Street Photography: Different Cameras, Different Styles

Three tourists looking out to a surreal scene at Mare Magnum, Port Vell, Barcelona

This post describes the cameras that we [or at least one of us – the other is an innocent accomplice – ed] use for Street Photography and the characteristics of each.

In street photography, the camera you use is at least as important for the relationship to the subject and your ability to use it fluidly and transparently as it is to image quality. Camera choice is a very personal and subjective topic, and so this is going to be a very subjective post.

Currently we use three different cameras: a Canon 5D Mark III, an Olympus E-M5 and a Ricoh GR. These cameras are very different, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Which one gets used depends on where we are and what kind of image is wanted.

Size comparison of the Canon 5D Mark III, Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Ricoh GR

Broadly speaking, each camera is distinguished by:

  • the sensor size and lens (focal length and aperture)
  • its size and weight
  • its ergonomics

The following sections look at each camera and give some example images that reflect the kind of output I am able to get from them. Although not directly comparable, all the images were processed from RAW in Lightroom using the “Old Polar” colour preset and some additional vignetting.

The Canon 5D Mark III for Street Photography

Canon 5D Mark III with 50mm f1.2L

The Canon is an amazing camera. I use it mostly used for street photography with a 50mm f1.2 objective, giving a very characteristic shallow depth-of-field. The images are astonishing for their clarity and flexibility when editing, and the “full-frame look” is very obvious when compared to the other cameras.

Properly configured, the ergonomics of the camera are superb. I normally shoot using aperture-priority mode with the camera in AF-S mode, using back-button auto-focus. This means that I have the ability to use either zone (manual) focusing or AF, depending on the circumstances. Better still, the DOF-Preview button can be reconfigured so that holding it down temporarily engages focus tracking – fantastic for rapidly moving subjects.

All this is great, but the camera comes with some serious gotchas.

Firstly, it is huge and heavy. With the 50mm lens attached, it weights 1.5kg. Carrying the camera becomes painful here in summer, where the ambient temperature reaches 30 degrees or more. Perhaps artists should suffer for their work, but we are supposedly scientists…

Because of the size, the camera is very obvious. It is difficult to shoot a 50mm lens from the hip with any meaningful framing and Canon’s live-view is not really usable in the street, so I have to hold the camera up high and look through the viewfinder. The sight of someone doing this at close quarters is guaranteed to create a reaction from anyone that is half awake and less than 10 meters away. Close candid portraits are extremely difficult. And even when not actively using the camera, it seems to catch attention.

This would be fine if you want to take posed street portraits, but for candid images it is a major drawback.

As a result, most of the better images I get from the 5D are either taken from some distance away, from behind the subject, or when it is dark enough that the camera is not so noticeable (such as shooting in a market or at night).

Some example images from the 5D Mark III and 50mm f1.2, all taken in aperture-priority mode with back-button AF:

One important point with the 5D is to realise that the 5D is only usefully different to the other smaller cameras when shooting images with very shallow depth of field. Once the 5D is stopped down to f4.0 or less then any of the other smaller cameras come close to matching the image quality with an equivalent image.

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 for Street Photography

Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Horizontal Grip Attached
In contrast to the Canon, the Olympus is a comparatively discreet camera. Paired with either a 12mm f2 or 25mm f1.4 (equivalent to using a 24mm f4 or 50mm f2.8 lens on the Canon) it weights less than half as much and is about 1/3 of the size.

The camera is very flexible with an excellent range of lenses. It has an amazing image stabiliser that works with any lens. It has a very usable EVF and tilting LCD that can overlap under/over exposure warning and other useful shooting data. It is possible to carry the E-M5 with 12mm, 25mm and 45mm prime lenses and still be half the size and weight of the Canon 5D and 50mm lens alone. Our E-M5 has been to India and to the Amazon rain forest, while the Canon remained back at home simply because it would have been impractically large [the other one of us is not keen in carrying heavy cameras, sometimes even this camera – ed].

But it is difficult to get enthusiastic about the Olympus. For me it falls down in two areas: the image quality and the ergonomics.

