Monday, September 29, 2014

My Approach To Street Photography

Street photography is one of those genres that is highly debated.  Some want to put it up on a high pedestal and proclaim it restricted to a highly curated set of parameters, while others want it to be anything that is taken out in the streets.

Nikon D700, 1/125, f/7.1, ISO 320 @ 28mm
I, for one, am not a big fan of strict labels for this kind of thing.  For me, street photography is about capturing the essence of a place or location that tells a story and gets you to feel what it is like, or what the people there are like.

These are fleeting moments that could change in a matter of minutes or over years.

I'd like to share some of my thoughts about my approach to street photography.  We'll cover the other photographers that influence my perceptions, how I go about shooting subjects and we'll talk about how I shoot from gear to camera settings.

Nikon D700, 1/800, f/4.5, ISO 500 @ 28mm
Major Influences
I take a lot of influences for shooting from various photographers.   This list encompass the top three, but by no means are the only ones.

 One of my all time favorite photographers is Jay Maisel.  He is a commercial and street photographer based out of NYC.  I agree with a lot of his philosophies regarding shooting.   KelbyOne has a three video series that are actual walk along shooting sessions with Jay, 2 in NYC and one in the streets of Paris.  Well worth at least a monthly subscription.
Nikon Df, 1/500, f/4, ISO 100 @ 50mm
Fan Ho is a street photographer that shows a lot of work from Hong Kong.  The work I appreciate the most from him is his 1970's/1980's images.  His work shows what is possible if you learn the area you are shooting in and have patience to allow a scene to develop.  It is not all about run and gun.  Sometimes you have to wait for the scene to work itself out.  Just do a web search and there is a lot of his work out there for you to discover.
Nikon Df, 1/500, f/4, ISO 100 @ 50mm
Of course, if you said who is the most famous street photographer the majority of people are going to say Henri Cartier-Bresson.  I do in fact like his images and from his work, I appreciate the inclusion of environmental components long with the expressions of the people he captured.

Nikon D700, 1/400, f/5.6, ISO 800 @ 260mm
Shooting Philosophy
What draws me to street photography is the "realness" of it.  By that, I mean that I like to capture the majority of my street photography images without the subject caring that I am there.   That is not the same as being covert about it.   I don't sneak or skulk about trying to get images of people or situations without them knowing about it.

Olympus EM5, 1/50, f/1.8, ISO 2000 @ 17mm
I always have my camera out in plain site on my Black Rapid strap.   I want everyone to know that I am out there taking pictures.  I feel this puts people at ease.  They are also more apt to tell you up front if they don't want to be photographed and you'll avoid some angry people later on down the road.  While we are on the subject of angry people, there is an old saying, "go out to make pictures, not friends".  While this might seem confrontational, it really is not.  What it means is go out and make pictures, do what you set out to do.  It's OK if you make friends along the way, but that should not be the goal.
Olympus EM5, 1/1600, f/7.1, ISO 200 @ 19mm
99% of the time, if people see you taking their picture, they are going to be indifferent about it.  There are those 1% that might be curious about what you are doing or are not happy about it.  There are very few situations where your personal safety or the safety of the group you are in is worth a confrontation.  If deleting the image, buying someone a beer or backing off will defuse the situation, it is best to do so.

As with most things in life, you want to be out shooting street photography with confidence.  Go out there and shoot like you have a purpose and a mission.  If it looks like you are there for a reason, most people will not question what you are doing.  If you show a hesitance or try and sneak pictures then people might get the perception that you are up to no good.  Don't give them a reason to doubt you or think that you have a nefarious agenda.
Fuji X-E1, 1/50, f/4, ISO 1600 @ 35mm
Subject matter is something very personal and different for a lot of people.  I like and practice a philosophy I heard articulated by Jay Maisel, which is "go out open and empty".  This means going out not necessarily with a subject or objective in mind.  Instead, I go out with a vision to find something that interests me and maybe I have not seen before I captured before.
I think that this type of philosophy also drives my gear requirements.   A lot of time, the shot I want coalesces in front of you and you have but seconds from the time you realize what is about to happen till the time to capture the image.

I don't stage shots either, I capture whatever happens.    Don't get me wrong, I'm not against setting up a shot - it is just not what I prefer to do.  I have been known to request portraits if I think a person is interesting and want to approach them.  Again, as above, ask politely and be honest about what you are wanting to do.  Most people would be happy to oblige you in your request, other times they will say no.  Remember to respect the person and their space.  You never know, you could run into that person in the future and they could grant you a portrait of them at that time.

Just about any camera can be used for street photography - but the caveat to that is this - it depends on how you shoot.
I'm going to speak only to how I shoot street and the capabilities that I require for me.  This is my personal preference and how I have the most success and pleasure.
Fuji X-E1, 1/50, f/2, ISO 800 @ 35mm
The most important factors for me in a street camera is fast operation and auto focus capability.
When talking about fast operation, I mean that the camera can be turned on or awoke from sleep mode and be ready to shoot by the time the camera gets from its resting position on the sling strap to my eye.  One of the things that turned me away from the Fuji X series of cameras was the amount of time it would take and reliability of turning on and waking from sleep those cameras.  I had an X-E1 and there was a lot to love about that camera.  Operation speed left me wanting and I lost quite a few opportunities for great shots because the camera took too long to either turn on or wake from sleep.

