What to Consider When Buying a New Camera for Street Photography
On my flight from Dubai back to the states I just finished an excellent book by psychologist Barry Schwartz titled: “The Paradox of Choice.” In the book, Schwartz addresses the following question in Western society: Why is it that people are getting more miserable when the amount of choices we are given goes up?
I am sure we have all experienced this problem. Whenever we go to the grocery store and want to pick up a box of cereal, we are given hundreds of options. Whenever we go to buy a new car, there are so many different companies, models, and options to choose from. Not only that, but when it comes to buying cameras
we are given so many choices in terms of what type of camera/sensor (Full-frame DSLR, ASPC-sensor, Micro 4/3rds, Compact, etc) as well as a choice of lenses.
Schwartz gives solutions in the book in terms of how to deal with the over-abundance of choice and stress that it comes with. I have found this advice to be invaluable both in terms of my everyday life and when it comes to photography/buying equipment. I hope these tips help you, as they have very much helped me.
For this post, I have also included some new photos from Istanbul that I shot last year.
1. Be a “satisficer”, not a “maximizer”
In the book Schwartz categorizes the two main types of people there are when it comes to making decisions. The first type of person he describes is the “satisficer”
someone who makes decisions that are “good enough” that satisfies them. The second type of person is the “maximizer” someone who tries to make the “best” decisions given a certain situation and strives for perfection.
For example, a satisficer might to a store looking for a camera that suits his or her needs– and once he/she finds the camera that they find to be reasonably good, they will buy it.
The maximizer is the type of person that is looking for the “perfect camera” and spends hours agonizing over reviews, sharpness tests, and specification tables.
Guess who tends to be more regretful/miserable when it comes to making decisions? You guessed it– the maximizer.
The fist concept of “satisficing” came around in the 1950′s from Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Herbert Simon. This is how Schwartz describes Simon’s position in the book:
“Simon suggested that when all the costs (in time, money, and anguish) involved in getting information about all the options are factored in, satisfying is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.”
So how do you know if you are a satisficer or a maximizer? Well take this survey below. Write a number from 1-7 (completely agree to completely disagree) and add up the numbers. If your score is 40 or lower, you are a satisficer. If your score is 65 or higher, you are a maximizer.
- Whenever I’m faced with a choice, I try to imagine what all the other possibilities are, even ones that aren’t present at the moment.
- No matter how satisfied I am with my job, it’s only right for me to be on the lookout for better opportunities.
- When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to.
- When I watch TV, I channel surf, often scanning through the available options even while attempting to watch one program.
- I treat relationships like clothing: I expect to try a lot on before finding the perfect fit.
- I often find it is difficult to shop for a gift for a friend.
- Renting videos is really difficult. I’m alway struggling to pick up the best one.
- When shopping, I have a hard time finding clothing that I really love.
- I’m a big fan of lists that attempt to rank things (the best movies, the best singers, the best athletes, the best novels etc).
- I find that writing is very difficult, even if it’s just writing a letter to a friend, because it’s so hard to word things just right. I often do several drafts of even simple things.
- No matter what I do, I have the highest standards for myself.
- I never settle for second best.
- I often fantasize about living in ways that are quite different from my actual life.
(From the American Psychological Association)
When Schwartz studied the differences between satisficers and maximizers, he found the following tendencies:
- Maximizers engage in more product comparisons than satisficers, both before and after they make purchasing decisions.
- Maximizers take longer than satisficers to decide on a purchase.
- Maximizers spend more time than satisficers comparing their purchasing decisions to the decisions of others.
- Maximizers are more likely to experience regret after a purchase.
- Maximizers are more likely to spend time thinking about hypothetical alternatives to the purchases they’ve made.
- Maximizers generally feel less positive about their purchasing decisions.
Not only that, but there was more negative attributes that Schwartz discovered about maximizers:
- Maximizers savor positive events less than satisficers and do not cope as well (by their own admission) with negative events.
- After something bad happens to them, maximizers’ sense of well-being takes longer to recover.
- Maximizers tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers.
When it comes to buying cameras for street photography, I think it is far better to be a “satisficer” than a “maximizer.”
There is no such thing as the perfect camera for street photography. Every camera has its pros and its cons. Therefore the search for the “perfect camera” is a fruitless one that will lead to dissatisfaction.
One rule-of-thumb I mentioned in my previous post is the idea of getting a camera that works 80% well for you. Getting a camera that is “good enough” for your needs in the streets is ideal. This will allow you to focus more on the photographing and less worrying about if the gear you have is perfect.
So I recommend not spending so much time on gear review sites and forums which focus on every little difference between all the cameras out there. What I recommend instead is going to a camera store, perhaps borrowing it for a day or two
and trying it out on the streets.
