Learn From the Masters: Lesson #1 Get Closer

Hey streettogs, I’m starting a new book on a distillation of all the “Learn from the Masters” articles I’ve written. I hope these daily lessons can inspire you, I know they inspired me!

© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. SPAIN. Cordoba front. September, 1936. Death of a loyalist militiaman.

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” – Robert Capa

One of the common mistakes that many beginning street photographers make is this: they don’t get close enough.

We have many fears and provide a lot of excuses for not getting close enough in our street photography. We are worried about pissing people off, we are worried about making other people feel uncomfortable, and we are worried that strangers might call the cops on us (or even worse, physically assault us).

However realize that this is all in your head. By getting closer to a stranger, you won’t die. In-fact, I have learned that in photography (and life), with physical proximity comes emotional proximity.

It isn’t enough to use a telephoto or zoom lens to get “close” to your subject. That is fake intimacy. By using a telephoto lens, you are treating your subjects like zoo animals, and your photography is a safari hunt.

However when we read the quote from Robert Capa on closeness, it doesn’t necessarily mean physical proximity. You can be physically close to your subject, and still emotionally distant. The most important thing as a street photographer is to empathize with your subject and try to connect with them, their emotions, feelings, and condition.

In street photography I generally recommend using a 35mm lens (full-frame equivalent) for most photographers (Alex Webb, Constantine Manos, and Anders Petersen shoot with this focal length). The human eye sees the world in around a 40mm field-of-view, and I find that shooting with a 35mm lens gives you enough wiggle-room around the edges of the frame.

A 50mm is fine too (Henri Cartier-Bresson was famous for using it for nearly his entire life), but in today’s crowded world, I find it to be a bit too tight. A 28mm is fantastic too (William Klein, Bruce Gilden, and Garry Winogrand have used this focal length), but realize that you have to be close enough with this lens to fill the frame.

As a rule-of-thumb, I try to shoot with a 35mm at least two-arm-lengths away (or closer). 2 arm-lengths is 1.2 meters (around 4 feet). Therefore I always have my camera pre-focused to 1.2 meters, set at f/8, ISO 1600, and I simply go out to find moments to shoot.

The .7 Meter Challenge

NYC, 2015

To truly get comfortable getting closer to your subjects, try this assignment from my friend Satoki Nagata: For an entire month, only take photos of your subjects from .7 meters (1-arm-length). For this assignment, switch your camera to manual-focusing mode, and tape the focusing mechanism of your lens to that distance. By setting yourself this “creative constraint,” you will learn how to better engage your subjects and get them comfortable with you shooting at such a close distance.

Start off by asking for permission, then once you feel more courageous, start shooting candidly.

You can read more on the .7 meter challenge here.

Shooting street photography with a telephoto

You don’t always need to shoot with a wide angle lens. Some of the greatest street photographers have used a longer lens, such as Saul Leiter, Tony Ray Jones, and Rene Burri. They used long lenses intentionally to compress their backgrounds and make unique images. However their images still have emotion and soul to them, as they caught moments of the “human condition.”

Ultimately use the lens and focal length which suits your personality. But if you’ve never tried shooting wide and getting physically close in street photography, I recommend you to try it out, and push yourself out of your comfort zone.

5 thoughts on “Learn From the Masters: Lesson #1 Get Closer

  1. Hi Eric,
    It is a fantastic idea to come up with a book on learning from the masters. Congratulations for thinking this up and starting it! I wish you luck and godspeed. This article is also good, although, I shudder at the prospect of doing this 0.7 mtr thing.

  2. Gear question! I don’t want to get into the Gas trap, so I’m constraining myself to two cameras (M4P, MDa) and three lenses (a 35 for each body plus a 75 in the bag)

    I’m set on the 75, (I know what I like in that length, I use it a lot) but I’m not used to shooting at 35mm and so I’m a little warier about the choices. You used to recommend the Skopar 35 PII, now you recommend the Nokton – I heard there were issues with the focusing on this, which unnerved me on a fast lens…

    I’d like to shoot low-light if I can, do you think the focus issues are ‘ok’ on the nokton? It’s either the Skopar and a 35 Elmar, or the Nokton and Skopar if you think it’s good enough!

  3. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” (Robert Capa)
    “But if you’re too close to the grindstone, you lose perspective.” (Micha Bar-Am)

    I think it’s important to point out that Capa’s famous pointed remark doesn’t mean that you allways have to be as close as possible to your subjects to get good pictures, only that you often will benefit from getting closer. If it’s all about being embarassingly close, it may suddenly be more about portraiture, faces, than about situations, context, composition, moods or storytelling. That’s why Winogrand (as cited by Garcia) probably was on to something.

  4. Just a by the way -apparently some authorities think the above photo is a set up as they apparently have identified the mountain range in the distance and so this means it was nowhere near the front ??

    I think the business of getting in close has it’s merits but I like to shoot from a little further away and use a 50 mm lens not a 35 as my normal everyday lens on the street. You can have some nice observed moments with less tension using a 50.
    I never use zone focus and always manually focus -though I know you can use zone focus to great effect. So each of us has a style -but learning how other photographers work is always interesting -so thanks Eric for the post

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