Often I’m asked, “Eric, what is the best camera for street photography?”
I of course have my own opinions in terms of what is the best camera for me. My biggest mistake is that I assume that everyone else has the same preferences/circumstances/shooting style as me.
However the question you need to ask yourself is: “What is the best camera for me?”
You are a unique human being— different from anyone else in the world. You have different circumstances, reasons why you shoot photography, and a different way to shoot.
First of all, ask yourself why you take photos. If you shoot photos of your friends and family to give to them, perhaps you should use a high-end smartphone (so you can quickly send the photos to them). Or you can get a camera with Wifi capabilities to quickly send them the photos.
If your passion is street photography, ideally you want a camera that is small, compact, quick, and unobtrusive. Then you want a camera that isn’t heavy, a camera that isn’t flashy, and a camera which isn’t difficult to carry with you everywhere you go.
Also honestly at the end of the day, everyone else’s opinion is quite useless— nobody knows you as well as you do.
Another thing to ask yourself when you want to buy a camera, “What kind of features do I not need?”
For example, I personally try to use my smartphone at a minimum, and I don’t really “need” wifi in my camera (although the Ricoh GR II has it).
If you don’t shoot action-sports, do you really “need” a super-fast continuous burst mode?
If you don’t always use your viewfinder, do you really need it? Perhaps you’d be better off with a compact camera with just an LCD screen.
Are you a photographer who isn’t in a rush to get your photos processed, and you enjoy the process of shooting? Then perhaps you don’t need a digital camera— film might work better for you.
Do you need manual-focusing features, or do you prefer autofocus? If you prefer autofocus over manual-focusing, then perhaps a rangefinder isn’t for you.
Are you a photographer who doesn’t care for technical settings too much, or don’t need to customize every single button? Then perhaps get a camera without customizable buttons (or superfluous buttons) and make your life easier.
If you’re not a commercial photographer, do you really “need” a camera with more than 8 megapixels? Furthermore, if you don’t print your photos (be honest with yourself) and all your photos will be shared on social media, there is no additional benefit of owning a digital camera with more than 8 megapixels.
Do you really “need” zoom? Unless you’re shooting your kid’s soccer game every single weekend or going on African safaris all the time, you probably don’t need a zoom lens.
Furthermore, before you buy any camera, realize that all digital cameras are like smartphones— you will want to upgrade every 2-3 years. And no camera is “forever.” If you tell yourself, “This is the last camera I’ll ever buy!” don’t buy that camera— you’re just fooling yourself.
This is why I recommend photographers not to buy the Leica Q— it is just an expensive Fujifilm x100 camera that will be outdated in 2-3 years (and a newer Leica Q Mark II will come out or whatever). And once the new Leica Q comes out, the original Leica Q will probably lose more value than what new cars values drop when you drive it off the lot. At least with the Fujifilm x100-series cameras you don’t lose as much money (it is far cheaper).
If you have the cash and want to buy a digital Leica, I’d probably recommend picking up a digital Leica M (Type 262) and getting a Leica 35mm f/2.4 Summarit lens. The digital body will eventually be outdated, but you can keep the lens for your entire life — I also don’t think most photographers “need” f/2 — f/2.4 is sufficient (especially if you’re a street photographer). Remember, the first Leica lens was a “fast” 50mm f/3.5 lens — look at how creative the earlier photographers were with this lens (nowadays all photographers think they “need” f/1.4).
Another tip— never trust any photography blog, magazine, or outlet that relies on advertisements or affiliate links to make a living. Trust me, I’ve been embedded in that world— and no person who has their own self-interest in-mind would say anything overtly bad about a camera, lens, or gear that they have a personal stake.
Personally I am a hypocrite— I have a ton of Amazon affiliate links on my site (although no banner-ads). That is why I have removed most of the Amazon affiliate links on camera reviews, because I cannot trust myself to be 100% honest with a review if I have an affiliate link on it. Also as a personal rule, I will no longer keep any cameras I get for free, if I ever do, I will give it to a friend or someone in need.
Furthermore, another reason why you cannot trust any camera reviews (when a reviewer gets a free camera, or even a “review unit”) is that you cannot truly review a camera unless you have inflicted the pain of purchasing the camera with your own money.
For example, I could borrow a new digital Leica and critique it (pro and cons)— but can I truly give an honest appraisal without putting the factor of the cost, and the personal pain it would cause me by purchasing it?
Furthermore, as another rule, never ask a photographer what camera he/she recommends. Rather, see what camera they use. Not only that, but whether they actually paid the camera with their own money. This is the way to see their true preferences. I got this idea from Nassim Taleb from his book “Antifragile” in which he says you should never ask an investor what you should invest in, but rather ask them what they own in their portfolio. Actions speak louder than words— talk is cheap.
What is the best camera for street photography?
Street photography is probably my #1 passion— it is what got me into photography really deeply.
