Do You Really Need a Small Camera for Street Photography?

Do You Really Need a Small Camera for Street Photography?

We are living in an era that everyone complains about their bulky camera gear and how hard it is to carry it all day. Many photographers are now switching to mirrorless cameras for this reason. But hey, there is another solution for that: You can minimize your lenses and other gear, rather than changing your main camera body. That's what I did. 

First of all, I'm not a supporter of a specific brand or a gear fetishist guy. I started photography with a Nikon film camera, then bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D80. I used the D3 and D300 mostly for shoots. Later on, I switched to Canon (1D Mark III & 5D Mark II), and last year, I bought a Nikon D810 because of its wide dynamic range and higher megapixel count. I buy and use the camera bodies that work best for me. To make a long story short, the brand doesn't matter for me. 

I've been mostly shooting fashion and commercial images in the studio, but recently, I started traveling more, and I decided to carry my camera with me all the time, just like before, when I first started photography. I was passionate, and I just wanted to shoot everything, everywhere. I guess I missed that feeling. Because when your hobby becomes your profession, sometimes, you have to take a break and decide to do whatever you really like for a while. For me, it is street photography, and as we all know, for street photography, every ounce matters.

I will not argue about the weight of the D810 or some other big camera bodies. However, I like using a DSLR, and I don't want to switch to any Sony full-frame mirrorless camera just for this reason (not until Sony produces a battery that lets me shoot 1,000 images per charge). I just don't want to follow the herd. Actually, until last year, I never had concerns about the weight of the equipment I use. But time is the only truth, and we are all getting old. I wanted to get back into street photography, but unfortunately, I didn't feel I had the same energy for carrying all my heavy gear as I did in my early 20s. After years of long day work, including hours of sitting and doing retouching, I started to have back pain for the first time in my life last year. It was a vital signal from my body, so it led me to take it seriously and do something about this weight issue. 

Shot with the Canon 1D Mark III and Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L, a big combination for street photography.

Getting Rid of the Unnecessary Accessories

I've been using battery grips since my first DSLR, but from now on, for outdoor shooting or daily photo walks, I leave them at home. A single attached battery is always enough for these kinds of occasions anyway. Also, some other accessories that I rarely use such as a viewfinder magnifier, LCD hood, etc. now stay in my cabinet as well. I was able to shoot without these items before, so I can shoot without them again, no big deal. Hence, all I wanted was just a small camera bag. 

Switching to Prime Lenses

Most of us own 24-70mm lenses, and we all believe that those are the most flexible lenses for most situations. I used Canon, Sigma, and Tamron 24-70mm lenses on different DSLR bodies, and I must admit that they are really big and heavy lenses. During the time that I owned a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD, I realized that I usually prevented myself from holding my camera or even taking it out of my bag. So, I sold my Tamron that weighed 845g and bought a Nikkor 28mm f/1.8G in addition to my other primes, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G and Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G. In terms of weight and price, 1.8G series prime lenses were the best choices for me. Here is the best part: a 28mm and 85mm lens duo weigh less than the Tamron 24-70 alone, and when they are attached to my D810, the combination doesn't feel heavy. Plus, the Nikkor 28mm f/1.8G is a Nano-coated lens, and with its unique focal length that's different than the usual 35mm focal length, I think it is great for street photography. 

One of the other advantages of using budget primes is that I can carry and use small ND and circular polarizing filters all the time, particularly because both the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G and Nikkor 28mm f/1.8G have the same filter thread size: 67mm. So, I got the chance to get rid of my square filter adapters, holder, and big filter case as well. With these compact but high quality lenses, I'm happy with my "bulky" but perfect DSLR. 

Well, I handled the weight issue, but what about the myth of the necessity of owning a small camera for street photography? You may think that you should buy a Fuji, Sony, or Olympus compact camera, but as I stated before, I just like shooting with my Nikon DSLR. Some say that you should cover yourself and your camera for street photography, but I disagree with that. We are photographers. If you want to shoot candid street images, you don't have to hide a small black camera under your jacket like agents during the Cold War. No one can blame you because you are holding a big camera in a public place. It is your attitude rather than your gear's size that matters. Streets are full of mobile phone photographers and selfie takers. Many people own DSLR, mirrorless, or compact cameras and use them every day. It's 2016, and people have gotten used to seeing other people with cameras everywhere. Don't get stuck on the essentials of being a street photographer, because there are no essentials! Let's just say there are marketing tricks. You can read everywhere that you need to own a small camera that won't attract your subjects for street photography. Well, if this is your concern, use your mobile phone, and shoot your subject while pretending to be talking on the phone. 