One question you might be thinking, why not leave the camera on all the time?  Short answer, battery life.  With the early Fuji X cameras, battery life as not stellar, so I thought that turning off during a shooting lull would help.  Not really.  Allowing the camera to go to sleep was almost worse sometimes as I often had situations where the camera would not wake on half press or would take up to 2 to 3 seconds at times to show an image in the viewfinder.
Olympus EM5, 1/100, f/5, ISO 2000 @ 100mm
Auto focus speed and accuracy is also another top requirement.  I am not one to zone focus and will only prefocus when I have to, and sometimes prefocusing is not an option.  This is another area where the Fuji X failed me on several occasions.  I had issues with the focus speed and at times the hunting from the CDAF system would not lock on fast enough.
I will say, though that the Fuji X cameras are improving every iteration and the X-E2, X-T1 cameras are leaps and bounds better than the X-E1.

I'm even experimenting with some zone focusing techniques with a Fuji X100.  You never know - I may be a convert some day.  :D
Nikon Df, 1/1600, f/4, ISO 400 @ 90mm
Right now, my weapons of choice for street shooting are 2 sets of kit.

The first being the Nikon Df with a set of three primes - Nikon 24/2.8, 50/1.8D, and a Tamron 90/2.8.
The Nikon Df is an extremely misunderstood camera and I invite anyone to really dig into getting to know it.  There is a lot there and a whole lot more to love than to hate once you give it a chance.  The Nikon Df is the smallest FX camera that Nikon makes.  Partnered with some good primes and you have yourself a really great street shooting rig.  The AF performance is great and you have a lot of control of DOF with the FX size sensor.  Not to mention that you have the dynamic range and picture controls of the flagship Nikon D4 on the inside and you can see the appeal.  Being a DSLR, the camera wakes from sleep or from powered off almost instantly.
Olympus EM5, 1/500, f/5.7, ISO 200 @ 156mm
The second kit was actually a surprise to me.  I went in to the camera store one day to look to possibly pick up a Fuji X-T1 or an X100s, but ended up walking out with an Olympus OMD EM5.   I, like a lot of people, was running on old information from the very first micro four thirds cameras.  Yes, the sensor is smaller and you have all the differences in the shooting experience that come with it.   However, Olympus has done something special with the OMD series.  The wake from sleep and power on times are greatly improved over what I saw from Fuji and my past experiences with the X-E1.  The AF performance is phenomenal as well, at least for the single servo AF.   It is as fast if not faster than some of the DSLRs out there.  I experience minimal hunting.  I partner this camera body with a killer set of fast prime lenses an you have a very capable kit.  My favorites are the Olympus 17/1.8 and 45/1.8

Settings are probably more of interest to people than my gear selection.  Let's talk about what settings I use and in which situations.  These discussions will not be specific to the gear I've listed above.  They are more to the situation you would be shooting in.

Focus mode is AF-S.  Single point, lock it in, get the shot.  Every now and again, I might throw it into continuous AF, but that is very rare.
Nikon D50, 1/80, f/5.6, ISO 200 @ 60mm
WB is set to auto, unless I know I am going into a situation where the color cast is something I know will be extreme, then I will set it manually.

RAW or JPG?  Majority of the time, I'm shooting JPG.  The JPG engines in modern cameras are actually pretty great, considering.  I will shift over to RAW if there is a scene that I know I will need to do some extensive post processing on.
Olympus EM5, 1/80, f/2.2, ISO 800
In normal, everyday "good" lighting I'm shooting in aperture priority mode.  I do this because I want to have control over the depth of field of the shot.  I then let the camera do the rest of the heavy lifting.  In order to do this, you'll need to be in sync with your cameras metering system and know how it will see a scene.  You might need to use exposure compensation or switch to manual if you run into a situation like extreme back lighting or the scenes dynamic range is more than your camera is capable of handling.
For ISO, I'm shooting in auto ISO, keeping the base as slow as possible (low being ISO 50 to 200, depending on your camera).  I keep the minimum shutter speed around 1/60 and the maximum ISO between 3200 and 6400 (again depending on gear).

Shooting during the day is a pretty standard affair, if you think about it, exposure wise, it is going to be a pretty decent light to run in.  The good thing about the auto ISO in this situation is going to be those times when you might step inside or need to shoot in the shadows, it can compensate for you without you needing to sacrifice your aperture setting.
Olympus EM5, 1/640, f/2.8, ISO 100
Where things can get interesting is when we are wanting to shoot either dusk/dawn times or at night.   Most metro areas are decently lit considering, but the light sources can trick even the best of metering systems sometimes.  You also have the fact that the metering systems want to go for an 18% gray as the normal exposure - this can make the scene more exposed than you probably want.

The best way, I have found for me, to control all of this is to shoot in manual.   I shoot with as wide an aperture as I possibly can and still have a sufficiently large DOF, keep the shutter speed fast enough that I can still hand hold the shot for a sharp image and a clean enough ISO for a pleasing exposure.   A lot of these exposures average out to be something along the lines of f/4, ISO 1600 and 1/60 shutter speed.
Olympus EM5, 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 200 @ 150mm
For the setup, you can either put the camera in aperture priority mode and take some test shots, riding the exposure compensation until you see what you like - then set manual accordingly.  When doing this test, try and find a scene that looks like a typical one that yo will be shooting.  This will give you a good ballpark to run from.
If you have been shooting for a while, you might be able to get to where you need to be from manual from a few test shots.  However you do it is completely up to you and no way is wrong, just different.
Nikon D700, 1/250, f/4.5, ISO 400 @ 85mm
If you find that you need to shoot at slower shutter speeds (lets say less than 1/60), and don't want to bring a tripod along you have options.  Some cameras/lenses have image stabilization.  Don't be afraid to use it.  Just remember that image stabilizers help reduce camera shake from you holding the camera and it has no affect on freezing action.  Shutter speed will control that.
Another technique is to use poles or street signs to stabilize yourself.

I hope that you found this post helpful.  While I don't expect anyone to adopt what I do in total, there may be times when some of these techniques I use might come in handy or help someone get a step into doing street photography for themselves.