ERIC KIM

In Street Photography, The Smaller the Camera, the Better

Photo slightly related: Minox Spy Camera of Grant Loxton

Recently for my trip to Stockholm, London, and Dubai I brought along my Hasselblad 501c and 80mm lens (and about 20 rolls of Kodak Portra 400 120 film). I had been shooting a lot of medium-format 6×6 photos back home, and I had the natural gut feeling to bring it to my trip and make some photos. But at the same time I’m glad I brought along my compact 35mm camera, the Contax T3.

For my first leg in Stockholm, I was glad that I brought the Hasselblad. I shot a lot of urban landscapes around the outskirts of Stockholm with my buddy Mattias — but once I got into the city center I only took it out once or twice (to shoot some street portraits).

While being here in London, I must have taken it out of my bag once or twice. I used it to take a few portraits of my friends, as well as some urban landscapes I found were interesting. But after being here for about a week or so, I can honestly say that I have only taken about 1–2 frames a day on it (not enough to justify bringing it on my trip).

Large cameras are a pain in the ass

Top view from my Hasselblad. Fun to shoot urban landscapes and posed portraits, but a pain in the ass to travel with.

I love the Hasselblad. It is a beautiful camera, and perfectly engineered to shoot urban landscapes and posed portraits. However it is a huge pain in the ass as well— it is very heavy, cumbersome, and you only end up shooting with it once or twice (maybe) in an entire day.

However, I am also fortunate that I brought along my Contax T3, a compact-camera (famously used by Anders Petersen) which is about the size of a bar of soap, fits in my front pocket, and has a 35mm lens and an integrated flash.

I knew before leaving my trip, I wanted to bring both a medium-format camera (Hasselblad) and a 35mm camera. The Leica MP I have with the 35mm f/2 Summicron is honestly quite heavy — and I decided to keep it home this trip. Therefore I figured I would pick the smallest compact camera I own (the Contax T3) as my dedicated 35mm camera.

Limitations of the Contax T3

When I first came to London (and I realized I wasn’t going to shoot much urban landscapes, I was much more interested in the people and interactions) I was so glad that I had my Contax T3. I forgot how lively, bustling, and full of energy and life London is. The city instantly got me excited— and giddy to shoot some street photography.

Fortunately I had my Contax T3, and started to shoot on the streets.

However my frustration that it was a lot slower than my Leica — which ended up costing me a lot of photographs (I think a lot of photos I shot ended up being half a second late, due to the speed of the autofocus). I do have the ability to zone-focus on the Contax T3 (pre-focusing to 1.3 meters), but I have to press about 3 buttons to get into that mode— which is a bit of a pain in the ass.

So generally when I shoot with the Contax T3, I have it in “P” mode, in which the camera automatically chooses the aperture and shutter speed— and I just point and click. When I want to use a flash, I just turn on the automatic flash.

Now I did mention I did end up missing a handful of shots (the camera being a bit slow) — but I am starting to realize that the benefit of having a smaller camera (that might be a bit slower) outweighs the benefit of having a bigger camera (that is a bit faster to shoot with, but more difficult to carry around).

Always having your camera ready

Portrait of Anders Petersen with his Contax T3

The great thing about the Contax T3 is that I always have it in my jacket pocket or my front pocket, and it is very quick to turn on and shoot.

Whereas if I want to get a shot on my Hasselblad, I have to take off my backpack, take a meter reading with my Sekonic light meter, focus (slowly), hold my breath, take off the front cap, take out the metal slide, and shoot.

Although the slow and meditative process of the Hasselblad is great for non-moving subjects, it is certainly far too slow and cumbersome for capturing action on the streets.

Even when comparing the Contax T3 compact camera to my Leica— the Leica is obviously faster. I can bang off shots on my Leica quite quickly, and now zone-focusing is second nature to me. The Leica SF20 flash I have on it also recharges quickly, which means I can fire off shots with a flash in quick succession. However the Contax T3 (when shooting with a flash), takes about a second or two to recharge the flash— which means I miss potential shots in-between.

However even with the Leica, it can be a pain in the ass to always carry it around my neck (it can get quite heavy), and I like to put it away when I am eating dinner, going to the grocery store, or going to a bookstore. I end up putting it into my bag.

But the Contax T3 is always ready for action — nimble, and quick. Sure it isn’t the 100% perfect camera, but I still feel the compact size is the biggest benefit. The more I think about my daily life as a photographer, having the smaller size and portability and the opportunity to make more shots is far beneficial.

For example, the other day I was writing in a cafe in London— and I saw a guy (funny enough) reading Marcus Aurelius’ “The Meditations” — with his body hunched over, looking at the book in deep thought, with his left hand covering his forehead. I liked the mood, the pose, and the hand-gesture— and I was able to quickly take my Contax T3 out of my pocket and start firing off around 10 photos. I imagine this would be impossible with a Hasselblad. Even with a Leica, it would be cumbersome to take it out, have to adjust the shutter speed and aperture, having to worry to focus, and taking images.

