Best Discreet Subway Camera?
December 10, 2009 8:00 AM   Subscribe

DigitalCameraFilter: I am trying to find a small, discreet point-n-shoot camera that I can use on the subway to take pictures of my fellow-passengers (think Walker Evans - Many Are Called). Trying to find something that is: small (fits in pocket), quiet, sharp, can disable the rear lcd, and has minimal shutter lag. Good high-iso performance also a plus. Zoom not necessary.

The Canon G-series would fit the bill, but they're rather bulky are mega-pricey for this application.

Hoping that someone here has experience with such an application and can recommend something?

Googling, as you'd imagine, is of limited usefulness. There are just too many small digital cameras and thousands of spammy spycam and bogus affiliate sites.
posted by joshwa to Technology (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of mine who is a photographer noticed someone on the subway doing exactly this and asked the guy what kind of camera he used.

Unfortunately as I'm not a photographer the make/model of the camera went in one ear out the other. So, maybe scan the subway for someone doing this (I think more people do this than is commonly realized) and ask that person which camera he uses.
posted by dfriedman at 8:15 AM on December 10, 2009

The major hurdle you have (even if price is no object) is getting a small point and shoot with good enough ISO performance to allow non-flash shooting in a subway with minimal noise. Small camera = small sensor = high noise.

There are a couple new compact cameras with decent sized sensors (such as the Olympus Pen), but they are way pricier than the Canon Gs.

As an example, here is a set I took with my little Nikon S203. (All but the last 2.) The S203 is very small, and has typical high ISO performance for a small camera. In fact, it's better than many. You can look at the properties and see they were shot at ISO 800, with flash. Plus, the subjects were lit by brighter than normal spotlights. The photos are still not very good, other than for snapshots, and they have plenty of distracting grain/noise. That situation was just asking too much of that kind of camera.

The last 2 photos, on the other hand, were shot with a Nikon D40, no flash, at ISO 1600, under stage lighting. Even at full size, the grain is acceptable and not distracting. Even then, the shutter speed is pretty slow, so many shots from the same session had unacceptable blur. I really needed a faster lens for that situation.

If you really want to do this right, I'd look into getting a used or refurbed D40 and adding a fast prime 35mm or 50m lens. It will cost more than a pocket camera, and will take a little more work to keep hidden, but the results will be much better.

I hope someone else comes along with a better answer, or a good recommendation for a compact camera that does what you need, because I'll be right behind you in line to buy it.

Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 8:22 AM on December 10, 2009

Best answer: Walker Evans didn't use a point and shoot. You can use a field camera to take those types of pictures. All it takes is the right attitude - if you project an aura of guilt, then you will get busted no matter what you use.

I like the Canon G series with the rotating screen for more subtle picture taking. They can easily be turned off or tilted any which way to make it less obtrusive and the camera is very nice. Not easily pocketable but with a baggy jacket with bigger pockets, it works well.
posted by JJ86 at 8:42 AM on December 10, 2009

Best answer: You want a Lumix DMC-LX3. Do you see where it says, about the lens, "f/2.0-2.8"? When people talk about how "fast" a lens is, they are talking about that number. Lower numbers let in more light, and allow you to take acceptable pictures in darker environments. Just experiment with the ISO settings to get it just right. Higher ISO = "faster," but the trade-off is that you'll have a bit more noise.

I think that's the fastest point and shoot camera you can get at the moment, but I may be wrong.

If you want super spy tech stuff, there are wrist watches with digital cameras in them, but they're ugly and the quality is for shit.
posted by Nonce at 8:47 AM on December 10, 2009

Response by poster: I am a professional photographer, so I already have a DSLR and fast primes. I definitely can't fit my 5D+50mm in my coat pocket, as much as I'd love to.

Restricting my search to "fixed-focal-length" has slightly improved my results-- Leica D-Lux and C-Lux, Ricoh GR Digital, Sony T200/300 series (which while a zoom is still teeny and doesn't protrude from the camera front).

Still, would love to hear from someone with experience in covert photography.
posted by joshwa at 8:50 AM on December 10, 2009

Best answer: Still, would love to hear from someone with experience in covert photography.

