“GIVE HER YOUR CAMERA OR I’LL RIP YOUR FACE OFF!” is how I will remember my first foray into digital street photography a few weeks ago. Strong words, yelled squarely at my face by the gentleman above, a short instant after I took this photo. Granted, I did make a newbie mistake that sent my new camera flashing not once but three times at the young couple. There was no denying from there: I had, indeed, taken the picture and my only claim to fame for the night is that I brought them back together to face a common, evil enemy. A goddamn photographer.
Why this instant? Let me backtrack for a second. I have been toying with the idea of leaving my heavy Canon 5D Mark II DSLR at home for some time now. It’s not you, Canon, it’s me. I love you dearly but carrying 5 pounds of gear is getting a bit old. No, I didn’t just call you fat. I am longing for more mobility, more spontaneity, a much smaller tool I can whip out at any time to capture the right moment. The photos above and below are far from great but they capture such a moment, something genuine and emotional, close to the subject.
There is no such thing as the perfect camera but my gut feeling is that a new set of constraints would push me out of my comfort zone and help me grow as an amateur photographer. Most importantly, I hoped it would bring back the fun. Or punches to the face, either way. I’ve been taking pictures with this new camera for almost two weeks now, it is too early to say if it’s the right match but I’m enjoying this new-found freedom. The new kid on the block is a Leica M9 a Fujifilm FinePix X100, a small 12MP range-finder style camera with no zoom and no interchangeable lens. It sports a very solid but inconspicuous $50 retro look, a high quality 35mm lens and a beautiful viewfinder. It performs well in low light and is almost completely quiet. Lady Xaxa, as I nicknamed it, is pretty sexy for sure but it’s also one very freaky camera. More on that in a few weeks.
Saratoga Springs, that Saturday night after 1am, was a zoo. Hordes of drunks, frat boys and scantily clad teenagers were hard at work acting as incoherent as humanly possible. Mission accomplished, for the most part. K. and I were on our way back from a beautiful wedding on the lake when I suggested we stop for a doughboy at Esperanto. We cut through the crowd on Caroline St. and sat on a bench nearby to enjoy the meal and the show. I thanked Sir Charles Darwin for a second and turned on my X100 to grab random testing shots. I noticed a group of kids coming our way. A couple stopped a few feet from us to exchange drunk arguments. I pointed the camera and *ZAP*, the blindingly-bright autofocus illuminator aid kicked in, quickly followed by two flashes. A deer in the headlights, except I was the deer.
“Did you just take my picture?!” she asked, as I was cursing myself for not turning off my stupid flash. “DID YOU?! Are you going to publish it?! I WILL SUE YOU!”, she added. I was saddened she had confused simple douchebaggery with unlawful use of a deadly camera but I’ve to give her credit for the quick thinking. In a world where fake celebrities and clumsy politicians send nudie pics left and right, she seemed well aware that photos travel fast. Remaining calm, I tried to explain to her that no, she was certainly not going to sue me, and yes, it’s “OK” to take photos of people on the street. I discarded the I-love-taking-pictures-of-Saratoga-cabs defense. Meanwhile, K. was still munching on her pizza, a firm sign of support.
“GIVE ME YOUR CAMERA!” ordered the girl. I wasn’t going to give away Lady Xaxa so soon and the sheer insanity of the X100 menu interface would not have helped my case. I honestly don’t know where her boyfriend had been all this time but he suddenly popped back to utter the now classic “GIVE HER YOUR CAMERA OR I’LL RIP YOUR FACE OFF!”. He ran away as quickly as he had come back; I’ve no clue why but it was anti-climatic, sir. Working on my best apathetic look I was still trying to defuse the situation with the young lady. One of her friend came to the rescue, urging her to move on. She walked her a short distance away and came back for the kill. “Are you a photographer?!”. Kinda. “YOU ARE A BAD PHOTOGRAPHER!!”. Burn! Looking at K.: “Is this your girlfriend?”. Now at K.: “Is this your boyfriend?”. Munch, munch. “YOUR BOYFRIEND IS A PERV!”. End scene.
Street Photography ain’t easy and I’m only poking at it. I wasn’t really at risk here, I wasn’t taking pictures in the streets of Lybia, correct? I saw a situation in development and thought something decisive could happen. It didn’t, really, but one has to try. Your subjects are everywhere and here you are, trying to extract the less-ordinary out of the ordinary. I want to remain respectful and candid but it is difficult to explain that my interest in taking this photo is the very situation that made this young woman upset. The emotional weight, the feelings between her and her boyfriend. Asking for permission would just ruin it, not that I was successful anyway here. I like taking pictures of genuine “happy” situations, I had done just that the whole day and again not so long ago, but I find sincerity at the other end of the spectrum too.
