The equipment you choose will depend on how you approach street photography. If, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, you prefer keeping a low profile, you will tend to choose smaller, less conspicuous equipment. On the other hand, if you’re a confident photographer who is happy to engage with subjects (like Diane Arbus), the visibility of your equipment will be irrelevant. The following tips will guide you to the best types of gear for street photography, whichever of the approaches you take…

Most kinds of portable cameras can be used for street photography. Early photographers favoured rangefinder cameras with ‘standard’ (50mm equivalent) or moderate wide-angle (35mm) lenses, although shorter telephoto lenses (90mm to 110mm) were used by some photographers because they delivered a slightly flatter perspective that suited two-dimensional prints. This type of camera is still in use today, although generally with a digital image sensor.

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A moderate wide-angle lens (equivalent to a 35mm focal length in 35mm format) provides a natural-looking perspective in situations where you can shoot close to subjects without disturbing them.

In general, street photography is best practised with gear that doesn’t restrict your mobility. This is much easier today when we have cameras that perform well at high sensitivity settings and cameras and lenses with built-in stabilisation. The following tips will get you started, whichever of the approaches you take.

1. Leave your tripod at home. It adds to the amount of equipment you have to carry and can create an obstruction in crowded places.

2. Pick one ““ or at the most two ““ lenses. Constantly worrying about which lens to use and swapping between lenses will distract you from your main objective: taking pictures. If you can’t settle on a prime lens, choose a short zoom lens that covers a suitable focal length range (24-70mm should cover most situations).

3. Use of flash is debatable but if you want to remain inconspicuous, give it a miss.

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Long telephoto lenses (in this case equivalent to 400mm in 35mm format), will allow you to photograph people without being noticed. But they compress perspective quite dramatically.

Cameras for street photography

Most modern cameras can be used for street photography so if you have a camera that you are comfortable using it’s likely to be suitable. There are advantages and disadvantages in different camera types and features that achieve the speed, stealth and reliability necessary.

DSLR cameras combine the advantages of optical viewfinders, fast autofocusing, low noise with high-ISO settings and a wide range of lenses to choose from. They tend to have larger sensors, which support shallow depth-of-field control. However, they are larger, heavier and more conspicuous than other types of camera and may lack some useful features.

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DSLR cameras provide plenty of scope for street photographers and can deliver excellent image quality. But they are relatively bulky and make users more conspicuous than smaller cameras.

Mirrorless cameras can also provide a wide choice of lenses and often match the imaging performance of DSLRs. They are usually smaller and lighter than DSLRs and, therefore, less conspicuous. Many come with excellent electronic viewfinders (EVFs) and touch-screen monitors and some can rival DSLRs for depth-of-field control. Silent shutters are provided in models with electronic shutter controls. Autofocusing may not be quite as fast as in a DSLR, unless phase-detection pixels are embedded in the sensor. But it’s usually fast enough for street shooting and touch focus/shutter functions can enable photographers to snap shots without being noticed.

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Mirrorless cameras provide most of the advantages of DSLRs (including excellent image quality) but are usually smaller and lighter and, consequently less conspicuous.

Rangefinder cameras may combine the large sensor and imaging performance of a DSLR with the compact body size of a mirrorless camera.   Some have optical viewfinders, others EVFs and yet others use hybrid viewfinders that offer both optical and electronic viewing. Shutter action is almost silent and focusing can be both fast and accurate.

Fixed-lens compact cameras eliminate the need to choose a lens since they come with integrated prime or zoom lenses.  Usually more compact than other camera types, these cameras come with different sensor sizes. Sensors larger than 12.8 x 9.6 mm will deliver better image quality than smaller digicam sensors. Many of the functions offered by interchangeable-lens cameras are included.

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Although not ideal for street photography, smart-phones have the advantage of being small, light and relatively inconspicuous.

Smart-phones are ‘the camera that’s always with you’ so they’re often used for casual snapshots. Being commonly used by almost everybody as well as small and relatively inconspicuous, they can also be used for street photography. But their tiny sensors and limited controls restrict the types of shots you can take and how you use the images.

Factors to consider when choosing a camera

1. Fast response times. Cameras for street photography must be ready to shoot straight after they are turned on. They should also respond quickly in auto mode, particularly with respect to autofocusing and auto exposure. When a potential shot pops up unexpectedly you may not have time to configure the camera. Being able to switch to auto gives you a fair chance of getting a decent exposure.

2.Fast autofocusing with quick manual over-ride. Both are necessary in situations where the photographer must respond quickly to the scene. If it takes a quarter of a second to focus the lens, the ‘decisive moment’ will be missed and it will be obvious that you’re taking a picture. A good street camera should make it easy to focus manually with speed and accuracy, even before you raise it to your eye.

3. A quiet shutter. Shutters that make a loud click will attract peoples’ attention and can prevent you from getting the shot you wanted. Cameras with electronic shutters can operate silently; if your camera has only a mechanical shutter, it needs to be very quiet.

4. Fast buffer clearing.  Check how long it takes for images to be processed and stored because for street photography you need to be able to shoot very quickly. Scenes can change dramatically within a split second and it’s easy to miss great shots if you can’t shoot while the last picture is being processed. The camera’s buffer capacity should be enough to allow continuous shooting while the previous image is being transferred.

