Kin Chan | Choosing a camera for street photography

Stagnation

I’ve been a long term user of Fuji’s X100 (original and “T” iterations) mirrorless camera and it was this camera that really got me into street photography back in May 2011.  The fixed focal length (35mm equivalent) and dedicated manual controls (shutter speed and aperture) really forced me to learn to think about how changing these key settings enable you to translate what you see into a photo (Check out my previous blog on using manual controls for more info).

Although I am very pleased with the X100T, I feel it is time to start considering my next camera as I have become too comfortable with the Fuji and feel that I have extracted as much as I can from this wonderful camera.  I worry that I am at risk of stagnating as a street photographer, shooting at 35mm only.  I don’t intend to stop shooting with the X100T but I want to force myself to move on as a photographer and therefore it is time to think about a new camera and I want to share with you my thought process.

GAS?

When I bought the original X100 in 2011, it was based on nothing but a continuation of suffering from gear acquisition syndrome.  It sounded/looked exciting and new and very different to what was in the market at the time.  Now that I have learnt more about myself as a street photographer, it is time to structure my needs of my next camera in a more goal-driven/logical way.

Firstly let me get this off my chest…. I do not buy into the “the best camera is the one you have with you” strapline that gets banded about so much.  Of course you can shoot on the streets with any kind of camera but this is not conducive to creating good consistent work and certainly will not give you the platform for developing as a photographer.  A good studio photographer (product/fashion/portrait etc.) would never quote this line as they will have their ideal setup and stick to it unless the subject requires specific kit.  The strapline should really be “the best camera is the one that suits your photography needs and that you can carry in your hand comfortably for long periods”.

Therefore I need to think carefully about my future photography needs.

Rant over…..before considering what features I need from my next camera I need to be clear in terms of how I need to develop as a street photographer.

What are my street photography needs?

Focal Length

For me I have shot at predominantly at the 35mm focal length over the past 4 years and I feel that I need to try out the other focal lengths (28mm and 50mm) usually associated with street work.  Looking at my portfolio of work over the past few years, I definitely prefer to shot wider landscape type shots where I can try to include more context to the subject whilst keeping the composition as clean as possible.  I have recently felt constrained by the 35mm focal length.

Therefore I am interested in a 28mm focal length lens and try to take even wider compositions and understand how I can improve my compositions.  I expect that I will need to get closer to my subjects and will need to be even more careful about unwanted elements in a composition.


ISO performance

Using the 12mp X100 made me realise that megapixels is not that important for street photography (unlike portrait work) and that the ability of the camera’s sensor/image processor to capture clean images in low light is much more important.  Over the years I have done more and more street work in high contrast environments especially before sunset and I would like to push to do more street work beyond this time of the day.  Also even though I try to get the exposure in shot, the nature of fast paced, instinctive street photography means that I sometimes under-expose and need to pull back shadow details in Lightroom.

Therefore the next camera needs to be much more capable in low light conditions (e.g. cleaner/less grain at iso6400) than the already decent X100T.  Also the camera needs to produce raw files that better capture shadow/highlight details that can be better recovered in post-processing.


Usability

Using the X100 has taught me that if the camera doesn’t handle well then that will impact on your ability to shoot on the streets with the necessary smoothness needed to capture the moment as it passes in front of you.  There are a few areas that I consider critical for a camera to be useable on the streets.

CONTROLS – Using the X100 has taught the importance of physical dials/buttons for the key parameters that you would change to capture the shot in your mind.  I have switched between the X100 and the Canon and always find that the Canon’s control dials are much less intuitive for changing shutter speed/aperture.  I have gotten used to keeping the shutter speed fixed and making minor aperture and ISO adjustments to get the exposure I need.  Therefore the next camera needs to have both dedicated shutter and aperture dials and I would love to have a dedicated dial for ISO too.  This is missing from the X100 and pressing a Fn button and scrolling through the menu is too slow for the streets.

WEIGHT - In addition to the X100(~450g), I have a Canon 5d3 and the size and weight of the Canon (~1600g with a sigma 35mm 1.4) really makes it quite tiring to shoot on the streets for long periods.  These days a typical session on the streets last 3 to 4 hours and the weight difference makes a huge difference in how comfortable I feel shooting on the street.  One of the main reasons for my love of street photography is that I feel relaxed strolling around interesting places and the physical stresses of holding a heavy camera/prime lens really does make it less enjoyable. Therefore the next camera needs to be closer to 500g and definitely less than 1000g. 

SIZE - I am not too concerned on the physical size of the camera just as long as the weight is minimised. I usually have my camera on a wrist strap (another reason for less weight) and rarely put it in my small messenger bag during a session on the street.  Therefore the ability for your camera to fit into your pocket is a redundant feature as this would get in the way of capturing the shot.

WEATHER SEALING – There is one aspect of the X100 that I have been disappointed with and that is the lack of weather sealing. I always wonder what it would be like to shoot on the streets in the rain and capture how life changes with inclement weather.  I have tried to shot with the weather sealed Canon on the streets but my sigma 35mm 1.4 is not weather sealed so this is a functionality that I would be keen to have in my next camera. 

FOCUSING – Although the X100T made big advances in terms of the speed and consistency of its autofocusing system, it is still lagging behind the field and causes annoying missed shots.  This is especially pronounced in low light where the Canon can keep hitting focus lock whilst the X100 hunts and hunts until it is too late.  The new camera must have much improved low light focusing abilities to go alongside the cleaner image quality as mentioned above.

The ability to further my manual focusing skills is also a key factor for the next camera as I want to develop my zone focusing capabilities.  The fly-by-wire nature of the X100 manual focusing system is totally unusable and I end up autofocusing on a spot on the floor at the distance that I want to shot and then flip the switch to MF, locking the focusing at that distance.  This workaround is not helping me to judge distances and I need a camera to support this aspect of my development.

VIEWFINDERS – Although the X100 has both Optical and Electronic viewfinders, I have found myself predominantly using the EVF for most occasions (the EVF is not good in low light conditions).  Of more importance is the ability of the rear screen to rotate/flip so that I can further develop my “shoot from the hip” technique.  Although I do a lot of this type of shooting style with the X100 (and learnt to understand the impact of angling the camera on composition), it would be great for the next camera to be able to physically view the composition without having to use the EVF.

So what am I going to get next?

Given the above I am currently looking at four cameras.

·         Leica Q

·         Sony RX1R ii

·         Sony A7Rii + 28mm f2

·         Fuji X-T1 +18mm f2

I’ll post another blog on which one I chose in the end and why!

Kin


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