However I don’t always shoot “street photography” — much of my photography when I am in the suburbs is taking “personal photography” — photo documentary of my own life, of Cindy (#cindyproject), and of my close friends and loved ones.
For street photography, I’ve used every single camera and lens out there. Honestly, there are no more bad cameras. They’re all pretty good now. Most cameras on the market are far more similar than dissimilar. Regardless of what camera you buy, it will be a superb choice. So no more buyer’s remorse, or regrets that you “shouldo’ve” bought that ‘other’ camera. It is kind of like smartphones— in the past an iPhone was vastly superior to any Android phone. Honestly nowadays iOs is starting to look more and more like Android (adding multi-tasking, and ‘widgets’), while Android phones are becoming more like iPhones (the Galaxy S6 has a non-removable battery, and there are tons of Android phone clones of the iPhone).
Personally, my favorite digital camera for street photography is the Ricoh GR II, and after I gave away the Ricoh GR (version I) to a friend, I bought this GR II with my own hard-earned cash. And I am super-happy with the decision, it only cost me around $550 on BhPhoto, and I think it is the best bang-for-the-buck digital camera for street photography (APS-C sensor, macro functionality, and it fits in my front pocket). The only downside of the camera is that it has a slow and pretty inaccurate autofocus — but most of the shooting I do on it are “street portraits” anyways, so it isn’t a big issue.
Probably the best “value” digital camera is the Fujifilm X100T (as of early 2016). Optical viewfinder, super-fast autofocus, superb colors— it is truly the “poor man’s Leica.”
If you are balling-out-of-control, or have a ton of cash in the bank, I would recommend a digital Leica M (Type 262), as it has no superfluous features (no stupid live view or movie) and the Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron (super-sharp, and a good balance of weight and size). You do not want to buy the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux (too big and heavy). If you want the best “value” Leica lens, the 35mm f/2.4 Summarit is fantastic. And the best “value” M-mount lens is easily the Voigtlander 35mm f/2.5 (~$400).
Personally, I don’t think I will ever buy another digital Leica M camera. I purchased a second-hand Leica M9 in the past, but after I got a film Leica M6, the M9 collected dust on the cabinet, until I sold the M9 and used that money towards buying a film Leica MP.
Why do I personally not want to ever buy another digital Leica?
As much as I love digital technology, the experience of shooting a film Leica is far more sublime for me than a digital Leica. I love the smaller size of the film Leica, the satisfying click, and the mechanical film-advance lever (like cutting butter with a hot knife). Furthermore, I know my film Leica will outlast me, and I can give to my future grand-children. It also is fully-mechanical and works without a battery (not having to charge a camera while traveling is actually really nice).
I remember when the M9 came out and it was the shit, and everyone was wetting their pants over it. But funny enough— many of the Leica M9-sensors are experiencing “sensor rot” — as well as the older Leica M-Monochrom cameras. Digital technology still has flaws.
I recently borrowed Seneca’s “Letters to Lucilius” at the UC Berkeley Library— it was 105 years old and still “worked” fine. The printing and binding was still superb, and all the information “worked.” This is one of the reasons why I am trying not to read e-books and Kindle anymore— I highly doubt I will give my future grandchildren, or their grand-children, my Kindle paper white and e-books.
If your passion is shooting film, I’d say the best “value” setup is a Leica M6 and a 35mm Voigtlander f/2.5 lens. If you have “fuck you money”, I’d get the Leica M-A (the hipster one without a meter) because I think the black one with no letters is aesthetically appealing, and a Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH (newest one).
If tomorrow someone stole my film Leica MP and Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH, I would probably buy a film Leica M-A (black) and a Leica 35mm f/2.4 Summarit (having f/2 when shooting film is nice, but honestly, I’d probably prefer having a smaller lens, and saving the $1000 on a lens for books or travel).
Expect “hedonic adaptation”
I am guilty of daydreaming of cameras and lenses.
I am stuck in a cubicle, hating my life, thinking that buying a new camera and lens will fix all my life’s problems. I think I will become sexier, handsomer, more photographically creative, and more “inspired” to shoot everyday.
In reality, whenever I bought any new camera or lens, I am excited for a few weeks, then the enthusiasm fades back to baseline. Then I hit up the gear forums again to figure out what next purchase to make.
They call this process “hedonic adaptation” — that after buying any purchase of a material thing (car, house, camera, smartphone, etc) you get an initial boost, then you revert to “baseline.” They also call it a “hedonic treadmill” (like a treadmill, you got to keep buying more shit to keep you happy, and you keep running on a treadmill like a dupe).
It happens to us all— when you bought your last car, didn’t you imagine how cool, sexy, fast, and comfortable it would be— and you imagined how much happier you would be, and less miserable being stuck in traffic during your commute? In reality, that happy feeling fades quickly— until we are looking for the next upgrade.