5. Intuitive manual exposure controls.  Autoexposure can slow a camera down in changing lighting so photographers need to be able to change settings quickly as they shift between front-and back-lit subjects or bright sunlight and shadow. Having to scroll through menus to make sure settings are accurate will cause shots to be missed. Look for physical dials or rings that put all the shutter speeds and apertures at your fingertips.

6. Good low light capability.  The larger the camera’s sensor, the greater the chance of it supporting fast shutter speeds and delivering reasonable image quality at high ISO settings. Small-sensor cameras tend to produce noticeable noise above about ISO 400. Their lenses are also slower, further reducing their low-light capabilities.

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The larger the camera’s sensor, the better its potential for use in low light levels. A mirrorless camera with an APS-C sized sensor was used to capture this night shot, using ISO 3200 sensitivity.

7. Depth of field preview.   When you want to get as much as possible in focus, you need to be able to confirm it. While calculating depth of field may be possible in your head, a preview button or depth of field scale on the lens lets you see what’s sharp instantly.

8. An eye-level viewfinder.  Most successful street photographs are composed in the viewfinder, even if only with a brief glance. Using the LCD monitor slows you down and can be difficult in bright outdoor lighting. It doesn’t matter whether it’s optical or electronic, although the latter is preferable when you want to shoot movie clips. When using an optical viewfinder (OVF) on a DSLR, you see the action happening in real time, except when the mirror is raised to take the picture. An EFV gives an uninterrupted view of the action, but some have slow refresh rates and some can distort colour. Many OVFs do not show the full image frame.

9. Light weight. When you’re walking the streets taking pictures, the weight of your equipment will dictate how long you can shoot comfortably and whether the camera can become an extension of yourself. Heavy equipment will soon wear you down, even if you’re young and fit. If your camera tilts forward when it’s carried on a neck strap it will get in the way. Changing to a shorter lens may prevent this from happening but camera bodies that are designed to be heavy at the front are, almost inevitably, uncomfortable to use for street photography.    

10. Image Stabilisation. It doesn’t matter whether the system is integrated into the camera or lens, image stabilisation (IS) will expand your shooting options, enabling use of slower shutter speeds and/or lower ISO settings. Effective IS lets you shoot while moving, pan effectively, use challenging camera angles and take shots that would otherwise be affected by camera shake.

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Olympus was the first manufacturer to introduce five-axis image stabilisation, using   a coil and magnet cradle that ‘floats’ the image sensor, allowing it to move freely to compensate for camera motion. This system can correct the gentle vibration that occurs when the photographer shoots while walking, and is valuable for recording video.

Other Factors

Several other aspects of camera design can be worth considering, depending on your style of photography. These are listed in no particular order.

1. Articulated monitors. Tilting or fully-articulated monitor screens can make it easier to shoot with the camera held at waist level or above your head to gain a different angle of view. They can also enable you to photograph scenes that might otherwise be difficult to record, such as round corners, through mesh or between bars.

2. Touch-screen controls. Although slightly slower to operate than triggering with the regular shutter button, touch-screen focusing ensures the focus is where you want it in the scene and touch shutter activation can be handy for ‘stealth’ shooting.

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Touch-screen controls can be handy when you’re taking photos in a crowded situation.

3. Weather-proof sealing. Although they’re not essential for street photography, a weather-sealed camera will allow you to take pictures in light rain without worrying about ruining your gear.

4. Focusing and exposure aids. It’s nice to have some reassurance that your shots are sharp. Built-in aids like focus peaking and magnified displays and highlight/shadow clipping indicators will show you quickly where problems could exist.

5. Histogram displays.   Brightness histograms provide instant feedback on exposure levels and enable you to adjust exposures to suit the subject. RGB histograms will help you to identify colour biases.

6. DNG.RAW support. Naturally you’ll shoot raw files but, given the varied performance of bundled raw converters, you will probably want to use a third-party converter.   If you’ve just bought a new camera, it can take a month or two for developers of third-party software to support it. With DNG.RAW you can use your favourite converter from day one.

7. Wi-Fi and NFC. Built-in Wi-Fi lets you share images you’ve captured on-the-spot via a smartphone, while NFC makes it easy to connect your camera to your phone for sharing. You can also use your smartphones to remotely control the camera from a distance of several metres.

8. Effective power usage. You don’t want your camera to run out of power half-way through a shoot, yet this can happen when cameras are rated as low as 300 shots/charge. Larger batteries will provide longer shooting capacity and cameras that manage power consumption intelligently can improve the duration of a full charged battery.  Battery grips can make it easy to add an extra battery and double your shooting capacity.

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Compact, mirrorless cameras that include electronic viewfinders and accept interchangeable lenses are ideal for street photography.  

Most street photographers settle on one or two cameras and one or two lenses. The trick is to choose equipment you’re comfortable with. Find your preferred shooting style and try to match the equipment to it. For the best photographers, the camera becomes a tool to record their vision; not an end in itself.

Useful links

Compact system camera buying guide

Takehiko Nakafuji OM-D gallery  

This article is an excerpt from  Street Photography pocket guide  

Sponsor: Olympus PEN-F  

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