Smaller Is Better: Why You Should Use a Compact Camera for Street Photography

Ricoh-GR1s

Eric’s Note: This is article is part of an on-going weekly column by Japancamerahunter (Bellamy Hunt) where he talks about vintage cameras, film, and street photography. You can check out his part articles here or if you need to get hooked up with a lens or camera, contact him here

Well well, good old Uncle Eric has asked me to write another article for you. This time on the joys of shooting street with a compact camera. Eric and many of us spend a lot of time shooting with rangefinders and DSLR’s, but I think it important for people to realize that there are other ways to shoot street. The compact camera is one of these ways (medium format is another, but that is a whole different barrel of fish and something I may talk about another time).
So, why shoot a compact camera for street? Well, there are several reasons, but let me start with the most obvious…


Size

Compact cameras are small, that is why they are called compact cameras. Some of them are downright tiny. This is not going to be a discussion about film versus digital, I think we all know which side of the fence I stand on that issue. But I am going to give you a bit of camera snobbery:

Not all compact cameras are the same. And most digital compact cameras are not up to the job.

There, I said it. Film compact cameras come from an age when camera companies cared about what lens they put into their cameras, and this makes a big difference. They were also made by camera companies, not electronics companies trying to make a fast buck. The size makes them easy to handle, fast and quiet. You can go places that you could not go with a rangefinder or SLR. Which leads us to the next reason…

Discretion

The size makes these the ultimate in discreet cameras. They are small, light and some of them are very quiet. Because of this people don’t really notice when you are shooting with one, which is a huge advantage when you are shooting street. When you have a large camera or a clearly visible camera you are automatically going to garner a reaction from people. Whilst shooting street this may not be a bad thing, as you are trying to be part of a scene, but if you prefer to merely observe then shooting with a compact camera if perfect for you. If you are shooting a situation where you really don’t want to be noticed then shooting with a compact is really going to help you a lot.

Speed

For me this is a big one. Some of you may be fast shooting in the street, but shooting with a compact camera can really make you lightning quick. Really good compact cameras can be set manually so that you have complete control over everything on the camera. This can help you to be able to shoot quickly and seamlessly, especially if you are carrying two cameras so that you don’t have to reload.

I find that when I am out shooting with a compact camera I can burn through a roll of film much much faster than I would with my Leica. There are a couple of reasons for this, mainly that the automatic wind on keeps me up to speed, but I am able to shoot at eye level without going through the viewfinder, so I can keep my eyes open for anything that may appeal to me. I think this is one of the main reasons why I like to shoot with a compact camera.

Quality

For me, really good compact cameras have a certain quality that you just cannot find in the throwaway items that are available nowadays. Your supermegawhotsit Panasonynon will be obsolete in less than 2 years, yet my Ricoh GR1s is 15 years old and still shooting without an issue. And it shoots on full frame…well…full frame 35mm film. There is still not a full frame digital compact camera, and there will probably never be one as the prices to make them would be insane.

Saying that, there are still some good compact digital cameras out there. My personal favorites are the Ricoh GRD range (such as the Ricoh GRDIII and Ricoh GRDIV). They carry on the tradition of the GR design, they have great lenses and they are well made (even if they do have a thumbnail sized sensor).

Drawbacks

Never let it be said that I am not prepared to be objective. There are some drawbacks to compact cameras (as there are with all cameras, otherwise we would all shoot the same thing). The size can be an issue for some, some people like to be able to feel that they have a camera in their hand. These cameras are small and light, and that can make them easy to drop, god knows I have done before, so a strap is essential.

The control can be a factor for some people, as the cameras don’t have the same range of control as an SLR or RF camera. Lenses are limited on these cameras and are not interchangeable, which means that you are limited to the shooting distance that you have chosen for that camera.

What camera?

So, now that I have convinced you that getting a decent compact camera is a great decision to make I should really show you what options you have.

