Trusty Sidekick: A Compact APS-C Camera for Documentary Photography

September 16, 2016

Girl caught deep in thought on a bus in Dhaka, Bangladesh

I’m a traveling photographer who owns two full frame Canon cameras and a selection of prime lenses for my work, whether it’s photojournalism, travel, or advertising. I used to say that I wouldn’t feel comfortable shooting with a small camera due to the loss of depth of field control and the lack of a viewfinder. However, times have changed (and so has my back) and compact cameras are becoming more and more attractive.

Recently I have been on the road for months in a row. Carrying the weight on my kit can be exhausting, forcing me to leave it in my accommodation when taking routine walks for dinner or to buy something. Of course, it’s always during these moments that I miss a random moment on the street, wishing I could capture it on camera. I’m sure most photographers are familiar with this. You might be doing a routine run, having dinner, or having coffee, but amazing moments happen all the time, not just when you’re carrying your camera.

Girls dressed in kimonos take a selfie at Arashiyama station near Kyoto, Japan

Girls dressed in kimonos take a selfie at Arashiyama station near Kyoto, Japan

In some places, the presence of my DSLR was almost offensive to locals, especially in tourist hot spots. At Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Sichuan, China, nuns and monks are so tired of being photographed by tourists that they can almost smell a DSLR. Requests to take photos often meet with severe rejection. I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable when I take photos, so I barely took any during my time there.

However, I believe photographers have a responsibility for documenting life scenes, so for candid scenes I never feel guilty. After all, in the years to come, an image may be the only trace of what a place or culture was. At Larung Gar, even doing this was incredibly difficult with my DSLR.

Boys hang out at a train station near Sylhet, Bangladesh

Boys hang out at a train station near Sylhet, Bangladesh

Later, as an alternative to my bulky professional camera, I started thinking about upgrading my cheap Android smartphone to an iPhone 6s and using it as a handy camera to take anywhere. I quickly decided not to accept this idea, as I tend to be brutal with my cell phones and have come to like having a cheap phone that I can be careless with, without feeling guilty.

That said, the images for each generation of smartphones are getting better and better, and many photographers are using theirs to produce work that actually gets published.

Instead, what I wanted was something with a viewfinder and significant depth of field, so I started to think about investing in what I call an “associated” camera: something light, sleek, powerful and discreet that I could take with me all the time.

To travel light

I went to Bangladesh recently on a mission to capture the essence of the country, as well as to produce some interesting documentary stories. It’s a crowded, colorful, chaotic and totally photogenic place. I usually do a lot of portraiture as well as candid street scenes, so I wanted a camera that could do just that.

Before leaving for the country, I bought a used Fujifilm X100S – my sidekick camera. I was a little worried about its fixed focal length, but this aspect of the camera gradually became its biggest asset. The X100 series cameras are magical little things that with their fixed focal length force you to be a photographer on the move, and in Bangladesh I took full advantage of that.

The discreet camera

Passengers rest in a waiting room at Kyoto station

Passengers rest in a waiting room at Kyoto station

Compacts like the X100S really give you the stealth and speed you need to capture candid scenes with ease. Sometimes I can be a few feet from one of them, shoot away, and people are not paying me any attention. Unlike a DSLR, a compact doesn’t make you look like a professional working for a news agency.

In Taiwan, where I live, people are extremely timid in front of cameras and inclined to display a peace sign, or for them, a V sign for victory with their fingers when they notice a camera. There have been countless times that a good street stunt has been ruined by those two fingers.

In January, for an editorial mission, I had the challenge of capturing the recent Taiwanese presidential election. I wanted to capture candid, non-posed moments without the V-for-victory fingers. My contract allowed me to capture some great moments of frankness, especially the reactions and emotions of Taiwanese voters as they witnessed the election of their first female president.

Without a doubt, stealth is the biggest advantage of my compact sidekick over a DSLR. For photojournalists, as well as travel and street photographers, a compact like my Fujifilm X100S can record those candid moments that no DSLR ever could.

Light and fast

The Fujifilm X100S is the camera

The Fujifilm X100S is Paul Ratje’s “sidekick” camera – excellent for candid street photography

Sometimes, because it’s so light, I almost forget I’m carrying my X100S. Like most mirrorless cameras, it’s lighter than Canon or Nikon DSLRs, which is why many professionals have made the switch. Their light weight relieves sensitive backs crippled by years of lugging around DSLRs, while helping you get around faster for that vital shot.

Due to its size, the compact sidekick comes into its own on days spent traveling to work. I don’t want to take my DSLR out of its safe place when I’m on the train because I’m afraid I might lose something or have it stolen. Instead, I just hang my compact sidekick around my neck, without it really being too intrusive. It’s also not like a compact is inferior to a DSLR. The X100 series images are comparable to the image quality of most APS-C digital SLRs.

Discreet style

In the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh

In the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Compacts like the Fujifilm X100 series or mirrorless models like the Olympus Pen and OM-D series almost have a Leica-vintage feel. You don’t look like a paparazzi. Instead, you look like someone in the crowd when holding such a camera – even invisible. I can easily slip my X100S under my jacket if I don’t want people to see it, while my DSLRs look like an M16 rifle and all eyes are on me.

The inconvenients

Compacts certainly have their limitations, however. I couldn’t do a wedding photoshoot or shoot sports with a compact. If you are a professional photographer or an avid hobbyist, you need a variety of focal lengths to take pictures, and possibly a full frame sensor.

The Sony A7 series is attractive, but the change is expensive. Nikon and Canon lens adapters make the A7 almost as heavy as a DSLR, and right now I don’t think I would trade Sony’s line of lenses for what Canon and Nikon have. However, prices for Sony E-mount lenses will drop eventually, and used examples are sure to surface on eBay.

For my work as a documentary photojournalist, I have been able to use my Fujifilm X100S for many shoots, but not all. When I’m under pressure to do a job, I prefer the control my DSLRs give me. If I’m shooting a wedding I’m much more comfortable with the control my Canon EOS 6D gives me, not to mention its long battery life and all the lenses I’m used to shooting with.

A great help

A compact can help you take those photos you missed when you don’t want to have that big DSLR around your neck. Whether at night, for random shopping or in transit, it will relieve you while allowing you to stay creative. It has changed my photography tremendously and using my X100S I now look forward to my hobby photography. However, no matter which camera you choose, always keep shooting and pushing for different frames, and remember that your eyes will always be your best teachers.

Supporters applaud at a campaign rally in Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Supporters applaud at a campaign rally in Kaohsiung, Taiwan

About Paul Ratje

Paul Ratje studied at New Mexico State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism and foreign languages. His passion for photography and his love for languages ​​mean that he is currently based in Taiwan where great photos, inspiration, as well as an outlet to practice Mandarin, are on his doorstep. Visit

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