The 60-second Street Photographer
You should be able to read this in 60 seconds. (I don't know about you, but that's about my average attention span.) Recently a friend of mine, on his way to Thailand, asked if I could point him to some blogs about street photography. They're all over the place - even on my own web site. But it prompted me to try to write a simple crib sheet for people wanting to take photos on the street, particularly in foreign places. Here's the short list.
- Be Ready.
- Protect your camera.
- Don't change lenses.
- Engage or Stealth.
That's pretty much it. And hey, it took less than 60 seconds, right? Now if you're curious to dig down a little deeper, I've put together a paragraph for each of those four points. Shouldn't take much longer than a minute or so. I promise.
That may seem obvious but here's the thing: even with point-and-shoot, you really need to be ready because things can happen fast on the street. I mean, it's not as if you have people actually posing for you, though there are exceptions (see #4). But in most cases, you won't have time to set your ISO, or your aperture and shutter speed, or even your focus point. Often the shot appears out of nowhere, and you just have to take it and hope for the best. I try to anticipate a situation by preparing before it actually happens. For example, I have two basic set-ups on my camera: Low aperture / minimal depth of field for portraits, and Slow shutter speed / high aperture for getting motion blur or for landscapes. I can switch back and forth between these two using the command dial, then zip up and down using a control rocker. And set your shutter to at least 5fps so you can get a bunch of photos if you hold down the release button. One of the reasons I prefer mirrorless cameras is that what you see is actually what you get, so I can easily adjust the exposure compensation with the second control rocker, as I shoot. Oh and don't forget - because I still do, constantly - turn on the camera, and take off the lens cap, before you have to shoot. Doh.
Protect Your Camera
Again, I know this sounds obvious but cameras are just so easy to snatch and can be converted into quick cash very easily. Cameras also advertise that you have money and, in most cases, that you are a tourist. So be careful. Don't be an idiot. Keep your camera well hidden. Try to use a small camera with small lenses. Again, my preference is for mirrorless because it offers the highest resolution 'per ounce of gear'. In most cases, my camera is not even visible until I need to use it. I keep it in the six-shooter equivalent of a holster: a diminutive sling bag that hugs my back but that can also slide around to the front when I need quick access. As I move into a 'shooting situation' I'll slide the bag to my front, unzip it, put my hand on the camera, and turn it on. It's then ready to come out of the bag at a second's notice. If I'm going to be shooting a lot, then I'll take it out of the bag and either hang it around my neck or just hold it in one hand - with the strap wrapped around my wrist.
Don't Change Lenses
Well you can, but it's just not easy or safe to do when you're on the street or in a crowded market. It's kind of like taking off your jacket: when it's half off, and your hands are both behind your back, that's when you're vulnerable. Seem paranoid? Ask anyone who's been ripped off in any big city. The other reason to not change lenses is, you'll probably lose the shot while changing - unless you can clearly anticipate the need for changing, in advance. This opens up a range of topics such as "which lens(s) shall I carry? What's my go-to lens?" That's pretty much up to what kind of street photography you enjoy doing. For zooms, the 24-70 (in 35mm terms) is pretty much the standard; great for casual and flexible shooting but zooms are large, even on mirrorless cameras. I like to use primes. The ideal street prime is a 35mm equivalent because it is wide enough to give you a bit of a view but without distorting it. It also works for group portraits. My favorite is a 40mm equivalent pancake prime. It's flat and friendly, incredibly sharp, and goes down to f'1.7. I supplement that with a short but strong telephone prime, in my case a 150mm equivalent. It's great for portraits and for stealth photography. How do I change lenses? I don't. I just carry two bodies, each with one of these lenses attached. Both fit into my sling bag and together both are still smaller than one 35mm kit.
Engage vs Stealth
This is related to the lens choice discussion and it's a question I ask myself so often. It's why I carry two cameras when I travel. Do I engage the subject and turn it into a posed situation? Or do I just shoot away and let people do their thing, preferably without getting in their way? They are completely different styles and I find that I move back and forth between the two. Obviously it's more fun to engage someone. This is fairly easy to do in most foreign countries; just snap a picture of someone, then show the picture to them on the camera's LCD screen. That usually gets them to smile, and I can take a second set of more seriously posed photos. The 40mm-equivalent is perfect for that because I can move the camera in and out, without having to depend upon a larger zoom lens. Stealth works great in crowds or when I'm just walking down the street and want to catch a couple embracing, or people playing cards or sipping coffee. The telephone prime allows me to stand far enough back so I'm not in anyone's face. With mirrorless, it's much easier to shoot in 'stealth' mode because I can pop open the LCD screen and shoot while looking down at the camera, which attracts less attention.
There's much more to street photography than that - and I'm learning all the time - but those are a few tips I'd recommend for anyone who might be interested.
Olympus OMD E-M1 paired with Panasonic Lumix 40mm f/1.7
Olympus E-M5 MII paired with Olympus 75 mm f/1.8 (I pair the telephoto with the EM5-II because it has a 'no-shock' shutter mode that snaps the photo a split-second after you press the button, which reduces camera shake and shutter shock, which in turn is more critical with a telephoto lens.)