The More Thing Change, The More They Remain The Same
Michael Ernest Sweet
As street photography grew in popularity, more and more camera manufacturers responded. Cameras were designed in an attempt to be more responsive and agile, as well as plainly marketed to the “street photographer” – a particular breed of photographer known to be gear obsessed and always ready to buy. But more new camera models does not, necessarily, mean better cameras for the street.
Copyright ⓒ Michael E. Sweet
When I began photographing the streets around the year 2010, there were a couple of “staple” cameras, namely, the Leica M series (both digital and analog) and the Ricoh GR (both digital and analog). The Leicas were favored by more methodical and “journalistic” street photographers, and the Ricoh cameras were the favorites of more haphazard, machine-gun type street photographers. I was mainly part of the latter category, although I always kept an M6 around as well. Ricoh GRs were my bread and butter! I eagerly awaited the release of each new model, as well as buying and trying models of the past too. Other than these two cameras there wasn’t much to talk about. Some street photographers did try out the Fujifilm x100 when it came onto the scene in 2011, but I always found it a bit slow and clumsy despite all the hype. You see, the manual focus rangefinder setup of the Ms, and the hybrid focus system of the GRs, made them both operate with zero shutter lag, which was key.
Although more cameras entered the scene targeting street photographers, they were all a bit slow, clumsy, gimmicky or downright awful. The X100 would improve only slightly with each new iteration and, ultimately, would never be the “rangefinder” we all wanted it to be. Other companies, like Panisonic and Olympus, would also try to compete in the street photography space but would never really succeed. Rather than design a tool for street photographers, many companies instead just rebranded compact cameras for street photography without any meaningful design upgrades. In my own work, I kept returning to the Ricoh GRD IV time and time again. This model was the last of the small sensor GRs, which also featured a hybrid focus system and a “snap” mode without the need to preset a distance. In other words, you could simply aim and snap and everything would be in focus with absolutely zero shutter lag. Even the newer (so called improved) large-sensor GRs would have trouble maintaining the speed of the older GRD IV model. Put another way, Ricoh GR models began to regress. Yes, they did feature a larger sensor, but size is not everything. I’ll take speed over sensor size every day of the week. After all, I’m no pixel peeper!
Copyright ⓒ Michael E. Sweet
Despite all the new cameras that have entered the street photography space, I still believe the best cameras are the Leica M or the Ricoh GR Digital IV. The Leica M (either digital or analog) is ideal for a street photographer following in the footsteps of Cartier-Bresson and his thoughtful approach to photographing the public space. The Ricoh GR Digital IV is best for a descendant of Winogrand and the shoot fast and move on school of street photography. All of the other cameras that have come and gone, yes even including the Leica Q and the big-sensor Ricoh GRs, are lacking in comparison. They just don’t get the job done as well. They may be fun to play with and exciting to buy, especially if you have bad GAS, but the resulting photography will suffer in comparison. Perhaps the only other camera that has improved over the last decade and is now worth a second look for street photography is the iPhone. After all, the iPhone is always in your pocket! It is now faster, higher resolution, and backed up by a slew of great apps. In particular, I recommend a look at the NOMO app. It mimics older analog cameras and, although some of the releases are a little bit of a gimmick, most produce unique, quality images. The photos illustrating this article were made with an iPhone XR and the NOMO app.
Just like with the disappearance of the Concorde jet, we must take a longer road to a great street photograph with most of the newer, more up-to-date, digital cameras. They simply were not made for actual street photography, just labeled so. Thankfully one can still get a Ricoh GR Digital IV or a Leica M6 on eBay. If you really want to hit the streets and take photos like those we see from the “golden era” buy one of these beauties and ignore all the buzz around modern equipment. Decide, once and for all, whether you are chasing a good photo or simply the high of buying new gear. They are very different pursuits.