NOTE: This is a Guest Blog post written by Patrick Walkowicz exclusively for www.streethunters.net.
Since the first digital cameras were introduced, we’ve seen a rapid technology development over the years. While more than a decade ago it was a luxury to have a camera that produced a clean ISO 800, today’s cameras offer a great picture quality at ISO 6400 and higher. Along with the digital sensor technology advancements came quick and increasingly reliable autofocus, continuous shooting modes, instant picture preview and constantly growing and virtually unlimited storage capacity. Camera manufacturers are competing against one another, releasing even more capable cameras each year. Better high ISO performance, more frames per second in continuous mode, wider dynamic range and better AF performance dominate the headlines with each new camera release. Today’s top camera will be obsolete in 5 years or mediocre at best. This provokes a question – how much is enough? What’s the point of technology advancement where only you and your skills can be a limitation to taking great photographs?
After all, street photography masters a few decades ago didn’t have AF, an ability to choose ISO for each shot, continuous shooting mode, or even a built-in light meter.
It’s All In Your Hands
Although I certainly appreciate digital technology and being able to dial ISO 3200 for my low-light documentary work without a second thought, I don’t think we need anything more that is available to us today. In fact, we’re being spoiled at every step. As we can’t blame our failures on the technology, we need to accept we’re the ones responsible for the final result. It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that the latest camera will somehow make us better photographers.
Although good picture quality at high ISOs and great AF performance can be handy, the latest and greatest camera won’t help your composition and observation skills. Therefore, buying the new camera with all the bells and whistles in hopes of improving your street photography skills is just like buying a Formula 1 car hoping to get to work faster during the rush hour. Although manufacturers would prefer you to believe so, the latest gear won’t automatically make you a great photographer – you have to do the work yourself. The camera won’t put you in the right place at the right time or make you notice the potential of the scenes happening in front of your eyes. It won’t compose your pictures for you either.
Invest In Memories
Don’t get me wrong – you shouldn’t deny yourself good quality and reliable gear just for the sake of it. However, if you’ve already got Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D800 or similar, or a nice compact or mirrorless camera, and are tempted to upgrade to the latest version, maybe it’s worth investing in an experience instead and booking a street photography trip to a place you’ve always wanted to visit or a workshop you’ve wanted to attend? Perhaps you might have a decent crop body with a good lens and are facing a choice between going full frame or booking a trip? The fact is, after a few days or maybe weeks you won’t be excited about your new equipment anymore – it will just become another possession in your inventory – just like a toothbrush or a set of socks.
If you let yourself get caught in this cycle (also know as Gear Acquisition Syndrome or G.A.S.), you’ll be lusting after the next generation camera as soon as it comes out and your once new and shiny camera won’t feel sufficient anymore. However, your experiences and photos from your trips will stay with you for the rest of your life and will never become obsolete.
Don’t get me wrong – you shouldn’t deny yourself good gear if you can get it. What I’m advising is a pragmatic approach to choosing your equipment and realising your camera is just a tool and nothing more. If you can afford the best gear out there – by all means get it. And if you can’t – don’t get discouraged. You can still get great shots, no matter what gear you’re using at the moment. As long as you make developing your observation skills a priority, you’ll be able to get good street photos with any gear once you get comfortable using it.
Is Bigger Really Better?
There’s one more aspect to cameras – their size and weight. Although personally I don’t mind lugging around my Nikon D3 with a wide angle zoom, I’m far from stealthy on the streets with that camera on me. Although I like my Nikon’s picture quality and how it gets out of my way while shooting, I’m looking for more compact camera alternatives for street work. Although I still can achieve what I want in street photography with a big DSLR, I feel like a smaller camera gives me an additional advantage on the streets as people usually won’t treat you as a professional photographer, therefore giving you more freedom to shoot unnoticed. While they might feel threatened when they see a big lens pointed towards them, they’re much more likely to ignore a small, vintage-looking camera (think Fuji X100 series or X-T1, Nikon DF etc.).
While almost everybody notices my big D3 when I walk around (especially in more remote places in the world), with a mirrorless camera I feel almost invisible – it amazes me how people don’t seem to notice me taking photos. On top of that, you almost don’t feel the weight of a mirrorless camera around your neck.
Another alternative worth considering in the DSLR world is Nikon DF. Contrary to a common complaint about the camera’s dials getting in the way, I’ve recently decided to swap my D3 for the DF with a prime lens and so far it’s been great. It offers a picture quality of Nikon D4 in a small and discreet form factor, which is handy on the streets. While it’s not a perfect camera, I find it to best match my criteria in terms of responsiveness, picture quality, battery life and subtle looks.
Appreciate What You Have
All differences aside, does the camera even matter? In the end, you’re the most important part of the equation and camera is just a tool to capture photographs. On top of that, there’s no such thing as a perfect street photography camera – they all have their quirks.
If you’re able to handle your camera well enough to get the shot, you’ll be just fine. In general, I think that as photographers, we have a problem appreciating what we have, especially nowadays with new shiny cameras being released every few months. There are adverts all over the place creating demand and desire to upgrade to the latest and greatest thing, distracting us from focusing on the most important part which is the actual process of taking pictures.
As long as your camera is reasonably new, you’ll be just fine. Although reading through forums you’re sure to find opinions that it’s not worth using a DSLR without an arsenal of top-of-the-line prime lenses and that you should spend a fortune before you’ll be able to take decent photos, it’s not healthy to fall into a trap of thinking like that. First of all, even the best and most expensive camera won’t give you better results than a budget body with a kit lens if you don’t know how to use it. Such camera won’t put you in the right place at the right time, either. The fact is, you can successfully shoot on the streets with a basic body with a kit lens. It may be limiting in low light, but for daylight street photography, it will be just fine.
Start With What You Have
The key to taking good street photos is just to get out there with the camera that you already have and get as much experience as you can. Don’t expect that upgrading your camera will make you a better photographer. Yes, it might be more reliable, might feel nicer in your hands, the build quality may be better and so on. However, it won’t make you a better photographer as such. It won’t make you more observant or magically attract interesting scenes – that part is entirely up to you, not your camera.
As Woody Allen once said – eighty percent of success is showing up. Instead of spending hours looking for the perfect camera online, go out there and get more actual experience as a photographer. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions (or even the perfect weather!) – start now with the tools at hand. As you’ll get more experience and awareness as a street photographer, you’ll know how to benefit from more advanced gear and use it to its full potential. Until then – use what you have and focus on taking better and more interesting pictures.
Your Camera Doesn’t Always Matter
So does camera even matter? Although smaller cameras are more stealthy on the streets, you can get the shot with just about any camera, as long as you’re comfortable using it. If the camera is a clear limitation to achieving what you want – it’s worth upgrading it. On the other hand, if you’re thinking about stepping up because you think it will automatically make you a better photographer – think twice.
If you feel stuck with your street photography and already have a camera that is good enough for what you want to do – you’re much better off investing your money in memorable experiences, photography trips, workshops, mentorships or street photography books as they will benefit your street photography much more than any gear out there.