Street photography is a genre that many photographers practise, some as a passing hobby and others with great fervour. This type of photography is primarily about framing and timing, but it still pays to have the right gear to capture those fleeting moments. Let’s look at what goes into choosing the right equipment for your street photography.
Typically, street photography has two main characteristics that can affect camera and lens choices. These are the storytelling aspects of the genre and the desire of many to remain discreet and blend in with their surroundings while photographing so as to limit their influence on the life they are capturing. These are important factors to consider when choosing a street photography camera.
This desire for discreetness is one reason you find many street photographers using rangefinder cameras. These cameras have extremely quiet shutters and no mirror to make additional noise. This allows the photographer to make images without the jarring slap of a DSLR mirror. Most mirrorless cameras also have quiet shutter sounds and many even include an electronic shutter mode that allows for completely silent photography (just watch out for rolling shutter effects).
The typical viewfinder on a rangefinder camera also includes a wider field of view than the lens can see and a set of framing guidelines inside that viewfinder to approximate the field of view of the lens itself. This allows photographers to see objects both inside and outside their current frame and thereby anticipate a situation as it unfolds – perfect for candid photography. On top of that, the position of the viewfinder to the left-hand-side of the camera body allows the photographer to work with both eyes open.
In terms of traditional-style rangefinder cameras, Fujifilm also offers a similar experience in its X-Pro and X100 line of cameras. When it comes to rangefinders with an electronic viewfinder in place of the traditional viewfinder, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony all have offerings in this space.
This is not to say that you can’t use another type of camera for street photography, however. Any camera, especially one with quiet or silent operation, will be fine for street photography. The main considerations are discreetness and portability.
Much of the candid photography we see, especially urban street photography, tends to employ black and white processing in the final result. In fact, beautiful tonality is so heavily sought after that some manufacturers produce monochrome-only cameras to get the most tonal range from a digital sensor. However, there are plenty of options if you’d like to work exclusively in black and white.
Most cameras will allow you to preview your images in black and white as you work. DSLR cameras will capture a colour image and display a monochrome preview for you as you review images. Mirrorless cameras, however, offer a different experience. Since they employ an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or rear screen to show you a preview of the exact image you’re about to capture, this preview can also be set to a black and white mode. This means you’re actually able to see the world in black and white as you make photographs.
A large part of street photography, especially the type that leans towards social documentary photography, is implying or telling stories with your images. This can be done in many ways but is commonly achieved by implying a relationship between things in the environment. Lens choice can significantly affect the way you’re able to arrange those objects in your composition.
So, just what makes a good street photography lens? We often hear that a 35mm lens is the ultimate lens for documentary style photography, but why is it that so many people love it and are there other options we could choose from?
The 35mm lens offers a moderately wide field of view that allows a photographer to capture subjects within context and also include in the frame people who may not even be aware they are being photographed. The slightly wide nature of the lens also means that there is more depth of field at a given aperture/distance combination. This makes zone focusing easier than with longer focal lengths. Of course, a wider lens will also allow you to accentuate the distance between subjects or work in tighter quarters for dramatic effect, so a 28mm, 24mm, or even a 20mm may be your lens of choice for this style.
For a street portrait photography lens, you might want to look for something like a 50mm or even an 85mm, depending on how much context you want to keep in your images. A lens like this will allow you to isolate portrait subjects in the street if that’s the style you’re going for. It may also be useful for candid portrait photography, so you can get some distance between you and your subject without alerting them to your presence.
Documentary and street photography don’t often make use of extremely shallow depth of field, so you don’t necessarily need to invest in fast-aperture lenses. Therefore, you may want to skip the f/1.4 lenses in favour of their slower f/1.8-f/4 brethren. You’ll save yourself a significant amount of weight, size, and money.
One style that might require faster lenses would be night street photography (especially if you’re planning to freeze action). All that being said, keeping your kit light with just the lenses you regularly use will mean you can roam the streets for long periods of time. So, keep it simple!
One other concern with lenses for street photography is focusing. Many photographers like to use a technique called ‘zone focusing’. This involves pre-setting your aperture and focus distance to achieve sharpness at the desired distance from the camera.
For example, you might want a relatively deep depth of field and the plane of perfect focus to be 2 metres from the camera (where you anticipate your subject to be at the time of capture). In this case, you would pre-focus the lens to 2 metres in manual focus and set your aperture to something like f/5.6 or f/8. This can be made much easier if your lens has a focus/depth of field scale. Many manual focus lenses, such as vintage lenses from Nikon and Canon, feature these scales as do some of Fujifilm’s lenses for the X system.
If you’re planning to use autofocus for your street photography, a fast-focusing lens with quiet focus motors can be beneficial so that you can react quickly to a situation and also go unnoticed. The last thing you want is for your lens to make so much noise that people around you turn to find out what is going on.
The spontaneous nature of street photography means street photographers can—even should—get by with little gear besides a good camera and lens. However, to ensure you’re ready for the decisive moment when it happens, you’ll need a few essential extras:
We’ve offered a lot of information and suggestions here, so let’s wrap it up with a summary of what we’ve discussed.