There’s a saying that goes, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you look doing it.” This is true to a certain extent. A photographer dressed in the latest hunting fashion with a 600mm f/4 lens on a carbon fiber tripod looks impressive. But there are times when simple clothing and an inconspicuous camera clearly win the day.
As I prepare for my third expedition to Colombia, I’m going through my archives and remembering my last trip in 2015. Colombia, troubled for years by a protracted civil war, had not yet signed peace accords with rebel groups at the time. Every now and then, you’d encounter military patrols in the cities and beyond. Even here, though, there was already a sense of easing tension in the air.
At that time, my photographer friends and I visited a biologically very valuable site in the western Andes, the Tatamá National Park. We were understandably attracted to the area by the many bird species, including several endemic and critically endangered ones. But it would be a shame to ignore other photographic motifs when they present themselves.
When photographing animals in the middle of nature, a lot of photographers will do a bit of landscape photography, too. However, those are not the only photographic genres to be found in the jungle. There is also, for example, reportage photography. But if such a moment comes, you need to be prepared mentally and also technically.
Driving slowly through the rough forest road that wound its way to the top of Montezuma Hill, we came across a small military outpost. Young soldiers in very basic conditions were camped along the road. Their job was to defend the military base with its radio towers at the top of the hill.
Our friends in the car in front of us decided not to stop. They only had their big professional cameras on their laps, fitted with large telephoto lenses. Even if you put something more “normal” on a camera like the Nikon D5 – say, a 24-70mm f/2.8 – it’s still an intimidating camera. And you don’t often want to have an intimidating camera when photographing people, let alone in military uniform. Fortunately, there was a camera in my pocket that was just perfect for these purposes.
My friends continued on, but I decided to stop and have a little chat with the soldiers. In my hand I had my inconspicuous Nikon Coolpix A. After being assured that I could take pictures, I was able to capture at least a few moments in the daily routine of these young soldiers. With the discreet Coolpix A, the mountain guards quickly ignored me and went about their daily activities.
In such a humid environment, the soldiers spend most of their time preventing their weapons, ammunition, clothing and themselves from rotting. My photographic heart cheered at the contrasts. On the same piece of tarp lay hygiene supplies and a grenade launcher. Behind a casually discarded sub-machine gun, a soldier washes his laundry. A soldier shaving his face next to comrades cleaning their weapons.
The Coolpix A was a very special camera. At first glance, a compact camera – one of many. But unlike the vast majority of similar point-and-shoots, the “A” had an APS-C sensor. Incidentally, the same 16MP sensor was in the Nikon D7000 at the time. Nikon made the bold decision to equip the camera with a lens with a fixed focal length of 18.5mm (28mm full-frame equivalent) and a maximum aperture of f/2.8.
Add to that a really a very compact body, solid ergonomics, and impressively good image quality, and the camera is excellent for this type of photography. I used the word bold in the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, Nikon ran out of boldness in this area of the market. They never made another point-and-shoot camera with an APS-C sensor. The Nikon Coolpix A was thus the only one of its kind. Too bad.
About three years after the Coolpix A was launched, Nikon had ready a whole line of three compact cameras with the DL (Digital Lens) mark. These cameras were to have a 1-inch type sensor, along with 18-50mm, 24-85mm, and 24-500mm ranges (all full-frame equivalent). Do you not remember those cameras? No wonder. Nikon went as far as running an advertising campaign and shipping some copies of the camera to dealerships, when they abruptly cancelled the project, and all the beautiful Nikon DL cameras ended up in the scrap heap.
It’s true that mirrorless is gradually filling this niche anyway, so maybe we do not have to despair for long. A Nikon Z30 with, say, the upcoming 26mm f/2.8 pancake lens, or the yet-to-be-announced 24mm DX pancake, could fill a similar void. Not to mention the avalanche of smartphones, which have practically pushed the inconspicuous pocket camera out of the game.
Sure, even I often reach for my mobile these days, even though I have a photo backpack with two cameras in it. But no smartphone can replace the physical size of the sensor and the feel of a real camera. At least for now.
What camera should you get if something like this sounds appealing? There is the aforementioned Z30, as well as similar Sony and Canon cameras, but a few companies still make fixed-lens compact cameras with large sensor sizes.
One popular example is the Ricoh GR III, which has an 18.3mm f/2.8 lens (a 28mm equivalent focal length) and an APS-C sensor size. Its 24.2MP resolution is slightly higher than the Coolpix A. The camera is still very compact, so you can easily slip it into your pants pocket.