It happened to me with my camera— moving from a Canon point-and-shot to a Canon Rebel XT (350D), to a Canon 5D (original), to a Leica M9, to a Leica M6, to a Leica MP. I honestly thought buying a Leica M9 would solve all my photographic problems, but in reality, I got used to it after about a month, and it became just another metal brick that collected dust on my shelf. I told myself I would never sell the camera, and that I would love it forever— but honestly, you just get “used” to it. A lot of my friends would ask me about it, and honestly— I just felt indifferent to it after a while. It happens to everyone (even my friends who have high-end BMW cars agree that they get adapted to the car, until they are looking to ‘upgrade’ to a new high-end Porsche or some other exotic car).
I’m not telling you to never buy anything new. In-fact, I think it does make sense to upgrade your digital camera every 2-3 years (I personally wouldn’t own a laptop, smartphone, or any digital device longer than 3-4 years). But my suggestion is this: under-anticipate how much joy and happiness a new camera or lens is going to bring you. Be realistic with yourself. We all need tools to make images, but don’t think the camera will make you more creative, inspired, or whatever. Every camera is just a metal box with a button on it.
I apologize — I started this letter to you saying that you should buy a camera that is good for you— yet I go spouting off my preferences, my recommendations, and such.
But I am just giving you advice I wish I personally knew when I started off. And once again, don’t trust my advice— whenever you want a new camera, first ask yourself what you are going to use the camera for, and what your preferences are.
Then test the camera yourself, and I would recommend not to trust anyone else’s recommendations. I think it is fine to read a few reviews briefly— but always be skeptical of the reviews of others.
And realize once again— any digital camera you buy will quickly be outdated just like how the iPhone 4 was outdated by the 4s, the iPhone 5 was outdated by the 5s, the iPhone 6 was outdated by the 6s, and how the iPhone 6s will (soon) be outdated with the iPhone 7.
Same goes with the Leica M8, Leica M9, Leica M240, Leica Type 262, and whatever digital Leica comes next. Same with Fuji — the x100, x100s, x100t, and any future Fuji cameras.
This is why I like using film cameras— they never are “outdated”— because they are already outdated. Another reason why I would rather buy a 1980’s BMW 3-series (coupe) over any modern BMW M3 (which will quickly be outdated by the next year’s model).
So friend, there are just some of my thoughts about cameras for street photography in 2016, and just some thoughts about picking cameras in general.
The only real joy you will get from photography is the process of shooting (less time in front of your computer, and more time out shooting), from the process of printing and framing your photos (as well as giving them away to friends), and the process of self-improvement and self-introspection (why you take photos). You will gain joy from meeting other photographers, socializing with other artists at exhibitions and shows, and you honestly will never gain any true happiness from social media (I’ve tried, it is just another treadmill of “likes”— there are never “enough” likes one can get, without being jealous of someone with more likes than you).
Once again don’t forget— the purpose of life is to live a heroic, purposeful, and meaningful life — not to take “good” photos. After all, who cares about photos you take, if you don’t enjoy your life?
And also don’t forget #buybooksnotgear (buying an inspirational $50 photo book will bring you more pleasure and creativity than dropping $1000+ on a new camera or lens).
Furthermore, don’t forget to invest in experiences and travel. Why? Because if someone steals your $7,000 Leica camera, you are screwed, and will never get it back again. But that $1,000 trip you took? Those experiences will last with you forever, and nobody can ever steal a memory from you.
Farewell and be strong,
Jan 16, Saturday, 5:45pm, 2016, with some cold-brew coffee (man this stuff is like crack, I hope I’ll be able to sleep tonight— probably not). Currently reading “Fahrenheit 451” — a sad world in which nobody cares about books anymore (almost like today, nobody cares about photo books, we only care about the newest shiniest, megapixel-laden cameras).
End of an era
It feels bittersweet– the 4-year anniversary of the “Hatakeyama Gallery” / Simple Studio Lighting in Downtown LA. Todd Hatakeyama (owner) was one of the first people who reached out to me when I lost my job (2011) and has helped me tremendously with business, making a living from photography, and just life in general.
My friend Norman Estrologo curated a last-minute show with our buddies Rinzi Ruiz, Dana Barsuhn, David Valera, and Mark Rosales. I happened to be in town this week (going to Cindy’s niece’s baptism this Sunday), and I went down with Cindy– and was so glad to catch up with everybody.
It makes me so happy to be a part of building this beautiful street photography community in LA– many of my former students have blossomed in their photographic careers. I don’t take any credit– it just makes me happy to see everybody doing so well and happy.
I love all you Downtown LA streettogs with my heart, you were with me since the beginning as well (4-5 years ago), and photography is not important at the end of the day– it is the relationships and community which matters the most.
Long live street photography, and thank you Todd for helping the community so much — none of this would have been possible without you. Also huge shout out to JJ (Jason Yee), who has been the glue holding the community together in LA for so long.
Some snaps (with special guests like Ola Billmont from Stockholm and Blake Andrews from Oregon!)
Unleash your creative potential:
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