START IN STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
Street photography is perhaps one of the most widespread practices in the world, mainly because of its accessibility (both in terms of technique and the fact that it can be practiced from the moment one is in the city).
In this Practical Wednesday, we are going to talk about the basics to apprehend this practice and to start well in street photography.
What is street photography?
First of all, let’s find out what street photography is.
There is indeed a lot of disagreement about the exact definition of street photography.
Wikipedia gives a rather precise definition that we will apply for this Practical Wednesday: “Street Photography is a branch of photography whose main subject is a human presence, direct or indirect, in spontaneous situations and in public places such as the street.
» The important part here is the “human presence in spontaneous situations”.
Taking pictures of buildings will be architectural photography, while if you take pictures of models in the street, it will be called fashion photography.
That being said, you should know that not everyone agrees on what street photography is because the boundaries are so nebulous.
Gatherer or hunter?
These terms describe two different approaches to your subject, but also to your composition.
The picker will first choose his background before his subject and will therefore see more of an overall scene than a particular person.
This approach offers several advantages: you can compose your photo with millimetre precision and set your camera in advance.
On the other hand, the main disadvantage is that the wait before the person will come and stand exactly where you want can last a few minutes or even tens of minutes.
On the contrary, the hunter is always on the move and takes his pictures “off the hook”.
He is always on the move and his photos require more reactivity than those taken by the picker.
It’s often this type of approach that we think of when we talk about street photography, but as you can see, it’s not the only one.
And, of course, no one is forced to remain in one of these two categories.
The closer we get, the better.
Robert Capa used to say: “If your picture is not good, it’s because you’re not close enough”.
This is especially true in street photography.
Why? First of all, the advantage of getting closer to your subject will allow you to show many more details about the person’s face or clothing.
Also, it is easy to “lose” your subject with its background because of its complexity (buildings, cars or even other people).
However, you don’t want to omit this background either, since you want to document “a human presence, direct or indirect, in spontaneous situations and in public places such as the street.
“Your best way to isolate your subject, while incorporating the environment in which he or she lives, is to get closer to him or her.
Finally, if you follow the advice on the material to be used, you will have either a 35mm or a 50mm.
This will force you, consciously or unconsciously, to get closer to your subject, which in itself can be an evil for a good.
Taking street pictures
The main difficulty in taking street pictures is the fear of being rejected by the people you are trying to photograph.
You obviously have the choice to ask the person’s permission or to take their picture on the spot.
However, if you ask for permission the subject will act slightly differently since they will know they are being photographed.
Whatever your approach, it is best to be confident and not try to hide your intentions.
In my experience, I found that all my interactions with people on the street went well when I smiled at the person after taking their picture.
If someone asks you why you took a picture, be sincere: something about the way she looked (for example, the way she was dressed) caught your eye.
What equipment to use?
The beauty of street photography is that it can be done with just about any photographic equipment: a phone, compact, SLR, medium format, hybrid, digital or film camera.
Of course, there are some cameras that are more suitable than others, but as long as you have a camera that can take pictures, you can do street photography.
That being said, the type of photos you take will generally require two things: that you be discreet so as not to disturb the scene.
that you are close enough to your subject to make your pictures more dynamic.
We come back to this last point a little further down.
Therefore, the choice of equipment is turned to one that will be quiet and inconspicuous.
So you can imagine that having a Canon 1DX or Nikon D5 type monobloc housing with a 70-200mm screwed on it will not be optimal.
There are several boxes very suitable for street photography, whether digital or film.
We won’t get into the “which one is better” debate, but the advice here is: treat yourself.
In this type of photography, the latest technology is not essential and will not make much of a difference.
Here is a short list to help you choose.
Analogical can be a good way to get started in street photography by forcing you to compose your images well because of the limited number of exposures.
Moreover, passers-by will take you less for a professional photographer and more for a hipster and will therefore feel less assaulted.
On the second hand market you can find small beads such as the Canon AE-1 and its 50 mm f/1.8 which offers an excellent quilting for less than 100 € or the Contax T2, a compact that will not leave you indifferent for about 200 €.