A slightly larger camera is the FUJIFILM X100V. In addition to its beautiful retro look, it also has a viewfinder. For DSLR or MILC users, a viewfinder is a given, but it’s quite an exception in this segment of the market. The camera has a 26.1MP APS-C sensor and a slightly longer 23mm f/2 lens (which is equivalent to a 35mm focal length).
Another interesting option is the Sony Cyber-shot RX1R II. Its lens is 35mm with a maximum aperture of f/2. This time, the camera indeed has a full-frame sensor (43.6MP). However, due to the protruding lens, some larger pockets will be needed. It’s also expensive at $3300.
The last example comes from Leica, a quintessential company when you say “reportage.” The M series is legendary in both its film and digital forms. The Leica Q2, however, fits better into the theme of this article. Priced at $5,795 or $5,995 in its khaki reporter’s edition, this camera is much more expensive, but also highly featured. It has a 47.3MP full-frame sensor, and more importantly, a 28mm f/1.7 lens. But the robustness of the design and the lens’ brightness have taken a toll on the camera’s size and portability.
As you can see, compact, fixed-lens cameras aren’t completely extinct yet, even though there aren’t many choices if you want a full-frame or APS-C sensor. This makes the decision easier, at least to some extent. And what about you, do you have any of the above-mentioned inconspicuous cameras in your pocket? I’ll be very happy if you share your experience with it in the comments below the article.
excellent piece. one camera seems to be missing, though – the fuji x-e series. with the pancake 27mm they are even more compact than the fixed lens fuji, and you can swop the lenses if you like. i’ve still got an x-e2. with the pancake on it, you can really slip it into a pocket. and anyway, I don’t believe a camera like this should be more than 16mp. they are likely to be hand held by definition, and the finer the pixel pitch, the more susceptible you are to camera shake. i believe camera writers should make more of this very important factor.
Thoughtful, well written and, in my experience, on the money. I lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years (2009-2021). When I arrived, having a camera on the streets was likely to get you talked to by the police who would check your pictures to ensure you were not shooting people of sinsitive buildings. Within a few years, with the overwhelming presence of cell phones many things changed.
Shooting with a large DSLR was still likely to draw more attention than you wanted. However, by then I had added a black Nikon J5 with a 10-30mm lens. Iy looked small and innocuous enough and with the LCD display, didn’t look like a “real” camera.
I was still cautious of photographing children and older women, but the younger people would often ask that I take picture of them or with them. It helped build a nice set of memories from my years there. Again, a thoughtful article and keep them coming.
Very important to have an inconspicuous camera. For bicycling I carried Canon PowerShot S series and for backcountry skiing PowerShot G series. Both shot in RAW. Moisture was the enemy of these cameras. When they failed I replaced them used on eBay. I also used them in housings when scuba diving. No longer are they made.
Currently I am enamored with my Fuji x100v. At my fingertips without menu diving I have full manual exposure control, both back button AF and dedicated MF with magnification and peaking, a full color live histogram (on or off with touch of one button), ND4 filter, delayed shutter release, continuous shooting, focus bracketing, exposure bracketing … wow! And aperture, shutter and ISO can be preset when the camera is still off, as I walk around seeking my composition. A 49mm K&F magnetic UV protective adapter completes the weather sealing. (Weather sealing is very important yet lacking in many of the competing cameras). In my 49mm pinch lens cap I keep a K&F magnetic CPL. The 26mp Fuji X sensor is magnificent in low light and allows for ample cropping. This camera is fun to use. They are in such short supply that my open box used x100v cost $450 over MSRP new, yet I have no regrets.
I had a Nikon Coolpix A. Very fond of this little camera. It was a very popular camera here in Brazil.
I have found my lightweight solution. I think it is smaller than any other aps-c with interchangeable lenses; Leica CL. With the 18/2.8 it goes right into your pocket. Every TL lens is good, but the 11-23mm, 35/1.4 and the 60/2.8 are fantastic. It also takes my Nikon 300PF with a cheap adapter (thougt without AF and VR). Leica just discontinued their aps-c line, but that can maybe open up for som good second hand purcases? The DNG files from the 24mp sensor is better than those from my Nikons with the same resolution (even fullframe). My only camera that beats it is the D850 with good optics. Highly recommended!
Leica CL is an interesting tip, thank you. Too bad it’s also a thing of the past.
