Category Archives: Street/Candid

ISPA2014 Street Photo Awards

Grand Place, BrusselsThis year’s International Street Photo Awards has closed for judging. Associated with this is the Street Photo of the Year competition where the public gets to vote for their favourite photo. There are over 500 photos to peruse and they represent the gamut of what constitutes street photography. Some choose to work in monochrome, other in colour. Some are snapshots, others considered compositions. Some have people in them, others are bare with only the implied presence of humanity. It demonstrates the futility of trying to find a unique definition of street photography bringing to mind the saying, “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.”

I certainly have my own preferences, but the my overriding consideration is that the photo be of something, rather than a random photo taken in public. The photo should not just be about technique, or a cliche (unless it transcends it). On the latter point, it is instructive to look through the entries and judge for yourself whether a photo is simply a cliche or says more than that. There were attempts to emulate Martin Parr or Bruce Gilden that were not terribly successful. There were many photos of reflection overlaying different scenes into a confusion mess with little to say other than this is a photo of reflections.

I went through all 521 entries and marked them either a Yes or a No. In the end I selected the minimum number of 50 Yes votes and the rest were marked No. In my Yes pile, there were a mix of colour and monochrome, documentary and candid, day and night, silhouette and front-lit, action and still. It’s this variety that keeps the format fresh and interesting.

Self-walking Dog

DSC06525-1One of my photographic inspirations is Elliot Erwitt, a street photographer who has a penchant for taking dog photos. I didn’t really understand the attraction until I started noticing our 4 legged companions on the street, often being dragged along, or dragging along their owners. The photo at the top of this post is one of those fortunate images coming at the end of a generally unsuccessful outing.

Sometimes nothing really clicks: the light is too flat, the faces too glum, you see the same poses or cliches and just can’t capture anything worth keeping. At this point it may be time to try something new, a different perspective, different subjects, or a change of modus operandi. My usual subject matter is that of people engaged in interesting activities or expressions, the look of joy shared between a couple, the conjunction of characters, or simply a story of the everyday. None of that was working one lunch break, I couldn’t seem to break the spell of dreary photos so I decided to cut my losses and head back to the office.

It was then I spotted coming towards me two dogs with their owner. One was being lead on a leash, the other had the leash in its mouth and was dutifully pacing besides the other two. I quickly made sure my settings were suitable for a moving subject in overcast light (wide aperture and high ISO) lowered my camera to knee level and shot several photos as they continued towards me. It was the last shot, framing just the lone dog that is shown.

I forced myself to keep on walking and only half a street away did I allow myself to review the shots. With trepidation I magnified the image and a feeling of relief flowed through me as I saw that it was adequately sharp and in focus. It made my day.

One night in Brussels

“One night in Brussels and your world’s a mussel…” (with apologies to Chess).

I was in Brussels for a one day meeting so only had an evening to look around. Unfortunately it was a rather damp night and most people were sensibly indoors in front of a fire I suspect. Still, I tried to make the most of the occasion and the few people wandering around the Grand Place.

Street Photography with the A77

Went out on a lunchbreak to exercise my shutter finger. It was a bit wet today so I took the A77+16-50mm/2.8 as they are both “weatherproof”. I certainly did not have any worries with rain showers, the combination worked well exposed to the elements.

It was a bit different shooting with the A77 compared with the NEX-7. One positive is that the AF is very quick, even in wide AF mode. I was able to take a few snap photos and still have them focused properly.  potential negative is that the A77+16-50mm/2.8 is a big and obvious lump. People notice that you’re carrying a large camera. I was able to shoot from the hip mostly, or else TLR style to make it less obvious I was taking a photo.

Today I shot in shutter priority, 1/350th, and auto ISO. This worked well with getting reasonably sharp photos if I didn’t whip the camera around too quickly. Mostly photos were taken at 16mm.

It was a reasonably successful outing, despite the obviousness of the camera. The faster AF compensated as I was able to quickly point and shoot. The use of a wide angle and shooting from the hip helped.

Street Photography Lens Choice

The great thing about street photography is that there are so many different ways of doing it. Some people stick with a rangefinder with a 35mm or 50mm lens. Some use mobile phones. Other prefer using a longer lens or telezoom on a professional DSLR. Whichever lens you decide to use affects the process and ultimately the look of the photos you take. A conscious choice of lens is a conscious choice of the style you choose to shoot and the scenes you want to portray. But there are also many practical reasons for choosing one lens over another.

Primes versus Zooms

It could be that all you have is the kit zoom which came with your camera. Zooms are fine for starting out, they give a flexibility in framing, reduces the need for lens swapping, and maybe all that you have. If you’ve shot a bit with your zoom, you can have a look at the focal lengths you’ve used more often. I found when I did this that the wide end was dominant. I preferred to get in close and take a more intimate photo of the subject, or else take in a larger scene incorporating greater context.