If you have the means (at least €1500), you can buy a Leica camera with a Summicron lens.
You should know that silver Leicas lose almost no value and that they are devices that can be kept for life.
If you want the experience of a rangefinder without having to pay a month’s salary, the Canon QL17-GIII offers a much more affordable alternative at around €100, although, let’s face it, the quality will never match that of a Leica.
Finally, please note that a light meter will be of great help when using your camera if it does not have a cell to measure the exposure.
Several solutions exist on smartphones (software or hardware such as Lumu), even if it is not necessarily as accurate as with a real light meter.
For my part, I own a Sekonic L-308S and I have always been satisfied with the exposure it gave me.
Digital cameras also offer a more than decent choice for street photography.
For once, Canon and Nikon are out of the spotlight and you can move on to other brands.
Fujfilm: the Japanese company has won over more than one with the X100 S/T series.
The camera is very light and above all does not make any noise when it is released.
It is possible to take a Fujifilm XPro-2 / XT-2 with a Fujinon 23mm, however the weight will be a bit more and especially twice as expensive for better image quality, but not that much.
The only real advantage is that you will be able to change lenses (the X100 has lens adapters).
The Hong Kong photos in this article were taken with a Fuji X100.
Fujifilm had released an update that made the autofocus almost decent.
Ricoh : many photographers swear by the Ricoh GR II.
This compact camera also has an APS-C sensor and very good image quality.
It was for a long time the only choice in this category before the arrival of the Fujifilm x70.
The Ricoh GR I also remains a very good and more affordable choice.
Leica, but then again, you’re gonna have to have the means.
This time we’re talking about €7,000.
The problem with Leica digital boxes is that they lose value very quickly.
To give you an idea, a Leica M8 (digital) today costs about the same as a Leica M6 (film).
As far as lenses are concerned, the choice will be oriented towards standard focal lengths and wide-angle lenses.
Unsurprisingly, the two favourites are the 35 mm and 50 mm lenses (23 mm and 35 mm respectively on APS-C sensors).
This will force you to be close to your subject anyway.
In any case, don’t feel obliged to resell all your equipment.
I used my Canon 5D Mark II for a long time with either a 50mm f/1.4 or even a 16-35mm f/2.8L and it never stopped me from taking pictures.
A few tips to keep a low profile
To help you become a little more discreet, here are a few helpful hints.
Blend into the landscape
This advice will require a bit of patience, since it will require staying a little longer on the same premises.
What are you going to do in the meantime? Taking pictures of everything and nothing.
The more time passes, the more people will forget you.
If you see a scene you like, stand where you want and wait for the moment you want.
Usually when passers-by notice you, they will think they are bothering you more than anything else and will hurry their step.
But most of the time, you won’t even get noticed.
Put yourself in silent mode
Whether it’s on your phone or your camera, you don’t want unwanted sound to attract the attention of your subject.
I’m thinking in particular of the little “beeps” that reflex cameras make by default when they are in focus.
Turn off all those annoying digital noise and, if your camera has an electronic shutter, use it, it is completely silent.
Use your phone As Apple said in a promotional video, the most used object these days is our smartphone.
Although this statement may be debatable, it demonstrates how common this object has become today.
You’ll attract much less attention when you draw your phone: maybe you’re even having a selfie? Also, some smartphones can trigger the camera with the remote control on the earphones.
If you feel like an actor’s soul, nothing prevents you from pretending to have a conversation on the phone.
Take photos at hip
height Another way to avoid being noticed is not to look through your camera’s viewfinder.
Place your camera at hip level (or let it hang down at the end of the strap) and release.
Obviously, the framing will be less precise.
The use of the zone focus (explained a little further down) will be of great help to you.
Look at the person you’re photographing and elsewhere
Another trick is to act as if you were taking a picture of something else.
To do this, you can point your camera at the person you are photographing (logical), but look behind that person, for example.
That will imply that you don’t photograph her.
You can see this trick in practice in the video below (from 0:37 to 2:20) This trick works just as well when you use a wide-angle lens since no one (except photographers) will be able to tell the focal length of your lens and therefore that they are within the frame of your photo.
