Compact Cameras: Keep It Discreet

November 1, 2011

By Dan Havlik

© Michael Kamber

Michael Kamber says his Leica M9 helps him attract less attention in tricky situations.

Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Larry Price has always been a small camera guy, even when he was lugging around big, heavy Nikon F2s and telephoto lenses in his early days as a photojournalist.

“Having cut my teeth in newspapers and photojournalism, you have to be a chameleon,” he says. “You have to be able to integrate with a lot of different types of people and environments that aren’t necessarily comfortable, which is what started me on my quest to find small cameras that are unobtrusive in order to fit in.”

Working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in the ‘80s, led him to Leica, including his beloved M4 rangefinder. Price used the M4 while capturing scenes of conflict in Africa in the aftermath of the Liberian revolution. A sequence of images he photographed of a firing squad shooting prisoners on a beach in Liberia won him the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1981. It would be the first of two Pulitzers for Price.

Though he’s quick to note that gaining the kind of access necessary to capture difficult photos in a war zone involves much more than just having a discreet camera at your side, it doesn’t hurt.

“There’s no way I’m going to blend in on a beach where people are shooting each other and I’m a western journalist,” he says. “My M.O. is to engage people as much as I can and it doesn’t take long to create the psychology that you belong there. That gets you in the orbit of being able to work there. But whenever you have a much less intimidating instrument to put to your face, it’s more disarming than a massive piece of glass. The smaller the instrument, the closer you can get.”

These days, Price has gone digital, shooting with Olympus PEN compact systems cameras (CSC)—i.e. small mirrorless models that use tiny interchangeable lenses. His go-to lens for the new 12-megapixel Olympus PEN E-P3 is a similarly discreet choice, the 12mm F/2.0 M. Zuiko Digital ED. The 12mm focal length converts to 24mm because of the 2x magnification of the Micro Four Thirds-size image sensor in the PEN cameras.

Recently he’s been using the camera-lens combo for a documentary project about country fairs in the U.S. The low-key looking E-P3 has helped Price capture revealing moments without attracting attention.

“It’s a lot of fun to be able to walk around and see a picture and just get it without having people staring and asking you questions like: ‘Hey, am I going to be in the newspaper?’” Price says. “When I was younger, I thought it was cool to look like a photographer, but now that I’m older, I just want to capture images, so I try to do anything I can to camouflage myself.”

Phoning It In
While Olympus PENs, Panasonic Lumix CSCs and Leica’s M-series rangefinders are fairly small systems to use, you can’t get much smaller than shooting with a smart phone. But until recently, photojournalists would be laughed off the battlefield if they tried to unleash their iPhones to shoot scenes of conflict. That’s changed in a big way.

Karim Ben Khelifa, a veteran photojournalist and co-founder and CEO of, which helps photographers get their documentary projects funded, first shot with his iPhone for a job on a whim. He had been photographing a protest in Yemen with his Canon 5D Mark II when he decided to send his photo editor at Newsweek some images he captured using the Hipstamatic app on his iPhone.

“I sent him a few photos and said: ‘This is just for friendship and for fun,’” Khelifa recalls. “But he requested more and said: ‘Keep on shooting with the iPhone for us.’ A year ago, those images would’ve been dismissed.”

Along with employing higher quality imaging chips such as the 5-megapixel CMOS sensor in the iPhone 4, the advent of photo apps such as Hipstamatic and Camera+, have improved the look of smartphone photos. The smaller file size of iPhone photos also makes it easier and quicker to send them over the Internet. “For a magazine or a newspaper, [the quality] is fine,” Khelifa says. “And things will improve further with time.”

Shooting with his iPhone is more than just a novelty now; it’s fast becoming his preferred method. “Suddenly, you become invisible,” he explains. “Nobody can identify you as a journalist. You become like everyone else. It’s fantastic to be able to move around without being identified while building a visual experience.”

Khelifa still uses his 5D Mark II when shooting more conventional, feature-type assignments such as photographing castles and wine making in the south of France. In scenes of conflict, though, he reaches for either his iPhone or an old, analogue Nikon F3 film SLR, since both seem more likely to keep him out of trouble.

