I’ve owned quite a few cameras, film and digital. Some were used for newspaper work, most for artistic purposes or personal memories. Lately I have been drawn to candid photography trending between street and documentary. Not all cameras are created equal for the purpose and I will explain my choices here pertaining to digital cameras.
Film cameras are not the focus of this post, but anyone wanting one can check out used Leicas on Ebay. I particularly like the M2. You can find a lot of cheaper older IIIc models, but they might need some work. My M4-P was also a great camera. Leicas are the Rolls Royces of film cameras and have been documenting life in the hands of the greatest photographers since before World War II. So no contest there, they are built like Swiss vaults. Their digital cameras, I wouldn’t bother unless I was rich and would consider them disposable.
A street camera should be discreet, meaning small. When a subject sees you take their photograph they change. It’s like quantum mechanics! The observer changes the state of the subject. You do not want people to see you take their photo. You don’t see actors looking straight at the camera in movies, there are good reasons for this. There are exceptions of course and street portraits can be beautiful, but generally, you want to be a ninja photographer. This practically eliminates DSLRs which today are huge with large lenses. That leaves mirrorless cameras.
Panasonic Lumix GM5
The first feature I find necessary is a viewfinder. Taking a photo with the back screen is an exercise I don’t want to get used to. I can’t understand why anyone would buy a camera without one. I find it much more natural and easier to frame an image through a viewfinder, and I like it to be in the corner, not in the middle where it forces you to hide your face behind the camera. If your subject sees you, better have a smile on your face, it might avoid you some trouble, looking like some pervert taking snapshots for dubious reasons.
Size matters, as far as sensors are concerned. Though image quality isn’t the primary focus in Street and documentary photography, a minimum of resolution is necessary. I consider three sizes of sensors to be large enough for the task: Full frame, APS-C and Micro-4/3rd. Bigger is better, but larger sensors mean a larger and sometimes more expensive camera. I used a Fuji X100S with an APS-C sensor producing unbelievable images, but it always felt flimsy and indeed died after 5K shots. I now have opted for Micro-4/3rd (Lumix GM5) which are smaller and just good enough with quality prime lenses (fixed focal, not zooms). Forget megapixels, today they are meaningless. Anything with 10mp or above is plenty. Spend money on good glass, not more megapixels.
Depending on where you live and the type of photography you like, you might want to get a weather sealed camera and lenses. You will pay a premium but if you don’t mind working in the rain, more power to you. If you hope to work for a newspaper of press agency, it is a must. Cameras like the Fuji X-Pro2 or Sony a6300 would be prime examples, though Sony has few lenses available and fewer bright ones even. Fuji, I am suspicious about now. Olympus has great OM-D models but with the viewfinder in the wrong place (for me). I wish their new Pen-F model was weather-sealed. I am now in the North of France and ordered a Lumix GM5 which is not weather sealed. That will limit my time outside quite a bit, given that it rains an average of 220 days a year here, which is why I don’t plan on staying too long! My next camera might be an Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII, too bad for the viewfinder position, but it is a pretty rugged camera.
That is pretty much it. Again, the lenses are where you should spend your money. Get a 35mm equivalent: 23mm for APS-C and 17mm for Micro-4/3rd. A 35mm is always a 35mm on Full frame of course, and be done with it. Avoid zooms, there are just too many optical elements in them and quality suffers. Try to get a lens with an aperture of 2.8 or brighter (2.0, 1.8, 1.4…) if you can afford one. Get a spare battery and memory card. I also like to get a UV filter to protect my lenses, and a small metal lens hood.
I will review the Panasonic Lumix GM5 as soon as I get it (Monday) and take a couple hundred shots. They have been discontinued unfortunately, and there are a few remaining in stock, so if you want one, hurry up if you don’t want to have to buy a used one. They are also fairly cheap for a Micro-4/3rd. camera with a kit lens included. The GM5 is small and has all the features I want in a street camera but the weather sealing, including price.