Upcoming Talk: Paisley Colour 29/11/2012

I’ll be speaking at Paisley Colour Photographic Club on Thursday 29th November 2012. I’ll be talking about Panoramic Photography, an updated version of the talk I gave at Photoworld Day in Edinburgh. I’ll focus a bit more on the creative aspect, rather than just the technical workflow. I’ll be bringing prints as well as projecting interactive panoramas to demonstrate the medium.

In other news, I’ve been booked for February 2014 to speak at Kilmaurs Photographic Club. Details to follow a bit closer to the date. I’m not used to being booked so far in advance, it must be a sign of how much I am in-demand :-).

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.

NEX-7 Tips and Tweaks

Some tips for optimising the NEX-7.

  • NEX-7 EVF Contrast. A common criticism is that the EVF is too contrasty and that shadows are blocked up. This is in the default settings but it is easy to rectify by using different Creative Styles. I use the Portrait Style with contrast set to -3. This gives a much flatter image with lots more shadow detail. It won’t affect the RAW file but give a more comprehensive preview of the scene tonality. I also find setting the style to Black and White helps when doing street photography as it cuts out distracting colour and focuses the eye on shape and form.
  • The dreaded iISO hotshoe. Often described as “proprietary”. Funny that we don’t usually hear of “proprietary Nikon lens mount” or “proprietary Canon vertical grip”. Read Herb Keppler’s article on a bit of history of the ISO shoe (origins date from before 1913) and the need for an improved design. Historical contingency has led to the tyranny of the masses (locked into a mechanically deficient design) so it’s just something we have to live with. The fact is that a cheap and simple adapter is all that is needed to use conventional ISO hot shoe accessories. I have no problems using normal radio triggers on the NEX-7.
  • Video button. Download and install the latest v1.01 firmware now! Having the ability to lock out the video button is worth the firmware update alone. I no longer take random clips of my feet.


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.