Briefly, I'm happy with less. When I walk around with a single lens and body, I just concentrate on my photography and abilities with my current gear setup. So, what are your thoughts about this? Should street photographers hide themselves and their cameras or interact with their subjects? Should they love and use the gear they own effectively, or save money to buy a Leica? Is weight an issue for you?

Log in or register to post comments

30 Comments

When I'm shooting on the street, I like to take breaks, meet with friends, stop and have coffee with people, etc. Sometimes it's just easier to tuck away a smaller camera. For years, I shot with the D600 on the street, but when I switched to the Fuji X-T10, I noticed it became much less cumbersome when traveling on the subway when space was tight, or if I sat at a cafe with really small tables. Do I need a smaller camera for street photography? Nope. I still use my DSLR and Holga from time to time. But is it more convenient to have a smaller camera? You bet.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

Hey Marc,
That's a good point though, but still I can hide my small camera bag under my chair, just kidding, I think I'm done with buying specific camera for specific type of photography, I don't want to spend money on gear, i.e., do I really have to buy a d810A for astrophotography? I believe there are many photographers out there shooting sky at night with their normal dslrs. We are under the influence of many reviews that tell us we should always spend more, that was my point actually.
p.s: that fuji is a really nice camera :)

Spy Black's picture

I dunno, I used to shoot with a full set of gear for street back in the film days. I would roam around with two bodies, a Nikon FTN and an F2SB, 20mm f/4, 50mm f/1.4, and a 135mm f/2, and sometimes even a tripod. If your familiar with that setup, then you know it weighed a ton.

Then in the 90s I picked up a Ricoh 500G pocket rangefinder, and that was the end of walking around with big gear. That was how I shot street from then on, the single focal length being the only constriction.

Once the digital age came, pocket cameras with zooms were a revalation to me. I didn't care that they had 1/2.3 sensors, the high ISO noise was similar to the pushed-processed Fuji 1600 press film I shot at night with on my film cameras.

Today I shoot with either a Nikon 1 J4, M4/3 Panasonic GM5, or the most compact of my street cameras, a Canon G9X Mk II. These cameras are out of sight until I need them, and the image quality is more than sufficient for shooting "in the wild". I find people are far less intimidated by these little photographic jewels than aiming my full frame DSLR at them. With the Nikon and Panasonic, I can bring 2 lenses and have a range from 24-300mm that fits right in my pocket, and I can roam around all day with.

For me it's a no-brainer, a good quality pocket camera is a far better tool than a DSLR for street shooting. I know this is all personal preference of course, but it just strikes me as a far more efficient way to shoot street.

I disagree. I shot with Nikon digital d1-d4s/d700/800, and most of nikon's 2.8 zoom lenses since 1999. GX7 was a big game changer. You become invisible especially in news situations where sensitivity is key and the loud shutters of the Nikons have gotten me in trouble. I got the GX8 and it has somehow surpassed the threshold of camera sizes that go unnoticed. GX7 was the first kid-proof camera in terms of kids suddenly not hamming it up when you are taking pictures during a news event. The silent shutter also was invaluable as well as the tiny prime lenses I got from Olympus(17.5, 25mm). And since a lot of people have ditched their amateur cameras for camera phones, big cameras stick out even more. Both systems have their place, though.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I use a 6D for my commercial work and weddings. I like the idea of having a small mirrorless camera but they all seem pretty pricey to me.

Then I saw that Canon is going to release a full frame mirrorless so I might go in that direction for street stuff.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I set myself a challenge of using the lens I've been using the least. Sometimes I'll come back with just a couple of shots but it's more satisfying to push myself to areas I'd not normally venture. If I'm looking to get lots of shots, then the 70-200 gets me most and I'll happily carry that all day. But my personal challenge is using the 35mm (in London people seem quite self protective). But I'll purposely limit myself to just the one lens.

Like you, I often minimize my "footprint" by removing battery grips (Canon 5D Mk III) and motor drives (Canon F-1N), but that was to minimize weight. My F-1N doesn't look like a beast without the AE Motor Drive FN, but I lose shutter-priority without it.

