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?

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Previous comments

I agree 100% and I'm glad that someone wrote a decent article to say this. It is a myth that you can go unnoticed with a small camera. As soon as you raise the camera to your eye, passers by will know what you're doing if they see you. Unless you're shooting from the hip - in which case, again, size doesn't matter. What does matter is your attitude, your level of security or insecurity, and your skill (how fast you are at framing the scene). If you can handle the weight of carrying around the camera for a day, the size does not matter in the least. People fool themselves by buying the smallest "street photography" camera (ie, a Ricoh or some such) and congratulating themselves for not feeling embarrassed.

I completely agree and tried it myself. Bought a vintage rangefinder for as less money as possible, namely
a Fed 3. You can hardely go more vintage and amateur like this. It looks like an old analog Leica produced in the Soviet Union. To me, there was no difference. People realized I was taking a picture. In any way, most people that are photographed do not have any clue about photography and the different cameras. When you are a photographer, you might have an eye for the camera someone else is using. However, most people do not see this detail. For them, being photographed with a DSLR or a rangfinder makes no difference. It's your move, as Nasser Gazi said, to raise your camera to the eye that attracts the attention, not the camera.
At the times of Winnogrand, Klein or whatever great street photographer, people realized they were getting photographed (and even look sometimes into the camera) and may have found it even stranger than people today. In those times, it was very unusual to do street photography. Today, people are taking photos (with phones or cameras) all day long and it might be easier today not to be realized by others as you vanish somehow in the scenery.
In fact, if you look documentaries about great street photographers, you realize that they actually interact with their subjects (cf Bruce Gilden, Martin Parr, Klein, ...). They did not hide.

marc gabor's picture

I mostly agree with this article. That said there are time where a really small body like a Panasonic GX85 with it's tilting screen, silent shutter and a compact prime make it easier not to draw attention to oneself. There's no getting around the fact that a big camera body held at eye level will draw some attention. Sometimes that's not an issue but from experience I can tell you that sometimes it is. It can mean the difference between someone coming up to you asking "what are you taking pictures of?" and people leaving you alone. Best street camera of all time? iPhone hands down.

For years, I've mostly shot street with a Canon 5D MKII, 35mm 1.4L set-up. A while back I wanted to try a smaller camera for ease of use, bought a Canon G5X. The G5X is a nice little camera, but for some reason I can't get comfortable with it, plus the battery life is disappointing. When I want to lighten the weight, I find the Canon 40mm pancake lens paired with my 5D MKII is a nice lighter weight walk around option.