One of the things that intrigued me about the Sony NEX-5 is the potential for street photography. Its compact size, the flip-up screen, high ISO capability and high image quality where all positives for a street shooting camera. Being the smallest and fastest lens, 16mm pancake lens is the obvious choice out of the currently available Sony E-mount lenses (Sony has 3 lens as of this writing). However, it is still not an ideal lens since the 16mm is very wide, the f2.8 aperture is not fast as it could be and the lens does not have image stabilization. Given these trade-offs, how would the NEX-5 work as a street photography camera, especially at night? I recently took it down to Austin’s 6th street entertainment district on a photowalk to find out.
I must admit, I have not been using the 16mm much with my new camera. The 18-55mm kit lens was getting all the action but for street shooting at night, the f3.5 – f5.6 aperture range makes it a bit slow. With its multitude of bars and night clubs and with an active street life, 6th street is a great place to do some people shooting. Because of its compact size, the Sony NEX-5 almost looks like a point and shoot. Even so, some of my photowalk buddies have commented how large the lens looks on the camera, despite using the smaller 16mm lens.
On the street, I think it’s still small enough that it blends in and the average person would not suspect anything about the camera’s class leading performance. I initially found the 16mm (24mm equivalent considering the 1.5 crop factor) view challenging to use. You need to get in close enough to emphasize a main subject but get too close and people look distorted, especially towards the edges of the frame. For people, I like a range anywhere from 2 feet to about 8 feet. That is the challenge with this lens, even at 8 feet you are quite close to your subject, especially if it’s someone you don’t know. What makes this whole thing work is the fact the camera is small enough that it does not call attention to itself. Also with the flip-up LCD screen, you can shoot the camera chest or waist-high instead of putting it up to your face. This allows you to get closer. With an DSLR, having big camera at face level attracts attention so photographers use longer lenses to stay further from their subjects.
The NEX allows for a different style of shooting that works surprisingly well. A lot better than I thought. I’ve done street shooting with my Canon 7D with either a 35mm f2, 50mm f1.4 or 85mm f1.8. With these lenses, I could stay back a lot further, certainly more than 8 feet away, however, getting candid images is still a challenge. I believe the real key is the flip-up screen that allows free-form shooting. I would love to see Sony create a 40mm to 50mm equivalent lens with a large aperture (from f1.4 to f2), that would make the NEX a spectacular street camera. Even with the current 16mm lens, in many ways I find the NEX-5 superior to my 7D in street shooting. It can only improve from here.
The other concern I had with the 16mm lens is its lack of image stabilization. On 6th street, I had the ISO set at 800 – 3200. Even at f2.8, my shutter speed falls under 1/30 of a second at times. Image stabilization will still be very useful even with this lens. Since the lens is wide, a 1/30 second shutter should generally be adequate for a steady shot. However, shooting away from the face at arm’s length is not the most stable of poses. What really works well for me is adapting a small tripod to use as a brace against my body. I attach the camera, position the head so its is perpendicular to the tripod’s legs (bent at a 90 degree angle) and steady the tripod’s legs against my chest or hip. I use the LCD flipped up so that I can look down and compose my shot. In this configuration, I’ve successfully taken images as slow as 1/10 of a second. With such a slow shutter speed, often you get motion blur from the subject but at times I consider this a plus since a nicely done motion blur can add some interest to an image. There are many different mini-tripods and I’m sure many will work fine. I use a particularly solid Manfrotto 709B desk top tripod that I really enjoy.
The future of street photography with the Sony NEX-5 is looking very promising. Already with the 16mm f2.8 and my tripod trick, I’ve been able to take some decent night images. If Sony were to expand its lens collection with a normal view (40mm – 60mm), large aperture lens, it might become the ultimate camera for street photography. Make sure to click on the images to see a larger view.
My Thought Process
Image 1: As I walked down the street, I noticed the symmetry of the two glowing ATM signs and the two people standing in front of them. I quickly framed the image with the subjects in the middle to emphasize the symmetry. I originally did a black and white conversion but decided I like the color version more especially with the glowing green neon signs.
Image 2: I was walking down the street and quickly shot this image. I captured an interesting, surprised look on the man by luck. The combination of his expression and the motion blur of the woman attracts me to this photograph.
Image 3: I notice these women hanging around on the corner texting and talk on her phone. Because of the wide-angle distortion, I generally try to capture people towards the middle of the frame. This is the only image out of this post that I added noise reduction with Topaz DeNoise. The darker exposure on this ISO 3200 made the noise more noticeable than in image 1, which as also taken at ISO 3200.
Image 4: These people were in line to get into a bar on 6th street. I really didn’t notice the hand when I took the photograph but I like how the hand just floats there while is owner is not in view. There is a bit of motion blur in this image but I like the colors and for me it nicely captures the feel of 6th street.
Image 5: The cold front was blowing in and this woman was bundled up waiting to cross the street. I like the lines on the street and the skyline in the background. To me it has the feel of an urban, night image.
[Note: Click on the images for a larger version]
All of the photographs were taken in RAW with the Sony NEX-5 with the 16mm kit lens. There were post processed using Aperture 3. I used the black and white conversion built into the Aperture to create these photographs. The sharpness and brightness were increased and a slight vignette was added to darken the edges on images 1,2 and 4.
Image 1: f2.8, 1/30 sec, no exposure compensation, ISO 3200 at 16mm
Image 2: f2.8, 1/25 sec, no exposure compensation, ISO 800 at 16mm
Image 3: f2.8, 1/25 sec, no exposure compensation, ISO 3200 at 16mm
Image 4: f2.8, 1/15 sec, no exposure compensation, ISO 1600 at 16mm
Image 5: f2.8, 1/30 sec, no exposure compensation, ISO 1600 at 16mm
Other Sony NEX-5 blog posts
Here are some other posts I made about the Sony NEX-5.