One doesn’t go up to strange men, women, children, elephants or giraffes and say, “Look this way please. Laugh –cry– show some emotion or go to sleep under a funeral canopy.”
From Naked City, Weegee
“f8 and be there”, the great Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, used to say, which quickly became a popular quote in photojournalism, and still stands to this day. I personally live by this maxim. Being “there” is the most important aspect for street photography, being aware of one’s surroundings is paramount, quickness is key and total control of your gear an absolute must. Learn how your lens renders your scene, try to instinctively frame what you’re after – shooting the same (fixed) focal length at a time helps a big deal to master this task. I regularly rely on zone focusing and absolutely despise autofocus cameras, as I tend to find automatisms counter-productive on speed and on my creativity. The camera is my tool, and I control it, not the other way around.
Gary Winogrand experimented with different focal lengths, until he grew fond of the 28mm, which allowed him to get close enough to his subjects, yet this focal length allowed him to portray a person’s full body at close range.
The conventional conception of the wide-angle lens saw it as a tool that included more of the potential subject from a given vantage point; most photographers would not use it unless their backs were literally against the wall. Winogrand learned to use it as a way of including what he wanted from a closer vantage point, from which he could photograph an entire pedestrian from a distance at which we normally focus only on faces. “Figments From The Real World”
The 28mm FOV requires me to be right in your face and I consider a working distance of 6ft. -or less- ideal for a 28mm lens, and I’d use a 35mm lens at around 8ft. distance. A 50mm FOV separates the street shooter tremendously from the scene and detaches the photographer from his subjects, while a 28mm allows for the close-up, intimate look of my photographs that I’m after. Many times, people would stare at me, then at my camera and probably do not realize that they’re included in my frame, or by the time they may have realized, I simply vanished already… for all I know they don’t even care about my presence.
A 28mm gives me a 75° angle of view and is just wide enough to include some of the surroundings without much distortion and gives me plenty of depth of field for zone focusing and just the right amount of out-of-focus blur, at least on a full frame camera. The out of focus areas of medium reach lenses on small format cameras tend to look very unnatural and artificial to my eye and that’s probably why many of the popular 35mm and 50mm lenses are so highly corrected for bokeh and whatnot.
Contrary to common belief, the size of the camera does not matter much, nor does the brand, or the shutter sound, or the camera’s value – it is more about the street photographer’s attitude within his environment. Become invisible, wear an imaginary tinfoil hat at all times and participate actively in the scene without disturbing your surroundings. We are living in the moment to observe and to document a moment in time – we’re not after something that we’re not allowed to obtain in a public space. Ultimately it is in your mind what you want to achieve as a candid street shooter. Your radar needs to be on red alert at all times to tax your arena – something worthy to photograph may happen, something may require you to stick around, something may require you to walk away from scene, or you may just need to adjust your point of view.
I found that having my camera visible at all times is extremely helpful, as there are no unwelcomed surprises for my subjects at any given moment, and after a short while they would forget about my presence and my camera. I also try to raise the camera to my eye before I shoot, not only to us the viewfinder for composition, but more importantly to present my presence to the unassuming pedestrian, my soon-to-be-subject. When people ask me not to photograph them, I would oblige most of the time, or sneak in a hipshot, if I deem it necessary or possible at all. After shooting street for so many years, I shoot less and less without using the viewfinder – hip shooting has its merits, but the keeper ratio is pretty slim as is already and people tend to care less about you, if you present yourself confidently with the camera at point-blank.
A friend of mine once said “You walk around the streets as if you belong here” and that’s what I do… I belong to the streets and the streets belong to me, and no one can take that away from me. Walk around at ease, be on the move and observe, shoot, nod confidently -or smile- and walk away levelheaded, try to repeat this practice as often as you can and eventually it will become second nature, people care less than you think.
– get comfortable with your gear
– be aware of your surroundings
– get closer, yet stay courteous
Check out Markus Hartel’s work on his website and also follow him on Twitter!