Fritz John Asuro's picture

I want a smal camera for street photography because of 2 reasons:

1.) Makes it easier to stow away, conceal, or even run away with it. The world is dangerous. You never know who'll snatch or hold you up.

2.) Less attention. Not only to be less obvious for your candid shots, but also less attention when it comes to security guards or police that always think that when you hold a big fat camera, it's aways for commercial use - and there the drama begins.

Owain Shaw's picture

I bought the 40mm Pancake to make my SLR setup smaller. It was a big improvement for me compared to the 24-70 which I have now sold. However, I also have back problems, and the X-Pro that I bought is about half the weight of the 5D/40mm combo - that makes a difference to my back. It's also small enough to fit inside my work bag without needing to take other stuff out.

I won't pretend it's made my street photography any better though ... I'm still a little too timid. But it is a camera that I'm more likely to grab if I'm just going to the shops or something rather than the heavier and larger SLR.

I switched to Sony mirrorless a couple of years' ago and now use an a7Rii. Kool Kid correctly suggests that a smaller camera will decrease the possibility that strangers will confront you for taking their image. But what I want to address is the battery-life complaint in the original post. I routinely get 1,200 images on one battery when I shoot sports, performances, and events. On the street, in a typical 3-hour session, I only occasionally need to use a second battery. Walking around with half the weight of my old DSLR, with a small mirrorless is well worth the price of sticking a small second battery in my pocket (which I'd do with a heavier second battery if I was using a DSLR anyway!). And the mirrorless is so small, I just have it on a wrist strap and not hanging around my neck - which I could never do with a DSLR.

Strangers seem to be less intimidated by a small camera. Larger cameras seem to be more of a “threat” to people. I used to shoot with a Canon Powershot G5 when taking street shots and I really liked that camera, it died a year ago and I’m still not sure what to get for its replacement.

Bedri Sasmaz's picture

OK.. the issue is not difficulties of carrying a big camera or hiding a small camera. Masters like Bresson and Ara Güler say that u shouldn't disturb the people and the life flowing around you. So you can capture the real life on the streets. if u carry a huge camera people can notice you easily and they won't be natural. Thats why a small, unnoticeable old fashion look camera is better for street photography. i recommend Ricoh GR. it has matte black color, old fashion look, power led on/off option, snap focus (best feature for the street photography for me) and it is small. By the way you need a good shoes... :)

Jay Jay's picture

As someone who's shot a lot of event and street photography and owning a Fuji Xt100s as well as a Canon 5D3, with a 24-70 during the day and a 35 at night, there's no comparison with using an dslr over a rangefinder. None. With my Canon, i can spot a scene, hit and lock focus in 2 seconds, fire a shot (and choose my frame distance from 24mm to 70mm to boot), and have the camera back at my side all in under 4 seconds- and more importantly, before the subject even notices what happened. That, you cannot do with a fixed lens rangefinder or small camera unless you set the distance beforehand, and even that, you're limited to the focal point of your lens.

I can get up close and personal with my zoom while i'm far away and hidden from the subject, whereas you'd have to walk right up to the person and get in their face to capture the same shot. I've seen lots of great street photos taken from ricoh's, leica's, fuji's, and the like, and i have huge respect for those shooters, but i've gotten incredible street shots that i could never have achieved with a small camera than with my dslr. (It's got a grip and the lens is big, but i keep it by my side on a blackrapid, so it's very low profile and not noticeable when walking around, so to be honest- it's not the size that matters, it's how you use it) :)

Drew Pluta's picture

I'm not really sure what all the fuss is here or why some of the supposed logic is being asserted. I've never encountered much of a problem and I'm always shooting something like a 6D body and a 24-70mm. Don't be a creepy lurker! Yes, I have a big camera, I also have a pleasant disposition. "We're all in public and I'm not doing anything wrong" is surprisingly easy to convey.

As for the size and weight. It is a slight drag at times but then again, I just remind myself that thinking this is easy, is a trap. Some of what we do is hard and if carrying a couple pounds of extra weight will get me 10 to 15 more megapixels, great glass and exactly the body feel that I want, then so be it. I have the exact bags for every environment and the straps and attachments to make it all comfortable.

But yeah, that RX100 is pretty nice. I can see one in may bag for sure!

Jay Maisel, has been using a full/large body camera for years. I think he has done okay.

In the past....but Jay is also realizing how big/heavy that set up is.

