The process of Street Photography - Part II - The Goal Decides the Equipment
Does Equipment Count?
Well certainly it does – to some degree. The right equipment will make the path to the final goal, getting good street images, easier. If the equipment is best suited to your style and very familiar to you, it will smooth out some of the obstacles.
If street shooting is really important to you and not just one of the parts of photography that you enjoy, then it makes sense to get equipment that is best suited for street photography and make some sacrifices. And what are those qualities and how do they match with the necessary qualities for general photography?
For most photography, image quality, or IQ, is the prime and most important must-have characteristic. Way down the list is being light, maneuverable and inconspicuous. For street photography, at least how I see it done, those several characteristics that all relate to the ability of the photographer to remain unnoticed are quite important and there must be a balance struck between the required IQ and the physical characteristics that allow a street photographer to work best.
For years I shot with a succession of Nikon dSLRs and their associated lenses – all large and obvious, and as much as I tried to remain inconspicuous, it was difficult to do. My best shots were in situations, like demonstration and parades, when photography and photographers were expected and, to some degree, accepted.
About seven months ago, I switched to a M 4/3 camera system and I immediately began to notice several things. First, people with big cameras stood out and the crowd always reacted to them, and second, small cameras are so ubiquitous, that a photographer using a small camera is ignored and virtually invisible to a crowd that is watching out for 'photographers'.
This was most clear to me when I was at a demonstration in front of Union Station in Washington, DC. The demonstrators were happy to be photographed and, whenever a 'big camera' photographer started pointing, they would start 'posing.' I was using the two cameras mentioned below and seemed to be invisible.
While in trains or subways where everyone is packed tight and any move to lift a camera to one's face would be instantly noticeable, I use an Olympus EP-3, without the viewfinder and with a Panasonic 20 mm 'pancake' 1.7 lens. This setup is perfect for shooting from the hip, completely unnoticed.
When I'm outside in a looser environment I use the EP3 with a viewfinder and a 35-100 2.8 lens and an Olympus OMD with a 12-35 2.8 lens. These are focal length equivalents of 70-200 and 24-70 respectively, my favorite shooting focal length lenses.
The Prime Rule of Street Photography.
Why does the street photographer need to be able to handle the equipment quickly and to be inconspicuous, using the equipment without being noticed?
The requirement for quickness of handling is obvious. Scenes one would want to shoot usually occur quickly and dissolve quickly; to get the shot, the photographer must be ready to get the camera in place and shutters clicking very quickly. The significant difference in weight and inertia between a full-frame body with 2.8 lens and the equivalent in a M4/3 body makes movements quicker and much less tiring.
Note in the table above that an Olympus OMD 5 with a 70-200 equivalent lens weighs only about 30% of the weight of a FF Canon or Nikon with the same lens – about 1.8 lbs compared to 5.4 lbs. A big difference both to carry and, more important, to swing into position.
(My camera bag used to weigh upwards of 17 lbs, now,with both bodies and equivalent lenses, it weighs about 3.5 lb and all in an inconspicuous messenger bag)
A very good friend (named Stan) has pointed out that I didn't cover the drawbacks, if any, of the smaller, lighter cameras and he is right on target. There are a couple of functional problems and I'll mention how I compensate for them. The camera I currently use most, the Olympus OMD 5, does not have good auto-focus tracking, has a wake-up lag when recovering from stand-by of perhaps half a second and has that same perceptible lag when going from image display to ready to shoot.
I 'blip' the shutter button as I raise the camera so that the camera is on as it reaches my face.The speed of auto focus in single shot is essentially instantaneous so I use single shot focus even on targets approaching me. I have set the display off so I never lose sight of the target.
The newer version of this camera has incorporated more and better autofocus ( read here).
This image is 4 consecutive well-focused frames, at single shot mode, of the female winner of the 2013 NYC Marathon shot with OMD 5 and Panasonic 35-100
The second – and much more crucial issue is the desirability of inconspicuousness; this requirement feeds from the prime rule of street photography – as I see it.
I believe that a street photographer is there to capture the scene, as much as possible, without affecting it or being part of it. The practice of confronting people, ambushing them, startling them to get an image is wrong, I think, and certainly not useful. Photographers who do that aren't photographing a scene, capturing an instant, they are inventing it and their work is as false as if it were staged.
Handling the Equipment and Oneself
There is nothing quite so attention gathering and disconcerting as turning around and seeing some stranger pointing a large camera directly at you. The photographer's face is hidden and all the subject sees is a large glass surface. The natural response, except if one is a celebrity or politician, is possibly to turn away and certainly to moderate behavior. If a subject sees you pointing at them, there goes any chance for naturalness.
So, I have moderated every behavior to minimize the chances of my scaring the normality out of any scene. I move slowly, holding my camera at my waist, making any changes in aperture, speed or ISO without raising the camera, framing the scene with my eyes only and only raising the camera in the last moment to press the shutter and then return it to my waist.
If the subject is alerted by the movement, usually, by the time they have focused their attention on me, the camera is down from my eye and they are looking at my un-reacting face. I don't react or move away and, usually, in an instant their attention is elsewhere.
If someone sees me shooting, I just keep on, shooting past them and slightly redirecting the camera. In years of shooting this way, I have had overt reactions only twice. I put this down to being inconspicuous and not reinforcing the subject's reactions by any reactions of my own.
Success with this behavior requires two obvious skills on the part of the shooter:
So here we are, our equipment is as customized to shooting street as we can get at this moment, we are familiar with the camera, what are we going after, what are good street shots?
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