Best Film Cameras For Street Photography

Street photography. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s a thrilling combination of exploration and confidence. A constant test of one’s patience, determination and guts to get the shot you want. Before you even get the shot you have to consider what are the best film cameras for street photography.


What did the professional street photographers use back in the day?

This is by no means a comprehensive list of street photographers and it is not intended to be. Rather it’s just a quick summary of a handful of the bigger names that have graced us with their incredible talents.

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Cartier-Bresson is pictured in this file picture from September 1989. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Let’s start with Henri Cartier Bresson (or HCB).

Considered one of the pioneers and icons of street photography.

His camera of choice was the Leica. He would rarely ever be seen with any other camera in his hand.

And while he would typically use the Leica that was contemporary with the period at the time, he has kept in no secret throughout interviews that the Leica M3 is his favorite and what he considers the pinnacle of Leica’s achievement.

 

Robert Frank

Robert Frank

Best known for his work shooting The Americans, Robert Frank was seen more as a photography purist rather than a loyalist to any camera manufacturers in particular.

To him all that mattered was whether the image evoked an emotion response in the observer.

It didn’t matter if was slightly blurry, out of focus or whatnot.

This meant that he used a range of cameras throughout his career, but for his most popular work he has used the Leica screw mount with 35mm or 50mm lens.

William Klein

William Klein

While Willian Klein probably doesn’t fall under the street photography category as neatly as the other photographers do (his work was more oriented towards fashion and photojournalism), he is still considered one of the fathers of street photography and produced incredible photo essays on different cities.

He is an in your face kind of photographer who had developed an ironic and unusual photography style which has seen him become one of the most influential photographers of our time.

He was unconventional in the way he chose to break the photography rules of that time – preferring wide angle and telephoto lenses over the traditional 50mm.

He has used a variety of Leica rangefinders with the 28mm being his preferred focal length.

You can check out this documentary on William Klein for free on YouTube titled: The Many Lives of William Klein

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

The posthumous release of Vivian Maier’s work has seen a street photography legend born overnight.

She is most well known for using a TLR camera by Rolleiflex.

While she didn’t stick to any one model in particular, you will probably see a few self-portraits of her holding what looks to be the Rolleiflex Tessar 3.5 judging by the year and style.

 

What Makes A Camera The Best For Street Photography?

Aside from a strong build and compatibility to a variety of quality lenses, there are two characteristics that stand out which make these the best film cameras for street photography. The camera should be a combination of quiet and unobtrusive, which leads us to…

Leica M3 / Leica M6

Leica M3
The Faultless Leica M3

To be honest with you, I’ve never owned either one of these cameras.

Do I intend to?

Absolutely. 

As you’ve probably seen and read, these cameras are the favorites of the street photography Gods. They are revered in film photography camera circles. They were the crux of the street photography movement.

The vast majority of the greatest street photographs of all time were shot on a Leica.

So you’re not only owning one of the best film cameras of all time, you’re also owning a piece of history.

The next camera purchase I make will be the Leica M3 or M6 – I haven’t yet decided. But I can’t wait to share my experience on here.

So what gives them their cult-like popularity?

It’s all in the glass.

The lenses associated with Leica are some of the sharpest mere mortals like you and me can afford.

Most can be shot wide open without losing sharpness in the corners.

Other big reasons are:

  • Quiet shutter means you can go stealth-mode on the streets
  • No SLR mirror means you can shoot handheld in lower light
  • Rangefinder viewfinder means you are looking directly at your subject – no barrier & no reflection
  • Compatible lenses – you can use any lens for the past 70+ years and it will fit on your camera

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James Grundy

I’ve been photographing for 13 years and have a penchant for 35mm and medium format film. Black and white street photography is my go-to. My work has been featured in online and print media through a few publications like Shutterstock, Brooklyn Resource Mag, Off The Rails and Collective Quarterly.

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