They always say that it doesn’t matter which camera you have… that you can just take the camera you own right now and take it to the streets. After trying street photography with the same kit you use to photograph birds, you may realise that there are several distinct camera characteristics that are beneficial for street photography. After being into street shooting for a while now, I can list some of my own preferred specs, based own my own empirical studies. The following observations will apply to both analog and digital.
To be completely honest, when I’m shooting on the streets, I’m more than aware that some people might get offended about being photographed. I don’t know why exactly that is, but it is somehow embedded to the human mind. The kind of people who will take an offend, causes me to feel like there’s something wrong or criminal about photography. Street photography certainly isn’t a crime. It is a documentary art form. I don’t like being confronted and my camera choices and shooting techniques are chosen bearing that in mind. Street shooting almost makes me feel like a spy. What kind of camera would a spy use?
1. Precise shutter response
One of the many reasons I like mechanical cameras, is the spot-on shutter response. I really want to feel at my finger tip, when the camera is about to go off. Mechanical camera is operated by gears, levers and springs and you can really feel the tactile spring tension at your fingers, as the shutter is about to fire. It is always precise and predictable. The lack of this precision is one of the biggest hurdles that I have with some digital cameras. I’d love to get as close to mechanical shutter response on digital camera as possible. My previous digital camera, Canon EOS M3 had a very poor shutter response. It sometimes fired couple of seconds later after the shutter was pressed. Prior to that, a significant delay in poor autofocus usually took place. Very frustrating issue that caused me to miss a lot of carefully timed shots. This is something that I really want to emphasis as it is a critical feature in a camera. Much more critical than mega-pixel count or any other technical specification that are used for competitive marketing. Fast and precise camera is a joy to use. In fact, it helps you to forget the entire camera and give you more space to concentrate on the actual photography. Precise shutter response is one of things that will make you feel like the camera is an extension to your body. I want my camera to fire at the same instant as I press the button, no matter whether it’s on focus or not. I hate the feeling when the shutter feels more like a request to take the photo while the camera is computing and processing. The camera needs to fire as soon as the neurons fires up in your brain and you press the shutter almost sub-consciously, on instinct.
2. Small size
I find that a small camera is really beneficial for street photography for obvious reasons. Small camera is easy handle and light to carry around. It will look less intimidating than a big camera. People seem to take less offence on small camera. People seem to ignore small cameras. It’s less visible and draws very little attention.
I’d avoid too flashy cameras. I’d get rid of the big neck strap that has a huge red Canon logo, not to mention a 300mm white L-series lens. All that will draw immediate attention to you and you cannot point that thing anywhere without getting noticed.
On the other hand you could perhaps use flashiness to you advantage. What if you’d take a large format camera to the streets. Something like that would draw positive attention to you and there would probably be a horde of people asking you about it and wanting to take their picture with it. Ok, that’s another topic I guess. If you want to stay “invisible” and take candid documentary style photos, I’d definitely favour an invisible camera too, that looks very ordinary.
I’ve really learned to value quiet shutter sounds. It is one of those quite obvious things. The streets may be noisy which helps to cover the shutter sound, but more often than not, the sound may very well be what reveals you.
Friendly looking camera is probably one of the less obvious considerations. How can a camera look friendly? If your camera can be considered as friendly, it will help to take some of that scare factor away from people.
I’d prefer a camera that doesn’t look professional. If you manage to give the impression that you are a professional photographer, people may think that the photo is going to be used commercially etc. The uncertainty of the usage of the image is something that really worries people. When you get confronted people will often ask “why did you take that picture” or “what are you taking that picture for”. They usually seem to have a worry in their mind that the picture is actually going to be used somewhere. For some reason that is alarming to people. A regular camera doesn’t necessary give that impression. A standard looking point and shoot camera will give the impression that it is something you just took for the heck of it. Pro DSLR with a big lens may give the impression that you are a commissioned photographer and your subject’s face is going to be seen on a billboard somewhere.
7. Amateur looking
Relating to the previous point, I’d strongly favour a camera that looks amateurish, but would still be sufficient under the hood. I actually like cameras that would fit an elderly tourist. If that makes any sense… because some tourists are, of course, over-equipped with the latest and most expensive Sonys, which they use to take pictures of statues. But let’s ignore them and imagine a stereotypical tourist who has a nice little point and shoot camera that they use to take boring and non-harmful travel photos of the family and some statues. With that kind of camera, you can really go undetected right under peoples noses.