This is not a comprehensive list of what is available, but these are high quality, easy to use and most of all easy to find cameras. I have used all of these cameras and I would consider them to be my personal favorites for shooting street. Though I would be happy to consider other suggestions from any readers:

Contax

Contax made a fantastic range of compact cameras, all featuring Carl Zeiss lenses. The company was acquired by Kyocera and stopped manufacturing cameras in 2005, which is a terrible shame. But there are still plenty of cameras available and for good prices too.

The Contax TVS range came with Vario Sonnar zoom lenses and great control, but the real stars of the show are the T2 and T3. The T2 features a titanium body autofocus and a retracting 5-element Sonnar 38/2.8 lens. Fast quiet and very easy to use.

The T3 is the daddy of the Contax range. Smaller than the T2, faster and sporting the amazing 6-element Carl Zeiss Sonnar 35/2.8 lens. The lens on this camera is seriously impressive and makes a mockery of many modern lenses. A personal favorite of mine.

Ricoh

Ricoh has a long history, in the 1930’s they started manufacturing cameras, so you know they have a fair bit of experience. History lesson over. Ricoh released the GR series of cameras in 1996 with the GR1 and scored a home run. Brilliantly designed, easy to use and with fantastic lenses. The GR1s is a brilliant camera which features a coated 28mm f/2.8 lens, several different shooting and focus modes and a lovely light magnesium body. The GR1v built on this with ISO override and extra features.

But the daddy of the range is the GR21. It was the first superwide 21mm compact camera in the world. This is an outstanding camera and the one camera that I would love to shoot on the street.

Minolta

Minolta made a lot of compact cameras, but when it comes to high quality compacts then there is only one. The TC-1. This was a camera that was designed for the photographer to take the time to think about the exposure by using aperture priority. The main feature about this camera is the stunning lens, a 28mm f/3.5 Rokkor Aspherical lens. The lens has an f-stop selector dial on the front, so you can select the f-stop that you desire and features perfectly circular aperture holes, which gives very distinct character to the pictures. This is not strictly a street camera, as it is not terribly fast, but its lens makes it a firm choice for anyone wanting to try something a bit different.

Fujifilm


Fujifilm is well known for making compact cameras, and now mainly make digital compacts. But they have made some cracking compact cameras, including their current range which features the Natura Classica and the Klasse range of cameras. But nothing comes close to the super special Natura S. The Natura S features the fastest lens on a compact film camera. At f/1.9 the 24mm lens is pretty wide too.

The camera was only available in Japan, and because of this the functions are only in Japanese. Added to this the camera is not all that great when it comes to exposures. It really is a bit of a gimmick, but a nice one nonetheless. If I had to make a choice it would be the Klasse W, with the 28mm lens is is a very capable camera.

Contact Japan Camera Hunter

Obviously this is not a complete list, but it contains cameras that I think are perfect for street photography. If you would like to get your hands on any of these cameras you can contact me and I can find them for you, I am Japancamerahunter after all. You can contact me through my e-mail: hunts.of.tokyo@gmail.com or phone: +81 (0)80 5534 1977 and we have skype too: bellamy.camera

Thanks for reading and please comment or add something to this article. I love to hear from you all.

Cheers and happy shooting.
Japancamerahunter

33 thoughts on “Smaller Is Better: Why You Should Use a Compact Camera for Street Photography”

  1. Nice article!

    I recently picked up a Konica Hexar AF. Love shooting with it and seem to get lots of compliments on it while on the street.

    1. Japancamerahunter

      A great camera. I have had several. I find it a bit slow for my needs, but it does have the wonderful silent mode.
      Cheers

    1. Japancamerahunter

      Actually Fernando you have just reminded me. I was going to include that camera and I completely forgot.
      Cheers

    1. Japancamerahunter

      Good question. Certainly a possibility. I would totally recommend the Minolta TC-1 for that. Such lovely character to the lens.
      Thanks

  2. I am having a problem deciding which direction to go. I am mainly a portrait and wedding photographer as I also do some portfolio work for models and such. I would love to purchase a compact digital camera such as a Ricoh, or fujifilm x10, or an olympus or something around the $500-$600 dollar range. However, I also need to invest in a 20mm 2.8 or 17-50mm 2.8 lens for my canon 7D and I cannot afford both. Would you suggest just getting a wider lens for my 7D and then maybe finding an inexpensive compact film camera?

