Street Photography Ain’t Easy

Posted on June 6, 2011 at 10:31 pm
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Update: after writing this post I spent a day and a half in NYC with K., on our way to MoMA and the fantastic BYE BYE KITTY!!! exhibit at the Japan Society. According to Google, we walked a ridiculous 9.6+ miles in 96 degrees heat. I spent this whole time zone-focusing and shooting from the hip belly. It wasn’t pretty but it’s doable in bright light as long as I can walk and place something that moves in the opposite direction within a 3 feet focus window in less than a second. So, by doable I mean a bit tricky, I have only one shot. Since I wasn’t looking at either the viewfinder or the LCD screen, I ended up with a lot of framing issues. I can re-crop easily out of my 5DMII’s 21MP, not so much out of 12MP. I can’t Photoshop missing heads either. I’ll post pics soon.

Tags: Fujifilm FinePix X100


  1. B says:

    1) Fun story.

    2) It’s great that, as you say, you are using the limitations of some equipment to further your experience. But I don’t understand how a smaller, lighter camera automatically translates into more spontaneity or, specifically, “captur[ing] such a moment, something genuine and emotional, close to the subject.” I’m at a loss as to how any choice of equipment makes a difference there.

    3) Peut-être tenir au loin sur l’épilation à la cire poétique sur la photographie de rue jusqu’à ce que vous avez fait un peu plus? ;)

    4) I wonder if you’re starting to realize why I’ve tried so many manual primes.

    Overall, fun stuff, looking forward to see what you do with this little bugger, I think you know by now I’m trying to hone my street chops as well but I’m going in an entirely different direction (thank you 430EX). Any approach is valid, it’s the results that count. Actually not even that. This should be fun.

    Anyway, you want links? I got some links. Try the Hardcore Street Photography group on flickr (better than the pool is the ongoing critique thread, I have had my ass handed to me there many a time), the La Pura Vida and Street Reverb sites (both run by Bryan Formhals, an HCSP regular, so this is a sort of concentrated slice of one street aesthetic so far), the excellent Street Photography Now book (Seb, you can borrow that from a close mutual friend) and SPN Project, and the 2point8 and Blake Andrews blogs (among many, many others). There are also a few great videos out there, check youtube for Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz, these are some rare views of them working, it’s amazing (though that time has sadly passed and is gone).

  2. Sebastien says:

    2) Let me help you find your loss :)
    a) to capture the moment, I need a camera. I was definitely not carrying my 5DMII on the street as much as I wanted, it’s… bulky. Or I need to work out. I carry the X100 pretty much everywhere nowadays.
    b) it has the potential to be more genuine because the X100 is more discreet, or at the very least less threatening. I’ve heard it looks like a $50 camera. That’s more a prediction than a fact though, I still need to muster some guts.
    c) I have to be closer to the subject by definition, I’m at 35mm.
    d) focusing systems have a big importance too; the X100 is not a range-finder technically but it does display a range scale, the estimated position of the focus plane in the that scale and its thickness, all in the viewfinder HUD. My 5DMII doesn’t.
    So yes, speed, size and lens are definitely equipment parameters that make a difference here. The 5DMII is just not a street camera. You’ve seen my trying to hold its 1.97 lbs with one hand (still talking about my camera here), the flash in the other, that was a failure. I don’t like the look of on-axis flashing so much and I have a tough time bouncing off the sky :)

    3) w00t?

    4) Nice try :) I still see no reason for me to use a prime if I can use a good zoom on my 5DMII, I’m already outside the “portable” range. It’s not my style, yo! The good L lenses are zooms. Actually that’s also to limit the bulk that I prefer non primes. The reason the X100 has a prime is because it’s tightly coupled to the camera. Slapping a zoom on it would mean discarding many other features (see DPReview for details). The other reason is that the X100 was designed and is sold as a street camera (will it succeed, dunno yet). Adding yet another parameter (zooming) could be a hindrance to achieve zone-focusing I guess.

    Thanks for the links and the feedback. I’m actually careful not reading too much too fast, but I will check it out. I believe that street photography had a golden age and it’s behind us (I may have to edit that comment one day). I want it to be spontaneous and not too exploitative (again, may edit edit that).

  3. B says:

    Disemvoweling? You lose.

  4. Sebastien says:

    Oh come on, I always wanted to try it once :) I restored that part.
    Chillax, it’s just photography.

  5. Matthew says:

    Man, not only in emails do y’all talk in reference to each other’s comments like that. Impressive.

  6. B says:

    Much cuter, unfortunately now people might make the mistake that I can write French.

    It may shock you to realize that there are street photographers using the 5D! Every camera is a street camera. Well, almost, maybe gum bichromate street photography would be tough.