Thank you for the wonderful text. Oh the good idea with the DL camera… why did Nikon bury it? I needed a small camera in the range of 24 to 70 mm (comparable to full format) aside to the 70 to 200 at the D750. I spent the planned amount instead of the cancelled Nikon DL for a Sony A6000 and was more happy than expected. I learned a lot of the advantages of a mirrorless and hoped I could get a mirrorless from Nikon one day. Today I am happy with the Z6ii and made the holidays with the 24-200 and the 14-30. But in about 10 % I could not change the lens in time and had to renounce upon the desired pictures. Recently I saw the new tiny Sony 10-20 and took the A6000 out of the forgotten background. For hiking I love the 24 MPix APS-C sensor in the small body with the small built ultra wide lens aside to the main camera Z6ii with one of the Nikon lenses. I tried Nikons APS-C Z cameras but why spend money if the camera has not the desired lens? I am very glad to have the small camera instead of a smartphone camera as the lens quality is much better and differences to the 14 to 30 appear only on pixel peeping. For city walks I will put the 14-30 on the Z6ii and the 50mm F lens with adapter to the A6000 (manual focus). For me this is the solution for a lightweight equipment “on the go”. By the way, Sony APS-C lenses have metal alloy mounts and not plastic. It is a pity that we do not get higher level APS-C engineered and manufactured by Nikon. But my needs are fulfilled anyway now.
Thank you Jo for your comment and for sharing your experience. Like you, I’m sorry that Nikon doesn’t take their APS-C line seriously enough. Unfortunately, the lens lineup matches that.
“Inconspicuous” has been a theme for me as a “utility photographer” who often shoots in school classrooms, public talks, meditations, etc. One of the most fun small cameras was the Fujifilm X-E2S – but it now sells for over $1000 used! The Nikon V1 was also fun. I find that cameras with a hump (DSLRs) are seen as professional while humpless cameras like the Coolpix A pose far less of a barrier and are a lot more fun to shoot with. I’ll be upgrading my iPhone 13 Pro Max to an iPhone 14 Pro because it’s smaller and takes (finally) really good people pix, thanks, Apple. I know this isn’t relevant to the discussion, but my old Nikon F4 pro camera with its wonderfully subtle shutter (“pffft”) allowed me to wander among tightly packed crowds with a 20mm lens and take pictures, and nobody would notice – go figure. In situations where people are focused on what they’re doing, I find that any small mirrorless camera in silent electronic mode works well – e.g., the Fujifilm X line. I shot in classrooms with an X-T20 and 18-55 F/2.8-4 lens without drawing much attention, and the photos converted beautifully to b&w with Silver Efex Pro for use in books. Thanks, Libor, this was a fun article – fun to learn about the Coolpix A. I shot with a Coolpix 770 and liked the experience, except for the small sensor.
Thank you George for your comment. This is exactly the point: “I find that cameras with a hump (DSLRs) are seen as professional while humpless cameras like the Coolpix A pose far less of a barrier and are a lot more fun to shoot with.” Fujifilm cameras have targeted this niche well and I think it’s paying off. I got nostalgic when you mentioned the pro F series cameras. My first Nikon was the FM3a, also a great camera. But I had to admit to myself that I probably won’t go back to film. Maybe with the kids for the wonder of the birth of photography under the light of a red bulb.
It stuck me funny that the article right before this was the 800mm Z
In a way, the 800mm f/6.3 is also a compact lens. Fortunately, the birds usually don’t care what I point at them with.
Let me tell everyone here what the complete opposite of an Inconspicuous Camera is. It’s the Nikon D6. The size obviously is one thing that gives it away. But, there is one thing that really gives it away, how loud the shutter is! I cringe when I use it, even in a loud environment, you can still hear the shutter noise.
You’re right, Robert. I quickly got used to the silence of the non-existent shutter on the Z9. With the D6 you have to cough during exposure :-)
I’ve been using a Fuji X100 camera since the X100S version. I have the X100V now and love it more than ever. It’s my favorite travel camera. I hardly know I’m carrying it and it’s easy to keep out of sight. I also get compliments about how interesting it looks when it does get noticed. Autofocus is great, image quality is great, and it doesn’t intimidate anyone around me when I use it.
Thank you for the brief user review Ben. “Autofocus is great, image quality is great, and it doesn’t intimidate anyone around me when I use it.” These are exactly the features for which these cameras still make sense today.