Best lenses for street photography

By Kevin Carter - Friday January 10 2014

Lens Recommendations
Introduction | Street Photography with Compacts | Street Photography with Micro Four Thirds | Street Photography with Sony NEX | Street Photography with Canon | Street Photography with Nikon

Although DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are obvious choices, due their flexibility for one, there has been a number of large sensor compacts from Ricoh, Sony and Nikon, which also deserve attention. There are also highly capable and rightly popular models from Sigma, Fujifilm and Leica, of course, but we’ve yet to decode Raw files derived from the Foveon and X-Trans sensors. That may change in the future, but for now we’ve concentrated on the full-frame Sony Cyber-shot RX1R, and APS-C format Ricoh and Nikon models.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 and RX1R

One of the most promising additions to the market came in the form of the Sony Cyber-shot RX1, a tiny fixed-lens model featuring a full-frame 24-Mpix sensor and later, the RX1R, a modified version sans AA filter for improved sharpness and resolution.

Both cameras feature the same high-quality Zeiss Sonnar T* 2/35 (35mm f2.0) with both autofocus and a manual aperture collar. As you would expect as premium models, they have a premium price, around $2,800 each.

Although it’s the same lens on both bodies, the lack of an AA filter marginally affects the performance. It’s perhaps most pronounced at the intital aperture where the RX1R has notably higher sharpness across the field, paricularly in the periperhery, however, as you might expect, central sharpness is still good on the RX1.

This higher sharpness continues throughout the aperture range, with f8 being the optimal aperture, though the difference between the two may be diffiucult to spot in use.

Vignetting is noticable at full aperture and it never really clears up, not that it’s a real issue.  There’s some slight barrel distortion but the simple profile is easy to correct in software, however lateral chromatic aberration is slightly higher than expected.

Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR

Not long after the introduction of the Sony Cyber-shot  RX1, Nikon announced the Coolpix A, a slightly smaller model with an 16-Mpix APS-C  (DX) size sensor and slightly wider 28mm equivalent f2.8 lens housed in a magesium alloy shell.

Like the Sony, the $1,000 Coolpix A has no room for a built-in viewfinder, though it has an optional if pricey viewfinder mounted via the hotshoe (however it’s optical instead of the Sony’s optional electronic offerring).

But it wasn’t long before Ricoh announced the GR with an almost indentical spec to the Coolpix A. It has a similar, retracting 28mm equivalent f2.8 lens and related 16-Mpix APS-C size CMOS sensor sans AA filter, all while undercutting the Nikon at $799. Not only that, but the general consensus is that the Ricoh has the better handling overall.

Although the specification is similar there are subtle differences between the performance of the two models, with the GR Lens having the edge on the Nikkor at full aperture, at least in terms of sharpness at the center.

The Nikon has slightly lower sharpness and better uniformity though that’s masked somewhat in photos by the much higher vignetting.

Optimal performance is achieved early in both the Nikkor and the GR Lens at f4, but it’s not so different from f2.8 in the Ricoh, making it the more desirable of the two for low light shooting.

However the Nikkor has corner-to-corner sharpness at f4 whereas the Ricoh never acheives it any aperture setting. Distortion and chromatic aberration are similar and while image rendering is a subjective quality, the Nikkor has the similarily attractive drawing style of the older manual focus Nikkors of the early 80s.

The Nikkor lens has the better unformity at the maximum aperture but the Ricoh has better sharpness, by f4 the Nikkor is slightly ahead across the field.

While a 28mm equivalent might be a little wide for some street photographers, a 35mm equivalent f2 lens like that found on the Fujifilm X100S would have been ideal though likely too large for comfort on such small bodies as the A and GR.