Make your equipment discreet
Finally, we have dedicated a Practical Wednesday on the different methods to make your equipment less flashy and more discreet.
Zone focus, your best friend
Area focus is a focusing technique.
Manual focus is used by adjusting it in advance.
To be successful, a small aperture must be used: at f/8 or f/11 for example, in order to have a large depth of field (area that will be sharp).
In the picture below, you can see that the lens aperture is set to f/11.
Focusing is done at a distance of 2 meters, and thanks to our f/11 aperture everything will be sharp from 1.5 meters to almost 3 meters.
How do we know that? This information about the lens is obtained by looking at the numbers written in small (22 15 8 4 4 8 16 22) on the top of the lens (on either side of the orange line) and plotting the distance range (written just above, in metres).
This technique is an excellent tool for the street photographer, since you will be able to take pictures faster than any camera, without using autofocus.
By saving the small moments when the camera will seek focus, you remain extremely fast even with a film camera.
Please note that lenses with these small indications will most often be those used on film cameras or those with manual-only focusing such as Samyang lenses.
To use this method, it is best to use the aperture-priority mode to let the camera make the other settings.
However, it is possible that your opening speed is too low (below 1/125s or even 1/60s).
In this case, do not hesitate to raise the ISOs to 800 or higher if necessary.
It is still important to note that you will not be able to use the zone focus when it is dark as you will need a wide aperture.
In black and white or in colour?
If we forget about aesthetics and individual preferences, black and white will probably be the most accessible at first, since colour will no longer be a variable to be taken into account in your shooting.
Of course, some scenes lend themselves more to black and white, while others will be more suitable for colour.
It is therefore advisable to take your photos in RAW format, or at least JPEG in color, since you can put these photos in black and white if you wish.
Some masters of street photography
It is always interesting to observe the great masters of street photography in order to see their approaches and techniques.
Here are a few of them:
Henri Cartier Bresson The creator of photojournalism.
A lot of his photos were street photos composed to the millimeter.
His approach was clearly that of a picker.
For him, the most important thing was what he called the “decisive moment”.
Bruce Gilden is, like Henri Cartier Bresson, a member of the French agency Magnum.
That said, unlike her colleague, Gilden has a totally opposite approach to street photography.
When HCB is going to wait for the decisive moment, Gilden will create that moment, or rather provoke it.
It is by getting very close to his subjects that he will take pictures of them using a remote flash.
Vivian Maier is an American photographer who documented her life in Chicago using mainly medium-format cameras of the Rolleifleix brand.
The interesting part with Vivian Maier is that this woman was a nanny whose collection of several thousand photos were not found until after her death.
Martin Parr Another contemporary photographer, Martin Parr, will bring a touch of humour to his photos.
Daido Doriyama is a Japanese photographer who documented his country after World War II.
They’re talking about Thomas Benezeth Street Photography Thomas is a French photographer and blogger who shares on his site several tips on street photography.
He has also published a free ebook of almost 150 pages on the subject, which is a must-read.
An American who shares a lot of tips on his blog.
Eric Kim quit his full-time job to go 100% into street photography.
John Free Another American photographer who gives pertinent advice on street photography via YouTube videos.
Bernard Jolivalt is a French photographer well known for street photography.
He shares his advice and practice in a Jiminy Studio Masterclass accessible directly online.
Also read our interview with the photographer Vincent Montibus, between film and street photography.
The legal aspect Since street photography involves men, there is always a problem of the right to the image which is not very far away.
The Image Observatory was returning to this problem following the Paris Magnum exhibition in 2015 by studying the evolution of the photos taken by Magnum agency photographers.
It is important to check the laws of the country in which you are photographing.
An article with some resources is dedicated to this subject.
One last piece of advice Be patient.
Street photography requires a lot of patience and it is time and practice that will bring the experience.
Some of your outings will be more fruitful than others and don’t be discouraged if you come home empty-handed.
The difficulty and beauty of street photography comes from its unpredictability and from what one can get out of urban chaos.