I was at one of his seminars a few years ago. Beautiful man, beautiful teacher, and beautiful pictures..Jay was carrying his large Nikon with a 70-200+ equiv. one day while the group was walking down the steps leaving for a shoot ...and he almost fell down them if it wasn't for one of the other seminar people to catch him. I honestly think that the weight and balance of that camera really didn't help.

Welcome to down town part of Lagos Nigeria with your big equipment! Most likely not one click will ever be done and thank heaven if your camera arrives home in full!

Burak Erzincanli's picture

that' why most traveling photographers hire local guides who know the gangs well :)

I enjoy street photography and use a 7100 (one day the 810), and a 70-300mm lens, the weight doesn't bother me and the zoom gives me options so if I choose to be unseen, I can zoom from back. When I get older the weight might be a problem, but in my 60's I'm not bothered. Great article.

You clearly have a stronger back than me! I bought an x100 because if I'm not being paid, carrying around a 5d and ~3 primes all day in a shoulder bag makes my spine hate me. I couldn't do without DSLRs, but back pain from equipment has actualy made me seriously consider getting a lighter system too that I can shift some of the work to.

Canon 6D and 40mm 2.8 Pancake. Excellent Street, small and light...and I can do EVERYTHING with it. There are no "Buts"

Drew Pluta's picture

I have and love this combo!

The problem with the Fuji and other new mirrorless are, they are still too big and heavy vs a crop dslr and a prime... Unless you have REALLY big pockets, you still can't throw your fuji x100(X) in it, you'll still have it on your strap, or in a small side bag. A modern entry level crop dslr plus crop prime comes in around 22oz.
A fuji x100s is still a pound. Why not just shoot with a Canon Rebel EOS SL1 and a 4.4 oz 24mm 2.8 STM lens? In my opinion you need to go even smaller and MORE discreet to something you can pocket or it's not worth having instead of a compact dslr where you can still use your lenses. I mean if you're only other camera system is a D810 and 2.8 zooms, then the fuji will steam small. But you could have just got a light dslr... I'd recommend the Sony Rx100 III/IV or the Canon Powershot G7 instead as a "travel/fun" or walk around alternative that you can actually put in your pocket.

Miroslav Hristoff's picture

About the size of the camera - it depends on the place. If you live in a place like the place where I live (Bulgaria)... well they always look at you if you are some kind of an alien. I use SLT Sony A58 with 35 mm prime Sony lens. And I shoot mainly street. A couple of times I've asked if I am a reporter or smth. like that. I think if I had smaller camera would that have been the same?

Luis De Jesus's picture

I can see where you are coming from. Here in Mexico City, one is tempted to go as small as possible to avoid getting too much attention. This concern fostered my purchase of a sale of the Sony A6000 past June.

Chris Himstedt's picture

I know there are many safe/dangerous scenarios that I have yet to, or never will encounter, but with my 30+ years of making a living carrying my DSLRs around....I'm totally on board with this. I'll still carry my D810 and 1 or 2 lenses with flash sometimes too.

Lorin Duckman's picture

I bought a Q. Weight an issue. Old. Pain. Crushed nerve in neck. Love the Q.

Matt Wallach's picture

Although I'm looking for a smaller camera so I should have it with me more often, right now I'm using an original Canon 5d and am far from invisible especially when shooting at 24mm with my 24~70 2.8 lens. I like to shoot up close and personal.

Luis De Jesus's picture

I have gone through some severe GAS over the years and recently resorted to simply selling everything I did need not after reviewing my intentions and goals in my photography. I realized that my path to growing my vision was to focus more on developing skills and strengthening my weaknesses in my photography that had nothing to do with gear. I currently only own two cameras --Nikon D600 and a Sony A6000. Though I have been using the A6000 with some frequency and enjoy the weight and the potential for quality images, the Nikon is my default due to its versatility, battery life, and the superior selection of affordable, quality lenses. I admit that I wish very much to find everything I see in the Nikon D600 in a smaller more nimble form factor but the cost is just prohibitive especially with recent economic developments here in Mexico after President-elect Trump's nomination. True, my current gear is only getting more outdated yet there is nothing like the epiphany that results from understanding what one's needs really are to fulfill one's passion: in addition to having a camera, it's being there at the right time and place and knowing what to do with what you have.

Danish Raine's picture

Hello people..
This is an open request for all the great photographer's, to suggest me the best option of camera under 460 USD. .. Please help me thank you..