Lots of street shooters tend to work with single focal length lenses (so-called prime lenses). There are practical and psychological reasons for this. Practically, single focal length lenses can be made with larger apertures for low-light work, and also for greater background blur. On conventional rangefinder cameras, primes are your only choice (Fuji X-Pro1 excepted or a Leica M digital, or Leica M with Visoflex). Psychologically, it’s one less decision factor to take care of when making photos. A single focal length can act as an artistic constraint forcing you to concentrate your creative energies on positioning, lighting, framing, rather than zooming in and out of a scene.

Focal Length Choice

So if you do decide to shoot with a prime lens, then it boils down essentially to whether you want to use a wide, medium or long lens. It’s tempting when starting out to use a long lens as this allows you to stand back and “pap” (act like a paparazzo) people from afar. It is tempting to keep away from your subjects if you are not confident but the perspective often has the effect of being impersonal. Also, a large telephoto lens does make you stand out more, especially if attached to a big DSLR. A short tele, e.g. 85mm on film, makes a good portrait lens though so could do double duty.

A favourite lens is the 50mm (~35mm on APS-C, ~25mm on M4/3), the so-called normal lens. It’s gives an in-between angle of view, neither very much telephoto or wide angle. This can make it either versatile or boring depending on how you look at this things. It’s popular partly due to the fact that large aperture 50mm lenses are relatively cheap compared to other focal lengths. Cheap 50mm/1.4 manual focus lenses are easy to come by. Even AF versions of normal lenses aren’t terribly expensive. It’s probably a good place to start, if you find yourself stepping back to capture a scene, or wanting to crop in a lot to isolate an individual, then you can step up or down in angle of view by choosing a different focal length lens. But if you can live with tweaking your frame by stepping a little bit back or forwards, then the normal prime may be good for you.

Going wider (but not especially wide), the 35mm (~24mm on APS-C, 17mm on M4/3) is also a very popular focal length/field of view. It gives a moderately wide angle of view, but not obviously so. It allows approaching the subject a bit closer with the same approximate framing as a 50mm, or else capturing a usefully larger scene at the same distance.

Even wider lenses can be used for effect, 28mm (~19mm on APS-C, 14mm on M4/3) or even 24mm (~16mm on APS-C, 12mm on M4/3) allows really close approaches to the subject. This suits a fairly intimate style of candid photography best done in crowded scenes where even though you’re within a metre or so of the subject, they do not notice you taking photos.

Autofocus versus Manual Focus

A lot of the time, the choice is driven by necessity. Cheap manual focus lenses may be all that one can afford. AF versions of desirable focal lengths and apertures may not be available. You may be using a conventional rangefinder camera. One is forced to use manual focus lenses in these cases. Luckily some AF cameras have focusing aids for manual focus. On SLRs, you may be able to get a focusing screen optimised for manual focus, usually with a split prism. On LiveView cameras, many offer a magnification function blowing a region of interest allowing fine focus. Other cameras also offer focus peaking, a coloured outline of areas with high contrast usually indicative of in-focus regions. Using manual focus lenses for street photography is an acquired skill, it can take a bit of practice to use it effectively.

In some circumstances, AF may be more appropriate. It is usually faster, allows those snaps shots and reduces the time you have the camera up to your face and the possibility of alerting your subject. AF allows completely unseen operation, from the hip for instance. In bright light, with manual focus you can approximate the results by using a small aperture and “zone focusing” but this becomes generally infeasible in low light.

Your Own Style

After trying different options, you may find that you are drawn to a particular “look” given by a particular lens used in a particular way. My advice is to explore the range of possibilities in order to find your own personal style. Just because many street photographers use a rangefinder with a 35mm or 50mm lens doesn’t mean that this combination necessarily suits your own photography. I can imagine someone being attracted to using telephoto lenses up close for ultra-intimate candids (though I don’t personally recommend it, I will not be held responsible for any arrests), or using ultra-wides or fisheyes for taking vistas. The important thing is to make it interesting, engaging, and compelling.

Glasgow slice of life 3/11/2012

A selection of street photography from today’s outing. Most of the photos are using the NEX-7 with the Sigma 19mm/2.8, a few with the Minolta 28mm/2+LA-EA1. I’m still becoming familiar with the Sigma 19mm/2.8 and the way it interacts with the AF system of the NEX-7. The 28mm/2 is used with peaking and manual focus.

