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What makes a camera specifically well suited for street photography? Good question. In a genre that appreciates the gritty, the spontaneous, the accidental, the mistake, you can pretty much use whatever works for you. If you are comfortable with a camera and can operate it with acuity, the resolution, ISO sensitivity, dynamic range, and all the relentlessly discussed quantifiable factors are much less important than the way you interact with people, understand the rhythms of the street, and recognize the qualities of light. However, there are a few camera features that do jibe well with street photography and in general, stealth, speed, and dependability are key elements. Features like the LCD screen, viewfinder, AF speed, continuous shooting speed, lens’s focal length and aperture, and even onboard flash should be considered important. This is not to say that sensor type and ISO capability aren’t factors in street photography, but not necessarily more so than in any other type of photography.
Below is a select group of digital cameras that I think make solid street performers; they’re chosen from the DSLR, mirrorless, and point-and-shoot sub-categories. As I mentioned, almost any camera can be good for capturing the energy, oddities, and compositions of the urban scene, so please use the comment section to let us know what camera you find right for this application.
Let’s start with the legend. The M (Typ 240) digital rangefinder is slightly bigger than other M models but has very quiet shutter action, which is a benefit in the street. Its 3.0" LCD screen provides live view capability, and shooting the rangefinder through the optical viewfinder with manual focus is an old-school treat. The M is also compatible with an optional electronic viewfinder, which mounts on the hot shoe. ISO sensitivity runs to 6400 and noise is minimal at ISOs up to 3200. With its 24MP full-frame CMOS sensor, image quality, especially jpeg, is phenomenal, but that you already knew. Use it with almost any M-mount lens but, for street photography, try the Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH lens.
Would it be fair to call the X100T the poor man’s Leica? If so, call me a poor man. The X100T looks like an older, simple 35mm camera—but don’t be fooled, it is a high-performance digital gem with a 16.3MP APS-C X–Trans CMOS sensor and built-in 23mm f/2 lens for an equivalent focal length of 35mm. The X-Trans sensor is well known for its image quality and color rendition, and its EXR Image Processor II enables effective low-light imaging at high ISOs and fast performance up to 6 fps continuous shooting. An Advanced Hybrid Viewfinder offers an optical and electronic viewfinder in one, with eye sensor, to automatically switch on when needed. A 3.0" LCD monitor is also supported, as well as built-in flash and hot shoe. Shutter action is almost silent and the X100T incorporates an electronic shutter with completely silent action and shutter speeds up to 1/32,000-second. Hybrid AF is fast and accurate and a total boon for street shooting. Built-in Wi-Fi and 1080p video just add to its list of great features.
I have been shooting the Canon G series point-and-shoots since the G3 and find them to be ideal street cameras. The G1 X Mark II has the big 1.5" sensor, carried over from the G1 X, and houses a wider and longer 24-120mm f/2-3.9 lens. Its processor was improved, too, so AF and continuous-shooting performance is faster. The camera has a solid rubber grip and is the right size—more compact but not too small for working in the street. Speed is a plus on the Mark II, but the G1 X had an optical viewfinder, which was replaced on the Mark II by an optional EVF, and my favorite feature, the fully articulating LCD, which made discreet waist-level shooting such a joy, has been replaced by a selfie-friendly tilt-up LCD. However, the LCD is now touchscreen capable and the camera features dual control rings around the lens and an adjustable pop-up flash that extends higher than most, above the body.
A lot of camera is packed into this compact mirrorless body. It has a 28.2MP APS-C sensor in a sturdy frame that is pocket-sized; including its nicely curved grip (one-handed operation can be crucial in a street crunch). High-resolution image quality is its calling card, as is high ISO capability and its continuous shooting speed of 9 fps at full resolution. Hybrid autofocus is fast, especially in daylight. While not the focus of this piece, the NX500 offers 4K video capture and easy Wi-Fi connectivity. Its tiltable LCD has very responsive touch focus but, to remain compact, there is no viewfinder. Try it with the Samsung 30mm f/2.0 NX Pancake Lens or 16mm f/2.4 Ultra Wide Pancake Lens.
It was suggested to me to include the Canon 5D Mark III with a 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens, and while the 5D Mk III is still a mainstay of pros and enthusiasts in all fields of photography, the D750 stands out as the choice for street photography among full-frame DSLRs. Its 24.3MP CMOS sensor and EXPEED 4 image processor are state-of-the-art and ensure high image quality and performance, but its 51-point autofocus system with AF detection and sensitivity down to -3 EV with 15 cross-type points really stands out for its fast and accurate autofocus. The 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor and the Scene Recognition System provide accurate and consistent exposure and help to maintain focus when shooting high-speed bursts of images. Physically, it is a bit smaller than most full-framers and has a deep, very comfortable handgrip. Also, a tilt-out LCD, a first for a full-frame DSLR, can help in moments when discretion would prevent you from bringing the camera to your eye. While there are more affordable options, if you’re in it to win it, try the D750 with the AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G lens.
While the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II is Olympus’s camera of the moment, and certainly a great performer, I’m including the PEN E-P5 because my experience shooting this camera was simply wonderful, and its smaller size and weight enable it to be readily available in your everyday bag or even as a pocket carry. Image quality and performance are notable, with a 9 fps continuous shooting speed and a 1/8000-second high-speed mechanical shutter. Five-Axis image stabilization minimizes blur and IS in live view mode is supported when composing on the 3.0" tilting touchscreen LCD. The optional VF-4 electronic viewfinder is part of this kit and the 17mm f/1.8 lens provides a 34mm focal length equivalence with low-light capability and shallow-depth-of-field control. Its retro-styled body is compact and solid.
While several Sony cameras could easily be on this list, including the full-frame RX1 with fixed 35mm lens, or the a7II mirrorless, or even an earlier incarnation of the RX100, I’m going to stick with the RX 100 IV, for its ultra-compact form factor and high-performance specs, which now include a 1/32,000-second electronic shutter and a built-in three-stop neutral density filter. Its new stacked sensor technology and DRAM memory chip work to improve clarity in low light, reduce noise and improve autofocus. Burst shooting is up to 16 fps in maximum resolution, and customizable buttons will help keep you working fast. A 3.0" high-resolution multi-angle LCD allows odd-angle and discreet shooting, and the camera has a pop-up electronic viewfinder that maintains the camera’s compact form while enabling stable eye-level composition. Its Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* f/1.8-2.8 lens provides a 24-70mm focal length equivalence and direct 4K video is also supported on this little dynamo.
Sleek and inconspicuous, the new GR II is a point-and-shoot ready to take on the streets with fast settings adjustments, a narrow profile, and 16.2MP APS-C format sensor that omits its optical low pass filter for ultra-sharp and detailed images. A fixed 28mm equivalent lens, with f/2.8 maximum aperture, is ideal for inclusive street photography and its High-Speed Autofocus system locks on its subject in just 0.2 seconds. Its magnesium-alloy body, with a large, comfortable, handgrip (for such a small body) makes this a very durable, easy-to tote, no nonsense camera.
As always, this list should be seen as the start of a conversation, and I look forward to the comments telling me what worthy cameras were not mentioned. Also, please keep an eye out for our follow-up piece, “5 Recommended Film Cameras for Street Photography.”