Things that people talk about on the internet (ergonomics, feel, handling) is something you have to try out for yourself. Your hands may be too big/too small for a camera, and the weight and balance of a camera is also an important consideration (you cannot get online).
2. Make your purchases non-reversible
In today’s consumer world, we love refunds and 100% money-back guarantees. It gives us the feeling of security– that if we don’t wholly love our purchase we can just return it.
However the reality is that if a purchase we make is refundable, it actually makes us less satisfied.
For example, there was a study in which participants chose one photograph from a set of 8×10, black and white prints they made in a photography class. In another case, they chose one small poster from a set of fine art print reproductions. The interesting finding was that although the participants valued being able to reverse their choices, almost nobody actually decided to do so. The participants who had the option to change their minds were less satisfied with their choices than the participants who weren’t able to change their choices.
This has to do a lot with the “endowment effect” in which people don’t like to part with something once they obtain it. This also happened in another study in which participants were given a coffee mug or a nice pen for participating. The gifts were worth roughly the same value. The participants were then given the opportunity to trade. What also ended up happening was very few trades happened. Once you own something, it feels like its yours. And to give it away would entail a loss. Because losses feel more painful than gains, to give it away is more painful.
And even more interestingly in another study, participants were given a mug to examine and asked the price they would demand to sell it (if they owned it). A few minutes later, they were actually given the mug, and the opportunity to sell it. Once they owned the mug, they demanded 30% more to sell it than what they said a few minutes earlier. Once again, once you feel that you own something, to part with it is quite painful.
Another theory why non-reversible decisions are better than reversible decisions is that once we make a non-reversible decision, we don’t think about “what if’s” and rather focus on psychological coping mechanisms. For example, we will spend more time justifying why we purchased something and seeing the good aspects of it (rather than the negatives).
We can also use the analogy of marriage. Once you choose a life partner, (hopefully) that partner will be with you for life. Of course the “grass is always greener on the other side.” There will always be others who will be younger, more attractive, funnier, smarter, understanding, or intelligent than your partner. But once you make that life-long commitment, you learn to see past your partner’s flaws, and see their strengths. Knowing that you made a choice in marriage that is non-reversible will allow you to focus your energy on improving the relationship instead of always second-guessing it.
When it comes to purchasing your cameras, it may seem counter-intuitive, but purchase it where they don’t offer a money-back guarantee.
In my personal experiences, I have bought many cameras and lenses over the years. I started with a point-and-shoot, upgraded to a Canon 350D, got a bunch of prime and zoom lenses, got a full-frame Canon 5D, upgraded to a Leica M9, messed around with a 21mm and a 35mm, then sold it off and got a film Leica MP.
For the lenses that I purchased online which were refundable, I would always think in the back of my head: “what if another lens was better than this?” Then after testing out the lens for a bit, I would be tempted to return it and try out another lens. Whereas when I have bought lenses from people (in person) which were non-refundable, I worried less about the “what if’s” and focused on rather using my lens and getting more comfortable with it (and seeing past its flaws).
Nowadays most online merchants offer returns or money-back guarantees. So perhaps purchase from online retailers which don’t offer returns or money-back guarantees, and either buy your cameras or lenses in-person.
3. Don’t be tempted by the new
Every year there are always a plethora of new cameras and lenses that flood the market. Especially with digital cameras, we expect to see an upgrade at least every year or every other year. It is like buying a computer
they only have a life expectancy of around 4 years. I find most photographers to upgrade their digital cameras (myself included) every 4 years (or most cases less than that).
I think that there are certain cases in which it does make sense to upgrade your digital cameras. For example, I think that the new Fujifilm x100s is worth the upgrade from the Fujifilm x100 (as the autofocus speed is now blazingly fast). Also getting a micro 4/3rds such as the Olympus OM-D is also much more convenient than lugging around a huge DSLR.
However for most cameras, the incremental shifts we see are very minor. Sure they may offer more megapixels, slightly better high-ISO performance, video functions, and all these other bells & whistles we don’t really need.
One of the things that I love most about street photography is that we don’t need uber-good image quality or high-ISO performance. Sure if you are a fashion photographer or a landscape photographer this may be important– but I still know many street photographers (check out the Mobile Photo Group) who use iPhones and take incredible photographs.
A concept I wrote in my last post brought up the idea of the “hedonic treadmill”– in which we always want the newer, the better, and the more improved. The sad thing however is that once we get the shiny new camera, we enjoy it only for a few weeks– and then get accustomed to it and it doesn’t feel special anymore. For those of you who have bought new cars in the past, I am sure that the first few weeks/months of having the new car is a joy. Then after that, you get used to it– and simply want to get something even fancier.