I've taken these with a Rolleiflex TLR. Which is the opposite of what you want, but maybe my technique is worth considering: the camera isn't hidden between my coat buttons ala Walker, but I'm looking down and "fiddling" with it while I'm taking the photo, so no one really knows I'm taking a photograph.
posted by availablelight at 9:04 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ack, should have hit preview.

JJ86: Walker Evans used a 35mm, probably a Leica. I think he just had it on a strap around his neck and a hidden cable release. Not sure if one could get away with that nowadays! (on preview, apparently one can!) I miss my little Canonet QL17.

(I just realized I borked the link in the original post. The correct link is here. Also here's a nice link from NPR about the subway photographs.)

Nonce: looked at that lumix (which is the same camera as the D-Lux). I wish I had $600 to spend!
posted by joshwa at 9:08 AM on December 10, 2009

Walker Evans used a 35mm, probably a Leica. I think he just had it on a strap around his neck and a hidden cable release.

I've seen it claimed it was a Contax, but I'd love to know more about the actual set-up myself as well.

I'm also in the school of thought where I think it would be more dangerous to be caught having a lens poking between your buttons, than to hide in plain sight. The first seems like it could be interpreted as more aggressive or violating.
posted by availablelight at 9:12 AM on December 10, 2009

Along the lines of what availablelight is talking about, I've done some literal "from the hip" shots, where I held a compact camera at my side, thumb on the shutter release, and just aimed in the direction of my intended subject. This had varying results. I had the camera pre-focused at about 4 feet and made sure the focus-assist light was off. No one ever knew I was shooting. Here's a set of those. They were taken with an old Canon S50, at ISO 400. The slow shutter speed required is evident in the photos. I've done the same thing with my DSLR.

If you can't find a suitable little camera, why not try the same thing with your DSLR and prime? Sling your strap across your chest, with the camera to your side, rest your tumb on the shutter. Obviously you can't do any careful composition, but part of the fun is the surprise of the resulting shots. I think there would be anough ambient noise so that the shutter sound would go unnoticed.
posted by The Deej at 9:19 AM on December 10, 2009

Yeah just for the record I think you stand a far greater risk of getting the sh1t kicked out of you doing this than putting a camera up to your face and taking a picture. I always found those Walker Evans pictures creepy. I think people are much more freaked out to find someone is surreptitiously taking their picture then if you make it sort of obvious.
posted by sully75 at 9:32 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For stealthiness, I think it'd be hard to beat a cameraphone. Seeing somebody fiddling with a phone reads as fiddling with a phone rather than taking a picture.
posted by box at 10:22 AM on December 10, 2009

Best answer: The canon s90 seems like the obvious choice. Better low light performance and smaller than the LX3. If you want to get really serious about it get one of the Ricoh GR digitals, fixed 28mm lens, there's the GR l, ll, and lll. You could probably find a used GR 1 digital for cheap. The images would be "noisy" by todays standards but noise out of a GR 1 looks like film grain. Very Walker Evans like look. A GR is a very specialized camera it wouldn't be very useful for anything but street photography. It's controls are very good, screen can be blacked out, focus can be pre set. However, it takes a GR l 10 seconds or more to write a RAW file before it can take another shot. So it's literally like shooting with a rangefinder with manual film advance. You better make sure you get the shot the first time because there will be no second frame. Mitch Alland has done a lot of work with various models of GR for example.
posted by Procloeon at 10:35 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: box: I've been trying with my iPhone, but the screen image is too obvious, the shutter "button" is hard to find (though there are better apps for this, I concede), and the images always end up super blurry.

Procloeon: Those images from the GRD's are GORGEOUS. Exactly what I was looking for! Unfortunately because of the "special" B&W rendering of those cameras, they sell at a premium, even when used. :(
posted by joshwa at 11:00 AM on December 10, 2009

Best answer: Seconding Canon S90 for it's unsurpassed low-light performance at this size/price. Can't wait to get one.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:42 PM on December 10, 2009

3rding the S90
posted by kenbennedy at 1:21 PM on December 10, 2009

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