Street 29/10/2012

Again, testing the Sigma 19mm/2.8 with the NEX-7. These were shot mostly “blind”, or using the flip up LCD and “TLR style”. I fixed the aperture to f/2.8 and ISO at 400. One issue I did come across is that when waking up from sleep, the AF can be totally off and the frame is completely blurry. I’ll have to anticipate a shot and wake up the camera fully before autofocussing.

Why Street Photography

There are two major strands of my photography, landscape/panoramic and street/candid photography. The wedding/social and portrait photography could be seen as an extension of my interests in street/candid photography in general. I’d like to reflect on what makes street photography attractive to me, and possibly to lots of other photographers. It’s a genre diametrically opposite to studio/fashion photography and I think it’s these differences which are behind its appeal.

Street photography is relatively cheap. Well, it may not be if you decide to get a Lecia M9 and Noctilux, but a minimum kit with which to start off consists of a manual film SLR and cheap 50mm “standard” lens. Even with film costs, it’s something a student could afford to try out. You can try street photography with your camera phone, LOMO, disposable cam, or point&shoot. No need for a fancy DSLR, in fact the smaller the camera the better in many cases. One doesn’t need fancy lenses, huge zooms, or complex kit. A single lens and simple camera is enough.

Street photography is exciting. The process of going out and taking street photos can be exhilarating. It can also be frustrating, tense, anxiety provoking, and sometimes dangerous. Street photography, as a personal endeavour, is as much about the process and struggle one goes through to get the shot than it is about simply the final product. It’s not to say that results don’t matter, but one can derive personal satisfaction from the activity. For me, it can be a form of therapy, a way to focus the mind on the immediate reality of the now and banish other worries. Getting a few good shots is an added bonus.

Street photography is unplanned. You never know what you will come back with when going on a street photo outing. Life is unscripted, people are random, you have to be lucky as well as good. You can improve your chances by choosing your stalking ground, the time of day, observing and noting people, groups, and situations as they develop. But there are no guarantees with street photography.

Street photography is not rigid. The “rules of photography” one may learn as a beginner (“rule of thirds” etc.) can be tossed out of the window when doing street photography. What “works” as a street photo is so open to interpretation. Often, framing can be haphazard but the photo is still interesting. Exposure can be “off” but the effect can work with the subject. Even photos which are not perfectly sharp can show interesting scenes, blur can be used creatively to enhance a mood. It is up to a street shooter to work with circumstances, creatively apply their technique to capturing interesting shots.

Street photography is democratic. Anyone can pick up a camera and start doing street photography. The low barrier to equipment, you don’t have to travel anywhere in particular, there’s no special technical know-how involved (setting you camera on automatic or P-mode works well enough in most cases), and post-processing is comparatively simple (no need for endless touching-up on photoshop, merging HDR brackets, stitching panoramas etc.)

Street photography is a solitary activity. You don’t need models, make-up artists, stylists, or assistants. All you need is yourself, a camera, and the street (loosely defined). When starting out, it can pay to go shooting with a more experienced streetshooter  to get hints about camera settings and handling, spotting scenes, good spots, and general demeanour but that’s not even strictly necessary. One can easily be self-taught in street photography, more so than for more technically and equipment laden genres.

So, if you haven’t already tried street photography, you have no excuse. Remember the words of Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

All By Myself

I just received a Sigma 19mm/2.8 in E-mount. This is the second time I have ordered one, the first time I was sent the lens in micro 4/3 mount. Luckily this time I got the lens I actually ordered. I can see why other people have been very positive about this lens, it is very sharp, even wide open. The build is reasonable and though not as small as the 16mm/2.8 pancake, it is still not an imposing optic. I took it out for a spin today in Glasgow City Centre to test how well it focused and whether there were any issues with using it as a street lens.

The AF speed is moderate, not very snappy but with some practice quite usable. I feel the 16mm/2.8 actually autofocuses faster but I have not done any direct comparisons under the same lighting conditions. It was getting a bit overcast, grey, and dim this afternoon though so it was a test of the Sigma. I just have to adjust my technique slightly to anticipate when I want to release the shutter and give some extra time beforehand for the lens to focus. The AF speed is also a function of the camera body (NEX-7 in this case), perhaps the NEX-6 may be better (or worse). I wonder if Sony will update the firmware to allow PDAF on that camera with non-Sony lenses such as the Sigma 19mm/2.8.

One thing I have noticed is that they aperture mechanism does make an audible click, really only noticeable when it is quiet. You can hear the aperture opening and closing as you focus in you are not shooting wide open. On the street it’s not an issue, and especially insignificant compared to the shutter sound.

All in all, I am very happy with this lens so far. I shall have to test it for landscape use but I think it should resolved quite a lot of detail across the frame when stopped down. I shall also be looking to see if there are any colour shading problems in the corners.