If you want to upgrade your camera for street photography, think if your decision is because the camera is holding you back or if it for upgrading for the sake of getting the newest.
I want to clarify, this article isn’t about the fact that you should never buy a new camera for street photography. After all, digital cameras are like computers
their shelf life tends to only be around 4 years. This is why I personally switched to shooting my personal street photography on film– as I know that my Leica MP will never get outdated (it is already outdated).
Realize that there is no “perfect” camera for street photography – every camera has its pros and cons. If the camera has better image quality and high-ISO performance, it tends to be bigger and bulkier. If the camera is more compact and portable, it tends to be lower in terms of the image quality and high-ISO performance. There will always be a trade-off, just think about what attributes of a camera is valuable for you in terms of how you shoot in the streets.
I think one of the worst things about purchasing new cameras is buyer’s remorse and the “what if” questions. Rather than regretting your purchases, think about the positives and learn to adapt with it. After all, regardless of how good (or poor) your camera, you will become adapted to it.
Above all, don’t buy new cameras for the sake of them being new. Most of the new functions are quite trivial (better LCD screens, video function, extra buttons, etc). Save your money and rather use the money on a nice street photography vacation/trip or buy some street photography books.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to have an attitude of gratitude. As photographers, we should always remind ourselves how fortunate we are even to have a camera. In a world in which so many people can barely even pay their rent, utilities, and food
we still have enough spare cash to afford a camera. We are truly blessed.
Camera recommendations for street photography
One of the questions I get asked most is what camera I recommend for street photography.
Like I mentioned, there is no perfect camera for street photography and everyone’s tastes are different. However these are my top recommendations at the moment:
Digital: Fujifilm x100s
I remember when the original Fujifilm x100 came out, it was a superb camera in every regard (except for the slow autofocus). Now with the new Fujifilm x100s, the autofocus is insanely fast (Fuji claims it to be the fastest in the world). Based on my experiences playing with the x100s for a day, I can attest it is as fast (if not faster) than the Olympus OMD (which is also an amazing camera).
I also think that for the majority of street photographers, 35mm is an ideal focal length. 50mm tends to be a tight when shooting on the streets, and 28mm is too wide for most people.
Not only that, but it is extremely light, has superb image quality (and high-ISO performance in the ASPC-sensor), and an optical finder. In terms of price, it is also probably the best bang-for-the-buck camera for street photography at the moment.
To be quite honest, I don’t see any flaws with the camera. Sure it would be nice if there was a real manual focusing tab on the camera (maybe the next generation of the x100 will have it) but I assume most street photographers would use autofocus on it anyways.
Film: Leica M6 and 35mm f/2.5 Voightlander lens
I have a lot of people asking me for recommendations for film cameras for street photography. I have been using my Contax T3 a lot recently (love the compact size, image quality, and auto settings) but I still would choose my film Leica at the end of the day. Why? Film Leicas are indestructible, reliable, and can operate without a battery.
The Leica M6 is definitely the best bang-for-the-buck film Leica you can get. It is has a meter, all the frame lines you need, and is quite compact and light. I loved my first Leica M6 (thanks to Todd Hatakeyama for giving it to me as a gift) but I ended up upgrading to the Leica MP after I sold my M9. The MP and the M6 are pretty much the same camera, except the MP is newer and thus more reliable (which helps when I travel).
In terms of the lens, the Voightlander 35mm f/2.5 lens is the best bang-for-the-buck lens you can get. It only costs a few hundred bucks, is one of the smallest lenses I’ve used, and is very sharp as well.
For buying any film cameras, I highly recommend Bellamy Hunt (Japan Camera Hunter). I get all my stuff from him, and I love the peace-of-mind he gives me (he personally makes sure all the cameras work properly and are in good condition).
I am a big fan of compact cameras for street photography. Why? Because you can carry them with you everywhere you go (which will make you more likely to take photos). Not only that, but they tend to be the least threatening and conspicuous cameras to use on the streets.
For digital, I recommend the Ricoh GRD IV. It has a very sharp 28mm lens f/1.9 lens, one of the most comfortable grips I have used, and easy functions to pre-focus on the street.
For film, I recommend the Contax T2. It has a sharp Zeiss 38mm f/2.8 lens, zone-focusing abilities, and is built like a tank. It is a superb bang-for-the-buck camera. The Contax T3 is quite similar, except it has a 35mm lens, is a bit more compact, but has worse handling (it is like holding a bar of soap).
For further reading on decision-making processes, I recommend Barry Schwartz’s “The Paradox of Choice” as well as Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Both have changed the way I have made decisions in all aspects of my life.