I also have shot some street photography on the tube and indoors in restaurants with the Contax T3— and the great benefit is that it makes me look like a stupid Asian tourist, and people just ignore me. I can imagine even with a slightly larger camera (even a Leica) they would look at me with a little more suspicion.

Robert Frank and 35mm

Robert Frank’s new book: “In America

My good friend Vedran told me about the new publication of Robert Frank “In America” — which is a catalogue of a new exhibition by Robert Frank, which shows images from his “Americans” series (as well as other unpublished images).

For those of you who don’t know about Robert Frank’s “The Americans” — it is probably one of my favorite photography books ever (and a must-read for any street photographer). Over the course of around 2–3 years, he shot 767 rolls of film, ~27,000 frames. Also between 1956–1957, he made 1000 frames for enlargement to 8×10 work prints. The final body of work, “The Americans” was sequenced to 83 images.

Vedran recommended me to pick up the book (just for the introduction— in which Peter Galassi, a super writer, talks about the revolution of the 35mm “compact camera”).

What I found interesting was that back in the 1950’s (while everyone was shooting large-format 8×10 and medium-format Rolleiflex’s) the Leica and 35mm format were quite frowned upon. It was seen as having inferior image quality, less tonal range, and mostly for amateurs.

However during the time, Robert Frank, Elliott Erwitt, and many other great photographers started to embrace the “compact camera” of the 35mm format and made images that were much more spontaneous, free, and edgy.

In a US camera magazine (1955) writer Byron Dobell talked about the benefits of shooting with a 35mm camera (in an issue which the “pros” and “cons” of 35mm cameras were being discussed on the 30th anniversary of Leica).

In the article, Robert Frank shares the benefit of shooting with a smaller 35mm camera (whereas he used to shoot with a Rolleiflex):

“Those who use the 35mm camera are especially conscious of the problem. As Robert Frank expresses it, “One gets good results so very quickly with a small camera… But most people stop at the technical stage. To do good work you need a further intelligence. And you can’t just imitate a famous 35mm photographer. Cartier-Bresson won’t help, wide-angle lenses won’t help either.’”

Byron Dobell continues in the article by sharing the great work Robert Frank was able to do with the 35mm camera (while poking fun at picture editors, who at the time demanded photographers use medium-format cameras):

“On these pages you will see some of the good work of a young photographer with that “further intelligence.” A photographer who desires above all to establish an identity in his photographs so completely his own that he cannot be accused of slavish imitation or the “adaptability” so much lauded by picture editors when they really mean “conformity”…”

Interesting to know, the infamous W. Eugene Smith was actually fired for using a “handheld camera” (Leica) instead of the larger more “professional” cameras assigned by his bosses. Peter Galassi explains:

“W. Eugene Smith was fired for using a handheld camera instead of the larger camera prescribed by his bosses at Newsweek, who opposed the trend towards what were then called miniature cameras. By 1950, though, Smith was famous for Life picture stories shot with a “miniature” Leica, and the use of 35mm cameras had become a professional norm.”

However as time went on, the trend of using “miniature” cameras caught on— and most professionals started to embrace 35mm cameras.

Robert Frank’s shift to 35mm

Robert Frank and his Leica

In the introduction of the book, “Robert Frank: In America” — writer Peter Galassi shares more of Frank’s evolution from shooting on a Rolleiflex into a smaller, more compact 35mm camera— the Leica:

“Encouraged by Brodovitch, Frank himself adopted the Leica during his South American excursion in late 1948, setting aside the larger 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inch Rolleiflex that until then had been his principal camera.”

Furthermore, Robert Frank was inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s work in the 1930’s, which showed the strength of 35mm cameras: that they could capture more life, spontaneity, and “decisive moments” (that larger camera’s weren’t quick enough to capture):

“In addition, Cartier-Bresson’s nimble work of the 1930’s, which Frank had seen in depth at MoMA shortly after arriving in New York, offered a seductive example of the capabilities of the smaller camera. That work had helped shape a European small-camera aesthetic that featured unorthodox vantage points, uncanny juxtapositions, dynamic geometries, and transformations of the most ordinary, everyday scenes into magical bits of improvised theater.”

However one of the big arguments during the time was that the “small negatives” of a 35mm camera weren’t good enough to rival the medium-format or the large-format negatives. But the trade-off was worth it, as the moments captured on 35mm were more important than the intrinsic sharpness and quality of images.

Even back then, there was a battle between sharpness of images (and the overall soul, emotion, and “decisive moment”) captured:

“Enlargements from small negatives made a virtue of necessity by favoring a forgiving tonal unity over precision of detail. This open-ended sensibility was the opposite of the contemporaneous American aesthetic, where the needle sharpness and pearly luxury of an 8×10 inch negative printed by contact was fundamental to, for example, Steichen’s confections of fame and fortune for Vanity Fair, Alfred Stieglitz’s rarefied visions, and Walker Evans’s skeptical observations— each otherwise anathema to the two. (Evans’s occasional use of a Leica to register glimpses of street life was atypical, a symptom of his Europhilia).