Pictured above, two performers posing outside the old Planned Parenthood building in Albany, on First Friday. If you are interested in street photography there is a ridiculous amount of material to study and street photographers to discover. I’m not going to delve too much into luminaries like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, or William Klein, it’s already embarrassing to associate their names with this post. Closer to us, I would suggest you rent Bill Cunningham New York, a playful documentary I saw recently at Spectrum 8 on the life of fashion and street photographer for The New York Times, Bill Cunningham. Being a charming, witty 80-year-old man on a bicycle plays a big part in not getting into tricky situations. Even closer to us, I like to follow the work of Peter Carr online at Vanilla Days.
So what makes digital street photography technically different? Why does one need to spend $10,000 to achieve what film cameras have been able to do for decades? Focusing, in my opinion (Update: no, Sebastien, that was probably framing). I’m not arguing an out-of-focus picture is a bad picture because that’s simply not true, a great capture can easily trump the worst technical deficiencies. A commonly used focusing technique for street photography is zone focusing — setting a fixed focal distance and shooting from that distance — as an alternative to autofocus. Zone focusing facilitates shooting “from the hip” i.e. without bringing the camera up to the eye (source: Wikipedia). Essentially, this amounts to setting the Depth of Field manually and sticking to it, also known as “mad skillz”. The DOF is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image (illustration here and here). This region is somewhere in front the camera and moves as you move. Provided that you can estimate the distance to your subject quickly and intuitively, you can place yourself in a position that will ensure your subject is in acceptable focus. Easier said than done at this point for me. Above, friend Karen, below, Jessica, on the street.
One of the issue with this focusing in general is that the depth of this field is correlated to the lens focal length and a setting called the lens aperture, which dictates how much light lands on your sensor. Think of it as controlling the water flowing out of a garden hose. As you open your lens wider to transmit more light, down goes your DOF. Placing a subject 20 feet away within an acceptable focus plane that is a few inches thin becomes black magic (your mileage and favorite distance may vary of course, see footnote for nerdery). You can’t have your cake, take a picture of it, and eat it too. To take good photos at night with no flash, you need to open your lens wide and suck all that precious light in, which constrains your focus plane. Opening wide is also an artistic choice, as it helps achieve a blurry background (the bokeh) and isolate your subject in the scene. These are physical/optical limitations that are difficult to work around and require a lot of practice. “Meh.”, says the guy who takes perfectly good enough snapshots with his camera phone. A valid argument.
Large pro- and semi-pro cameras like my Canon 5D Mark II can autofocus very quickly, even in the dark. Unfortunately, they are heavy and not the very least discreet; even from the safe distance of a long zoom people have an uncanny ability to feel “aimed at”. That might also be true if there is a big 6’3″ French guy behind the camera. Shooting without a zoom forces me to “work” the distance to my subject, to move and interact more. I do not think it’s the “one and only” true way to capture a subject but this aspect is certainly emphasized in street photography in my short experience. How does the X100 behave in that respect? It’s a mixed bag. There are 4 or 5 different focus techniques, none of them is perfect and many get in the way. Manual focus, unfortunately, is hampered by slow controls. This problem will hopefully be fixed by firmware but doesn’t preclude zone focusing. The X100 a quirky beast but I can sense a good companion to my 5DMII. I walk in my neighborhood on a daily basis and I found myself grabbing the smaller camera each and every time this week. When in doubt, take a picture of a puppy and make a blog about it.
Footnote: my favorite math-challenged friend B. was quick to point out that no, the DOF is not “a few inches thin” at 20ft away. He is right. It’s technically about 4ft at f/1.4 with my 50mm on the 5DMII, 8ft with at f/2 on the 35mm equiv. X100, 13ft at f/2 with a 35mm on the 5DMII. That’s the *DOF*, the area where objects appear acceptably sharp and I used “focus plane”. While the focus plane is infinitely thin strictly speaking, I meant the sub-region of the DOF that is sharp to me. I know for certain (and he does to) that when I take a picture of a performer at a concert venue I do not expect 4ft to be acceptably sharp at f/1.4. At all. Granted, you see the subject, it’s not a blob of pixels but focus on his nose for kicks (or his mic, accidentally) and you will notice his ears are not sharp. Is it an issue? It’s up to you and your ear fetish. This is really dependent on what you do with your photos. My buddy doesn’t mind the occasional blurriness and his photos are 600px on his blog. I like to peep at pixels and print big. Different requirements and as I said earlier, a good photo can be blurry. Be conservative with your DOF and make peace with what’s not razor sharp is my take on this. And splitting hair in 8.
Tags: Fujifilm FinePix X100