I don’t have to estimate or calculate anything. So for example if I look through my LX7 and it says it is at 28mm then it is at the 28mm full frame equivalent. So, let me rephrase:

    I had my LX7 set for 50mm (as it would appear through a FF camera).
    I had my APS-C NEX equipped withe the 35mm which in FF is 50mm.

    I set them up and aimed at the same target, one after the other, from the same exact spot.
    The NEX has much better shallow DOF."

    That is correct! The NEX has much shallower DOF because it is at 35mm and the LX7 is at 11mm, more than 3x longer lens. That will give you shallower DOF at the same FOV.
    /Hans

  4. I searched the Inernet and found a video that discuss this matter, it seems that many people have a problem with this matter. As I said, even Zack Arias and many other professional photographers don’t get this law of physics.

    Best regards
    Hans

  5. In the LCD versus viewfinder argument, maybe you should also mention that AGE is an important concern. As soon as you’re approaching the age of 50, your eyes become unable to focus at short distances… Which means you need reading glasses in order to view the LCD! A viewfinder is much more comfortable then.

    Kind regards,
    Arthur

    • Hello Arthur and thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I see where you are coming from and I am terribly sorry I didn’t think about this before. I guess, this is something that is learnt the hard way. So, thank you very much for the good advice. I hope you stop by more often!
      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

  6. Hi Spyros, thanks for your kind words!

    Your beautiful pictures of Crete (especially the harbour of Rethymno) bring back so many lovely memories of the holiday I spent there four years ago. We spent two weeks criss-crossing the island (which was a challenge – gasoline was hard to get at that particular time because of some strike) and I made at least a thousand holiday pictures with the Nikon D40 I owned at that time.

    Though I loved that camera, I couldn’t help but noticing that a DSLR is a LOUD device. I imagine that a mirrorless camera has advantages for street photography – a small, silent camera should be less obtrusive, especially if it has a viewfinder and not an LCD that illuminates your face so everyone notices you.

    • Hello Arthur and thanks for replying! I am glad you enjoyed your time in Crete and I would love to see some of the 1000 pictures you shot! I totally agree that a Street Camera should be small and unobtrusive. I use the Sony NEX-6 and even that at times feels “big”, even though it isn’t. It is nearly perfect for the Street. If you pair that great body with the 20mm pancake, you nearly have a pocketable camera. Images from the NEX-6 are superb in quality. I hear from friends using other mirrorless cameras that they are all satisfied with what they use. They are silent, have crazy IQ, tons of features and are usually small.

      However lately I am finding my self in need of something smaller. Something truly pocketable that delivers great images! I have my eye on the Ricoh GR as a backup and I also have been using an old Olympus mju II 35mm film camera lately. It is small, silent, fits in my pocket and delivers great shots, but film is costly. What are you shooting with these days? The D40?

  7. Hello Spyros, my current kit is a D90 with the new Sigma 17-70 2.8-4.0 “contemporary” zoom. Both are excellent value for money. That lens is mouth-wateringly sharp, I love it, it almost never comes off my camera. I also own an older Nikkor 50 mm F1.8 D (the nifty fifty) which is a bit of a disappointment, it is prone to flare and haze even though the glass is clean.

    • Sounds like you are ready to face anything with that kit Arthur! Great!
      I would love to see some of your photos. If you would like to share your work with StreetHunters, you can do so on Flickr or if you join our G+ Page you will be given access to a private StreetHunters.net Readers Community where hundreds of passionate Street Photographers like you and me exchange ideas about their passion all the time!
      Hope to see you there 🙂

      Stay Sharp & Keep Shooting!

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