    I’ll show you the distance scales on those manual primes sometime.

    Use what you use, but remember “not my style” is not the same as “doesn’t work”…!

  7. B says:

    We push each other :)

  8. Sebastien says:

    It’s actually really fun in French now. Yes every camera *is* a camera, I’m sure there are a few 5D street photogs, outliers (though, out of curiosity, show me?).

  9. ford says:

    I carry my 5DMII on the street. With a prime it really is much more portable ( I use the 35mm f2 most of the time). It is (5D) totally over engineered for the street, and harder to zone focus than just about any film camera. I do like the results though. The X100 looks really good, but the menu system sounds like a real bummer.

  10. Tim says:

    “I thanked Sir Charles Darwin for a second ”

    Perfectly succinct description of Caroline Street and surroundings on a Saturday night after 11:00pm. You certainly dived right in, didn’t you? Meanwhile, I give you credit for pushing your comfort level. This is a line that I have only balanced on, mainly with a 55-200mm lens that allows me to remain a safe distance away (and pretend that I’ve actually been taking a picture of the Honda Civic across the street). The moment of dread that comes with being discovered, and the fear of being called a “perv” or [insert expletive here] is probably a challenge for all budding street photographers. I even went so far as to buy this lens attachment as a way to ease in to the practice, but it is totally disorienting. I guess it’s either go all out or go home.

    I love the first pic. The confrontation was totally worth it! The look on her face is priceless, and the ensuing story is a photographer’s version of showing your battle scars.

  11. Sebastien says:

    Thanks Ford. Could you share your photos?

  12. B says:

    I don’t keep track too much of what people are shooting with, but for fun I thought I’d check the HCSP pool photos… and what do you know, the very second photo at the moment was taken with a 5DMII. Not hard to find! That group likes film quite a bit, so it’s probably even underrepresented there, but there’s another one in the first page right now, and another, oh, and one more, one from user “drityharry” who kicks some serious ass, here’s a 5D… that’s all just from the first page, so out of 60 photos. Outlier? Well since all the Lieca M2′s don’t have EXIF data, maybe! This isn’t considering the other DSLRs there too, again in the first page I saw 20D, 40D, 50D, a D200 I think, etc. And one from the x100 :)

    Not a scientific study or anything but I had a few minutes. It’s a fun pool, dive in.

    Again, what works for you works for you, reults are results. But there are plenty of people getting results with big, loud, ugly DSLRs. There relaly does not seem to be a “right” or “best” way which is where the beauty lies.

  13. Skippymarv says:

    Cartier-Bresson was amazing, a real innovator. It’s funny that you would make this blog post, because I have been thinking alot about this subject lately.

    I saw a video of a photographer who said “When you see the shot, it’s gone”, and the biggest challenge for me in street photography is snapping at the right moment. I am often simply not prepared at the moment I see the shot.

    One of the problems with telephoto (or a zoom adjusted to a telephoto length) is the perspective distortion. I think that many people do not take this into account.

    I do think that a smaller camera makes more sense. For me it would be a Leica M-6.

    An interview with HCB, if anyone is interested:

  14. Kristi says:

    I love this exchange: ““Are you a photographer?!”. Kinda. “YOU ARE A BAD PHOTOGRAPHER!!”.”

    Funny how people see things like the Kegs & Eggs video and yet still don’t understand that if they are in public, they can be photographed or filmed.

  15. Patrick says:

    or you could get one of these?

  16. B says:

    Whoops, looks my my C and V were off on one of those links. You get the point.

    I forgot, one of my more favorite flickr street photographers uses the 5DMII extensively too. Good stuff there.

  17. ford says:

    I should have said that I carry my 5DII everywhere. I would not pretend to be a “street photographer” these days. Back in the day I carried a Mamiya M6 or a Mamiya TLR. I had a friend who used an RB-67 on the street. That was too much for me.
    I once took a picture once of someone’s front yard. Before I knew it I was practically assaulted by a guy who thought I was taking a picture of his wrecked muscle car that was under a tarp. In reality I was interested in the color of the tarp and its play with the shadow on the neighboring house. I never noticed the car. I apologized, he wanted to take a swing at me but called the police instead. It ended peacefully enough.

  18. ford says:

    I neglected to say before that I have really enjoyed looking at your pictures.


  19. Sebastien says:

    Thanks Ford! I subscribed to your RSS., good name, you probably made the life of newcomer Flickr competitor a bit more difficult :)

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  1. [...] of people. If you follow my friend Sebastien, you’ve read that he’s trying his hand at street photography with some new gear. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while now also, in fact [...]