    1. If you are doing the portrait and wedding thing as a job then it would be better for you to get the lens as it is part of your work. But if you are a hobbyist who does this part time then I would suggest the compact camera (film compact), as it will give you the chance to develop your skills in a different way.
      Cheers

    1. Japancamerahunter

      Well, I am totally into the buy book not gear thing, and I think it is important to have books. But you also need to shoot, so you should get the right gear to do that with.
      Cheers

  3. Well, I think this an interesting article from a historical point of vue- And it will be more interesting if silver photography were less expensive.
    I think that there. is some misinformation about Street Photography. The more important thing, in my poor opinion, on it is the urban landscape that circle the character photographied. And the character itself specially the attitude. If you can manage it, it’s enough with a Kodak Instamatic but…No doubt if you have the needed skills to locate an interesting subject with an interesting attitude, circled for an interesting urban landscape and you are so fast for composing the geometry of the scene in your mind so quickly than Cartier-Bresson, Capa, Salgado or Bruce Gilden then…better you have a M9, cause then you’ll be able to make a copy in big format, a “conditio sine qua non” for publishing in different media, participating in exhibitions, or for putting a correct prize to your efforts an then a hobby can become a job.
    But if the intention is just a “hobby”, stoling bored candids in bored scenes with bored attitudes of bored characters then any camera is Ok(or any camera isn’t OK). I say this because I see lots and lots and lots of self-called street photgraphers with lots of bored photagraphies of bored characters in bored urban landscapes with bored attitudes and composing geometrically the scene at random. Is not my case, I don’t practise street photography because I don’t have the conditions(gear, time, access to interesting urabn landscapes with interesting subjects or characters) for doing it minimally well done.
    Excuse my English, I wrote from Barcelona (Spain)

  4. Very informative post and VERY nice cameras :-)!! But for me too expensive (most of them you cant get under 600€ on eBay (Germany)). I bought the Leica Minilux Zoom on ebay (40€) and its a nice experience :-)

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  6. ricoh gr1/fuji klasse w/fuji silvi black (24-50mm f2.8 zoom!)/ user here!

    like I’ve said before, I’ve had professional drum roll scans made from negs shot on the gr1, they were so sharp i couldn’t believe it.

    that being said, i think people forget it really depends on how you input it into the computer (who scans/corrects/type of scan). too many variables!

    1. ricoh gr1/fuji klasse w/fuji silvi black (24-50mm f2.8 zoom!)/ user here!

      yes!

      And, from this multiple-users, is the ricoh sharper than the klasse W???????????

      Yes.
      ThanX

  7. How did you miss the Olympus XA?!?! Brilliant 35mm f/2.8 lens that is very sharp and it’s one of the most compact rangefinders ever.

  8. I’m a little surprised nobody’s mentioned the venerable Olympus MJU II (or Stylus Epic for our American friends) – I would have thought that must be pretty high on the list of somebody who wants something small, durable, which gives good results and most of all, is cheap (at least compared to some of the cameras discussed here). Another one would be the Pentx Espio Mini; again, very small, discrete and capable of good results.

  9. I know both Markus Hartel and Michael Sweet (both work in NYC) have used compact cameras for some of their street work. I think both now use Leica Ms most of the time but they do have bodies of work from compacts. Then there is Daido Moriyama, perhaps the most famous for compact street work. I’m also sure all three used/use Ricoh GRs.

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  11. And, leaving apart for a moment the pre-focused thing,
    Who has the fastest AF???????????????????????????

    Thank you.

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