The best street photography gear (for me)
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The best camera for street photography is …. Okay, disregard that last sentence. I threw that in there for SEO purposes. The truth is, the gear you choose is one of the least important choices you can make as a beginning street photographer. I’ve seen street photos taken with smart phones that are truly stunning and I’ve seen shots made with Leicas that are pure crap.
Gear doesn’t matter … except it does.
Let’s face it, things like responsive auto-focus, high ISO performance, image resolution and even size, weight and ergonomics do matter. None of that will make you a better photographer but at some point, it matters. While your street photography gear shouldn’t define you, your kit can say a lot about your shooting style and even what you value in a camera.
This is a rundown of what I use and why I like it.
Olympus OMD EM1. This is the Olympus flagship camera — and it is simply a beast when it comes to pound-for-pound performance. This is my go-to camera for reportage photography. It has Olympus’ trademark 5-axis stabilization built into the body, can shoot 10fps, tops out with a 1/8000 shutter speed and has a maximum 25,600 ISO. With the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens, it’s completely weather sealed and able to withstand freezing temperatures. For events, I’ll usually add the battery grip, which really balances it out with bigger lenses, such as the Olympus 35-100mm f/2.0 (That zoom weighs 3.6 pounds, by the way, which is more than three times the weight of the EM1.) The 16 megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor is plenty big enough for the type of photography I do, which is mostly street and travel. However, if I was a professional portrait or landscape photographer, maybe I’d feel differently. Of course, The Big Dog might disagree.
The EM1 has other functions that I don’t use very often but really should, such as focus peaking and WiFi. It’s on the large side of the mirrorless range but it’s still much smaller and lighter than your typical DSLR. And while it’s not my everyday street photography camera, it’s usually in my bag when I travel. It has some shortcomings — grain is a factor at 1600 ISO and above and there’s still some issues with auto focus when used with some of the legacy Four Thirds lenses (such as the 35-100mm zoom), despite the claim that those issues have been fixed. Overall, however, I love this camera.
Olympus OMD EM5. For me, this camera was a game changer. It convinced me to sell my Nikon D7000 and lenses and go all-in with the MFT system. I remember pulling the EM5 out of the box and, even though I knew it was going to be small, thinking to myself, “Oh shit, what have I done?” That trepidation disappeared pretty quickly when I realized that I could stick the EM5 and two lenses in a bag, carry it around all day, and not even notice the weight. That’s huge when you’re traveling. It is a wonderful camera for street photography and was the camera I carried every day to work until I bought the Ricoh GR. Performance-wise, it’s very close to the EM1 — so much so, I’d say that if you’ve got the EM5, don’t bother upgrading. I bought the EM1 because I wanted a second body.
The EM5 is slightly smaller than EM1 but the sensor is essentially the same, as is the 5-axis stabilization [I’m no technical expert. I’d advise checking out Gordon Laing’s write up here if you’re interested in what the specs mean]. It’s weather-sealed, though it’s not freeze- proof. It also doesn’t have the EM1’s WiFi and has a slower maximum shutter speed of 1/4000. None of that, however, makes much difference for street photography. I stick the Olympus 17mm f/1.8, the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 or the Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95 on there and I’m good to go. It’s also a great second-body for event photography. I’ll put the 12-40mm zoom on the EM5 and 35-100 zoom on the EM1 and I’m covered.
Ricoh GR. This is the latest addition to my kit and I haven’t really used it enough to make a definitive statement on it. My first impressions are that it’s extremely light and can actually fit in my pocket. It seems perfect for keeping a low profile during street photography. The 16mp APS-C sensor is actually bigger (not necessarily better) than the one in my Olympus EM1. In the first few pictures I’ve taken, the color seems a lot flatter than what I’m used to with the Olympus cameras.
I debated whether to buy the Ricoh GR, the Sony RX100 or the Fuji X100s — all of them fixed-lens compacts. My heart told me to buy the Fuji X100s but I just couldn’t justify the cost ($1,300), when you consider it’s pretty much redundant to attaching a 17mm prime to the EM5. If the Fuji successor to the X100s goes full-frame, well, then I might have to revisit it. For now, I figure the Ricoh is probably good for the next couple years, at which time the iPhone 8 will probably replace it.
I favor fast primes for street photography. I think zooms, besides being heavier and slower, can make you lazy. [In photography parlance, “fast” refers to the amount of light a lens allows through the aperture, as opposed to speed. So a camera with a 1.8 maximum aperture is much faster than one with a f/3.5 maximum aperture.]
These are the lenses I use for street photography, in order of how often I use them.
1. Olympus 17mm f/1.8 — This is the equivalent to the classic 35mm on a full-frame camera. The 17mm lens is small and compact (more so without the hood). It’s wide enough for most street scenes and is fast-enough to work well in low-light situations.
1A. Olympus 45mm f/1.8 — I love this lens. It’s just a beautiful portrait lens (90mm equivalent) and is, incredibly, the lightest and the cheapest of the five lenses listed here. The only reason it’s not always on my camera is that the focal length is sometimes a little too tight for street situations.
3. Voigtlander Nokton 25mm f/0.95 — This manual focus beauty is my favorite of the bunch. I love the metal construction, the smooth focus ring and the creamy bokeh. The 50mm equivalent is probably my preferred focal length for street photography. So why is it number three? It’s as big and heavy as the 75mm prime. I’ll turn to this lens when I don’t feel like being light or stealthy. However, I still may end up adding the new Olympus 25mm f/1.8 to my kit at some point as an alternative.
4. Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 — This is a relatively big lens and isn’t an idea street lens. But the focal length covers all three primes listed above and it’s sometimes more convenient to carry just one lens, instead of three. It’s also the only lens on this list that’s weather sealed and that’s huge for shooting in the rain or snow.
5. Olympus 75mm f/1.8 — This lens doesn’t get a lot of attention, which is a shame because it’s a great long portrait lens. The main issue is that it’s more of a shoot-someone-from- across-the-street type lens and not very good for close quarters. I’ll rarely walk out of the house with this as my only lens but it’s a nice change of pace as a second lens in my bag.
Filson Harvey Messenger. This bag is tough, stylish and slings pretty comfortably across my back. It’s got two padded compartments for a body and lens and another compartment that can carry a tablet and side pockets that can hold water bottles. It wasn’t cheap, and we’ll see if paying for a premium bag results in it lasting longer than a cheaper product might. I bought this to replace my TimBuk2 Snoop Messenger, which was tough as nails and would have lasted forever but I just found it a little too big. The Filson cuts a sleeker profile and just feels a little more travel street-friendly than the TimBuk2.
MeFOTO BackPacker Travel Tripod. I don’t typically carry a tripod with me when I’m wandering the streets but I do take it with me on trips so that I can get a couple long-exposure sunrises, sunsets or nighttime shots. This titanium tripod folds up to 12.6 inches and weighs 2.6 pounds, which actually allows it fit inside my messenger bag. This is a sturdy enough tripod for a mirrorless setup but it’s probably not something I would use with a heavier DSLR.