Best camera for street photography - DSLR vs CSC vs Compact

1st Dec 2011 | 11:49

Best camera for street photography - DSLR vs CSC vs Compact

What's best for photographing a bustling market?

Christmas camera shootout: introduction

Festive markets have sprung up around the country in many cities, and with most boasting beautiful food, wonderful home-made gifts and more colours than you can shake a stick at, these make ideal photography projects.

Choosing which camera to take with you can be tricky, however. On the one hand, lugging around a DSLR and setting up the perfect shot may not be exactly practical when there are hoards of people all crowding round desperate to get to the mulled wine stall, while smaller cameras generally have their limitations in terms of creativity and image quality.

So, we've pitted a DSLR against a compact system camera and a compact camera, to see which camera is the best option for shooting scenarios such as this.

It may seem that the DSLR will trounce the others in terms of image quality but, in terms of overall practicality, ease of use and speed, you might be surprised by how well the other cameras can perform.

We've used a budget DSLR, a mid-range compact system camera and a mid-range compact camera, but generally, the pros and cons of each will apply to whichever price bracket a particular type of camera falls into.

Let's start with how the DSLR performed

Christmas camera shootout: DSLR

For our shootout, we used a Nikon D3100 with the standard kit-lens attached. There are many pros to consider when using a DSLR for this type of shooting scenario, but you need to bear in mind that due to the quick pace of a market, you will need to be up to speed with all the key controls on your camera.

While a DSLR isn't as discreet to use as the other models, which may not be beneficial for street-style photography, others may find that "hiding" behind the viewfinder is preferable to composing the shot using a screen.

Pros:

  • Attractive depth of field effects for highlighting details
  • No shutter lag
  • Wide range of lenses available (telephoto optics are good if you want to keep your distance)
  • (Some have) an articulated screen for shooting awkward scenarios
  • Overall better tone and colour
  • Wider dynamic range
  • Easy to switch to and use manual focus
  • Can shoot in raw format

Cons

  • Not very discreet
  • Kit lenses generally aren't fantastic quality
  • Slow to use when using Live View
  • You need to have a greater understanding of the kit for best results

As you might expect, we found the images produced on the DSLR were the most realistic, produced the best colours and allowed us to experiment with creative settings such as controlling the depth of field with ease. If you can stretch to a macro f/2.8 lens or 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens, you are likely to see even better results. However of course, this does come at the expense of having to lug heavy and expensive kit around.

Street photography - dslr

Street photography - dslr

Street photography - dslr

Street photography - dslr

Christmas camera shootout: Compact system camera

We used the Olympus PEN E-P3 with the standard 14-42mm kit lens attached for the shootout. Many will see compact system cameras as the "compromise", allowing you to have full manual control and creative options at a fraction of the size and bulk of a DSLR. Using something that has a touchscreen with touch-focus or touch-shutter is great for quick shooting environments such as a market.

Compact system cameras, especially newer models such as the Olympus PEN and Panasonic Lumix GX1 also boast exceptionally quick autofocusing (in good light), meaning you can grab pictures and go.

While not as big as the DSLR, using a CSC is also not the most discreet of options, and you may find you take up more space as you extend your arms to compose a shot using the screen. Most CSCs don't come with a viewfinder as standard, but several have the option to add one as an added extra purchase.

Pros:

  • (Some have) touch screen/touch shutter/touch focus
  • Small and portable
  • (Some have) an articulated screen
  • Can change lens if necessary
  • Super quick autofocus system in good light
  • Control over depth of field
  • Art filters (on some models)
  • Can shoot in raw format

Cons

  • Higher noise output at night
  • No viewfinder or EVF (on most models)
  • Shadows/highlights tend to be poorer than DSLRs
  • Unable to quickly change to manual focus

We found shooting with a compact system camera allowed us to be the most creative and focus on the composition of images, rather than worrying about a myriad of different settings. That said, those options were quickly and easily available should we need them. As we were using the Olympus PEN E-P3, we had the option of a range of creative filters which were great in this situation.

Street photography - csc

Street photography - csc

Street photography - csc

Street photography - csc

Street photography - csc

Christmas camera shootout: compact camera

The compact camera is of course what most people will have quick access to, and is an obvious choice if you just want a few quick snaps and are out with the family. We chose the Samsung MV800, which features a flip-out display.

Of all of the cameras we used, the compact camera was the most discreet, allowing for quick detail shots to be grabbed without drawing attention or getting in the way of other customers.

Pros:

  • Discreet
  • (A few) have an articulated screen - though most don't
  • Touchscreen available on many models
  • Quick to grab photos, no extensive knowledge required

Cons:

  • Attractive shallow depth of field effects harder to achieve
  • No viewfinder or EVF (on most compacts)
  • Dynamic range is limited, making it easier to burn out highlights
  • Shadow noise will be more apparent
  • Limited manual settings (on most compacts)

Chucking a compact camera in your pocket is the best option if your primary reason for being somewhere like a Christmas market is to have fun or shop. However, with the lack of manual control and different creative options on most models can limit creativity.

Street photography - compact

Street photography - compact

Street photography - compact

Street photography - compact

Street photography - compact

Christmas camera shootout: verdict

Olympus pen e-p3

It's not an easy decision to make, because each camera has a good set of pros to make it seem the most attractive. However, in terms of balancing overall performance with ease of use and practicality, we're drawn most towards the compact system camera.

That said, if you want to create a serious set of images, perhaps for a portfolio or more dedicated project, a DSLR fitted with a couple of different lenses, such as a macro lens, will help you get some fantastic shots that you can be really proud of.

The compact camera is a great fun choice, and depending on the model you own you may find creative filters, a decent set of manual control and a good zoom range will give you everything you need.

Overall, managing to finely balance the line between portability and creative control, a CSC should have everything you need for a fun day of shooting, without having to be weighed down with a kit bag full of lenses, tripods and other shooting paraphernalia.

Using a camera with a touchscreen is a great bonus in this kind of situation, so you may want to consider models such as the Olympus PEN E-P3 and the Panasonic GF3, G3, GH2 or GX1. The touchscreen means you can quickly change autofocus points, speedily access menu options and in some cases even release the shutter.

If you're likely to be visiting a market after-dark, the bigger sensors on board Samsung and Sony compact system cameras may give you the edge over the micro four thirds models by Panasonic and Olympus, so it's worth considering the Sony NEX-5N, and the Samsung NX200. However, it's also true to say that contrast detection performance, as used on cameras such as this, dips in lower light situations, so it's here that the DSLR will again have the edge.

When using a DSLR or a CSC, it's important to consider the focal length of your lens. With bustling crowds, longer length lenses will allow you pick out interesting details from afar ( though you may find you need a high vantage point), while wider angles are good for setting the scene.

Additional photographs by Ali Jennings.

cameras DSLR compact system camera compact Christmas
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