But also during this period of time, there were a lot of photographers who embraced the smaller 35mm camera in the “quality be damned school”. They were more interested in capturing moments, than having pinprick sharp images with lots of nice tonal ranges:

“Even at their most stylish, such pictures claimed kinship with photographs whose imperfections derived not from aesthetic will but from challenging circumstances. Robert Capa’s famously blurry and grainy photographs of the D-day landing are among the most extreme examples— not for nothing did he title his 1947 pictorial autobiography “Slightly out of Focus.” Similar flaws frequently registered urgency without risk to life or limb: authenticity, not elegance, was the goal of Sid Grossman, a leader of New York’s progressive “Photo League”, who, like Brodovitch, established himself as something of a guru and whose work and teachings are often credited with contributing to the rise of what some at the time called the “quality-be-damned” school.

“Miniature camera” in today’s era

The more I study the history of photography— I find it funny that we are just living in cycles.

For example, when the large-format cameras existed (and a more “portable” medium-format camera was invented), people bemoaned the fact that medium-format wasn’t as good as large-format.

When shooting medium-format was the norm (and the 35mm camera came out), people bemoaned the fact that 35mm negatives weren’t good enough.

And now in today’s digital age— people bemoan the fact that digital photos aren’t as good as 35mm negatives.

To take it even a step further— people now bemoan the fact that photos shot on a smartphone or iPhone aren’t as good as a “full-frame” DSLR.

The rise of smartphone photography

Urban landscape in Stockholm a few weeks ago. Shot on my Samsung S5, processed in VSCO.

To be quite frank, I imagine within 5–10 years the iPhone 10 (or whatever) will have image quality that rivals a full-frame camera (or at least APS-C). You can also already see how cameras are getting smaller (like the full-frame Sony a7 vs. the Canon 5D), or the APS-C sensor of the Ricoh GR (smallest APS-C compact camera). Even the iPhones of today blow the older point-and-shoot cameras from even a few years ago out of the water.

I personally have enjoyed shooting a lot of photos on my smartphone. I love shooting the image, post-processing it in my phone via VSCO, and sharing on Instagram.

Shooting on a smartphone has democratized photography (especially street photography) for the better.

In-fact, I know a lot of mobile phone photographers who take photos that blow the pants off photos taken with a fancy Leica.

The great benefit of shooting on an iPhone or mobile phone is that you always have it with you, it is always in your pocket, it is silent, it is less conspicuous, and you shoot everyday. You end up shooting more on a mobile phone (than a big fancy DSLR, or a Leica).

Sure the image-quality of an iPhone isn’t as good as an APS-C sensor or full-frame sensor, but for the most part, it is “good enough”. I think ultimately capturing the moment, emotion, and feeling of a scene is more important than how many pixels or how sharp it is.

Embracing smaller cameras

I guess my point of this article is encouraging all of you to shoot with smaller, compact cameras (or even the iPhone) — and focus on capturing moments, emotions, soul (than worrying about image quality).

I think the most important aspect of a camera for street photography is something that is small, compact, always with you— which allows you to shoot all the time (and everyday).

Don’t worry about snobby photographers who tell you that your compact camera or iPhone isn’t “good enough” — that you “need” a full-frame sensor, or a sharper lens.

I think as street photographers, we are in the business of capturing the quality and beauty of everyday life— rather than images with “high-quality” razor-sharp edge-to-edge sharpness and minimal chromatic abbreviation. Life is meant to be photographed, not brick walls.

My personal feelings

I plan to continue to shoot more urban-landscapes back home on my Hasselblad, as I like the meditative form of looking through the waist-finder, the slow process, and the 6×6 square-view. But it is quite impractical for travel, so next time I go on a big trip— I will just keep it at home.

But for my everyday life, I will continue to keep my Contax T3 ready in my pocket. I am even thinking of trying to do more portraits of my friends and family in black and white (digital) on the digital Ricoh GR (which I recommend everybody).

Resources

If you shoot with an iPhone, I recommend downloading the “Pro Camera” app — to pre-focus and choose manual exposures for street photography. Misho Baranovic has great tutorials online, I recommend reading: 10 New Tips How to Master Shooting Street Photography With the iPhone.

If you shoot with an Android (like me), sorry but we don’t have any good camera apps. Just shoot with the stock application, and post-process in VSCO.

Camera recommendations

Digital Camera Recommendations

If you have a big-ass DSLR and hate carrying it around, I recommend downgrading to a smaller cameras like the Fujifilm X100T, the Ricoh GR (for really compact), or if you want full-frame — the Sony a7s (video one, as it has a silent shutter). If you want really fast autofocus, check out the Olympus OM-D series.

Film Camera Recommendations

If you want a compact camera for street photography, I recommend the Contax T3 (if you want something small), the Contax T2 (best bang-for-the-buck), or the Ricoh GR1s (if you like 28mm). I recommend getting it through Bellamy Hunt (Japan Camera Hunter). You can contact him through his e-mail at hunts.of.tokyo@gmail.com (tell him I sent you), or phone +81 (0)80 5534 1977, or Skype: bellamy.camera

Concluding thoughts

Always have your camera with you (preferably in your pocket), shoot everyday as if it were your last, be happy, and capture beautiful moments. Don’t worry about pixels, worry about capturing life.

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