“On the scene of a bomb attack in Iraq, all the journalists with their big fancy cameras would be the first ones who got beaten, but me with my small, old camera—everyone ignores me.”

In Range
While journalists shooting with iPhones has been one of the biggest—and, it must be said, overexposed—photography stories of 2011, not everyone is keen on the phenomenon.

“In Libya, there are a ton of people just going with iPhones,” says Michael Kamber, a photojournalist for The New York Times. “But to me, it doesn’t feel professional. While I personally wouldn’t do it, that’s the direction a lot of people seem to be going.”

Kamber prefers shooting with a Leica M9, a digital rangefinder that uses a full-frame (35mm) size, 18-megapixel CMOS sensor.

“It’s not much bigger than a point-and-shoot and doesn’t attract a lot of attention,” he notes, adding that he’s used the camera in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You can work around police checkpoints and get into places you’re not going to be able to get into with a digital SLR and a big zoom lens.”

His method to make the camera even more unnoticeable is to tuck it under his arm, which allows him to “just walk into places.” Sometimes he puts the M9’s body in a pouch and a lens in his pocket and strolls into tricky situations unobserved. “It’s quiet too,” he says. “You don’t have that big shutter clank. It’s maybe not as quiet as I had hoped but it’s definitely better than an SLR.”

Kamber’s been using Leicas for 25 years and says the rangefinder’s unobtrusive style fits in with his style of shooting when on assignment. “I’m always trying to be undercover, so I’m typically dressed like a local. I’m not going to be carrying a big SLR.”

For him, he doesn’t feel it’s necessary to make the latest camera upgrade to the Leica M9-P, which has many of the same features of the M9 but with a more stripped down appearance, including no logos on the camera’s front plate. “You can just tape over the logos and keep working,” he says. “To me, I’m not going to spend the extra money.”

Moises Saman, a freelance photojournalist who is represented by Magnum, has used an M9 in the past when covering “sensitive situations.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have that camera anymore and had to find a smaller camera,” Saman said in an e-mail to PDN. “Finally [I’m] settling for the Fuji X100, which I just got and am not ready to love or hate yet.”

While covering the unrest in Syria recently, Saman used a Canon 5D, but wished he had a smaller camera. “I think it would have made it easier to work,” he says. “In Cairo, I worked mostly with the M9.”

Small is Beautiful?
Using small, non-professional-looking cameras for photojournalism can have some unintended consequences. Tivadar Domaniczky, a photojournalist with the VII network, once had a hard time convincing airport security to let him on a flight to Israel because they didn’t believe he was a legitimate member of the press; all he had was a pinhole camera and a compact Canon G-series model.

“It took me more than an hour and I had to show him some of my published stories online,” Domaniczky says. “But the plane waited for me and I could get on.”

Despite those hassles, having a smaller camera is essential to how Domaniczky works and helps him gain an intimacy with his subjects. All his work in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza from 2006 to 2009 was shot with Canon’s G-series models, which look like point-and-shoots, but are Canon’s top-of-the-line cameras in its compact Powershot series.

“I personally found it more comfortable to work with small, not necessarily point-and-shoot, cameras,” he says. “And I found that having a smaller camera can give you a more personal presence so you could be in more direct/personal contact with the people you photograph. This works better for me.”

For his more recent “Living with the 1-8” series, taken while he was embedded with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines in Helmand, Afghanistan for three months as a member of the Basetrack media team, Domaniczky used just a slim Samsung point-and-shoot camera and a pocket Kodak HD camcorder that also shoots 5MP stills.

But like other photographers interviewed for this story, he says he felt that employing compact cameras was only part of the story. “Whatever the situation is, it depends more on the human factor,” he says. “It depends more on the relation you have with the people around you. If you, as a photographer, go to report and document conflict, you become part of the conflict with a responsibility, whether you like it or not, and your camera won’t help you define your role.”

Having a smaller camera does make you seem less of a target, Domaniczky says. “There are situations when holding a camera can put you into trouble. What I liked with the G-series was that I could put them into my pocket at any time. I used the wrist strap instead of the neck strap that comes with the cameras, so it took really no time to put them away and sometimes it helps.”