The problem is not that the images are poor quality, it is just that the Camera feels just like a mini version of the full-frame Canon and so it tends to be compared to that system. It is much harder to get shallow depth-of-field without using excessively long focal lengths, and the images are both noisier and less malleable in post processing. Unfortunately, Physics extracts its penalty for the smaller lens and sensor no matter how much we might hope otherwise.

The second problem that I have with the E-M5 is the ergonomic design. This is partly because I have large hands, and partly because of poor tactility and placement of the buttons. In no small part this is a marketing problem, as the ergonomics have suffered primarily because of  the “retro” styling Olympus are so keen to use. This compresses the button layout and makes holding the camera more difficult. As a result I almost always use all or part of the optional grip to make the camera work well. Fortunately, Olympus  seems to have woken up to the idea that some people might want a camera designed to use rather than to look at, and the newer E-M1 rectifies almost all the ergonomic issues of the E-M5.

I should add that while I am not totally convinced by the camera, some of the lenses are amazing. In particular, the 12mm f2 is almost perfectly designed for street use thanks to the pull-back focus ring which makes it quick and easy to switch between manual and auto-focus modes. Better still, there is a usable depth-of-field scale which is very useful when shooting close-up.

Despite some reservations, it is much easier to use the E-M5 for street photography than the Canon. As well as the EVF, you have the option to shoot-from-the-hip using using the tilt-screen. The smaller size makes it much easier to get close to the subjects without disrupting them. The only real downside is the comparatively noisy sensor at ISO3200 and up, making it difficult to use zone-focusing indoors or at night.

The following were taken using a 12mm lens, all taken in M-mode with manual focus:

For an example of reportage style shooting using the E-M5, see this blog post.

The Ricoh GR for Street Photography

Ricoh GR Camera with Joby DLSR Wrist Strap

The Ricoh is completely different to the other cameras in that it is defined as much by what it lacks than what it has. The Ricoh lacks interchangeable lenses, image stabilisation, weather sealing, fast continuous auto-focus, an anti-aliasing filter, and millions of unfathomable parameters.

But what it does do it does extraordinarily well.

The Ricoh has a fixed 28mm equivalent lens and APSC sensor – larger than the Olympus. The image quality is superb. When shot properly, there is noticeably less noise and the images are sharp right in to the corners of the frame. What you give up in flexibility you gain in quality.

Jetty at Como, Italy.

Better still, the camera handles extremely well. Sensible control placement and configuration options make it possible to use the Ricoh single-handedly, and the layout combined with buttons that you can feel makes the camera much easier to use than the Olympus. Back-button focus is available and is as usable as on the Canon. There is a programmable control wheel and a jog-switch that effectively replicate the functions of the two dials used on the E-M5.

There are also numerous small details in the implementation that seem purpose designed to make this the perfect tool for street shooting. A headline example is the “full-press-snap”, which allows you to override the normal AF operation by pressing the shutter button with a single rapid press. In this case, the camera will focus at a configurable distance – providing a neat and instantaneous way to switch between manual (zone) and auto focus methods. Other examples of well thought out design include the ability to disable the power-on light for stealthier shooting and the intuitive ways to set up the custom mode settings on the dial – completely missing from the E-M5.

But what makes this camera really great for street photography is how small, unobtrusive and quiet it is. Even if people realise that you are taking pictures, they seldom react as dramatically as they do with the other cameras. In part this is because the camera is small, but also because it looks like an old boxy point-and-shoot. Unlike the other cameras, there is no need to dress-down the Ricoh with electrical tape…

The following were taken with the Ricoh GR, all in TAv mode with manual focus:

The Ricoh is an example of the maxim “more is less”, and it is great fun to shoot with.

3 Comments »

  1. Nice and helpful post. I just purchased my first ever “real” camera a Canon SL1. I have a long way to go when it comes to understanding its full capability. I’ll keep reading and exploring until I do!

  2. Hi guys, have you tried the E-M5 more with telephoto lenses? I gave up on using it with anything shorter than the 25/1.4, since I think it really excels with a longer, more compressed view. The GR does so well with wide-angle shots, I sold all my shorter Olympus lenses after a few months with it.

    I always thought Barcelona would be a good city for street photography, I like to see your shots. Keep up up the great work!