If you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to assess your gear, know what it can do (and what it can’t do) so you’ll be able to make it all work in crunch time. Let me lay out a few scenarios.
You have a cameraphone with crappy resolution. You might want to stick with bold shapes and simple designs. Capturing people may be pretty impossible, but if they’re brightly lit and standing still, the slim portability of your phone can work to your advantage. Then again, cameraphones are getting better and better, and are already beginning to replace point and shoots.
You have a digital point and shoot. These are the best cameras for getting started. First, make sure that all the beeps (focus beep, shutter beep) are turned off. Second, turn off that auto-focus beam that your camera throws out when you press the shutter halfway down. It’s a common feature, and for street photography, it’s pretty unnecessary. Third, check out this article about Magnum photographer Alex Majoli, who uses advanced digital point and shoots to get great shots in the field.
The article discusses most of the ins and outs, but for the sake of being repetitive, I’ll share a few I’ve picked-up. You can use your digital camera in much the same way Winogrand and Bresson used their Leicas. If you’re shooting in sunlight, set your camera such that the aperture is always around f11, for a wideish depth of field. If you can prefocus the camera, set it so that it’s focused on a spot about a meter away from you. You’ll be able to photograph people between a meter and ten meters (or more) away.
One great thing about point and shoots is that (like Bresson’s Leica) they have very quiet shutters. You won’t be broadcasting to the world that you’ve just taken a photo. I’ll get into this in #6, but there are plenty of ways to take pictures without looking like you’re taking pictures (if you’re into that, or for when you find yourself in a situation that requires stealthiness). By setting your camera at f11 and prefocusing, you’ll be cutting down on shutterlag as well.
Most important, make sure your flash is off. That is, unless you want to be purposely shooting people with flash. Just make sure the flash isn’t going to auto-turn-on when you least expect it.
Try some test shots at the different “qualities” of jpg to see how fast your camera responds. With a digital point and shoot, you can set the thing on burst mode (recommended by Majoli) and get away with it, because it’s silent.
You have a digital (or film) SLR. The best thing about these cameras is that they’re fast; they’re quick to focus and calculate shutter speeds. You can pretty much set the camera on aperture priority and roll. You’re not locked-into f11, you can try shallower depth of field (and AF Servo, if you have a Canon) if the light is strong.
That said, when I’m shooting in the street, I tend to set my camera in a way that mimics a meterless film camera. It’s a personal preference, but if the light’s fairly constant, I like to use a handheld light meter, set the camera on Manual, and choose my own settings. This complicates things, but I like to complicate things. It also feels more like photography, rather than poaching. It also gives me a leg-up when I switchover to film cameras.
One of the biggest potential problems with digital SLRs is their bulkiness. When you raise it to your face to take a picture, a few things happen. They’re so large that they cover your entire face, and you become this myopic creature – a big lens-faced head. Some people like to “hide behind” the lens, but for me, the less time I have that thing in front of my face, the better. When it’s not in front of your face, you’re a person with a camera; when it’s in front of your face, you’re a person who’s “taking” something; a photography machine, of sorts. Keep it human, if you can.
Another example: by having a honkin’ SLR in front of your face, you’re kind of like a sailor in a submarine. You’re existing in a periscoped world. Yes, you’ll be able to spend more time composing the shot and waiting for the perfect moment, but it’s hard to know what’s coming from your left or right, or behind you, especially. I prefer anticipating the scene by keeping both eyes open, with the camera in my hands.
I recently saw a film that showed Garry Winogrand photographing on the streets of Los Angeles. He had his Leica in front of his face for the amount of time it took for him to compose the shot and click the shutter. The rest of the time, the camera was hanging around his neck and he was grinning like a big bear. If you’re going to model yourself on an example, Winogrand’s approach might be a good one to follow.
You have a medium format something or other and only shoot in the studio. Take your camera off the tripod and walk outside, man. Welcome to the world. ; ) There are many great examples of photographers who are doing great street photography with medium-format cameras. Martin Parr uses an old Plaubel and a Mamiya 7, Brian Ulrich uses available light, and as far as I can tell, Wojtek Wieteska shoots med-format as well.
You have an old rangefinder my grandma gave you. Great, you’re in business. Load that thing with some Tri-X, set it to f11 for 250th of a second and go take a walk. You have a small camera with a quiet shutter that doesn’t take-up your entire face. Silence and size. You have everything you need to take good street pictures.
A fantastic thing about using a rangefinder on the street is that you can hold it up to your right eye (and with practice) be able to have your left eye open to see the wider scene around you. Tell your brain to look through your right when you need to focus or compose, and then you switch to your left (or both) to get a wider view on what’s going on. Here’s a picture of Zana Briski shooting this way. All she has to do is open her left eye when she’s done focusing.
Another rangefinder plus is that they tend to come with fixed 35mm lenses. A 35mm lens necessitates being close to the subject. When you’re close to the subject, you’re engaged with the scene. Traditionally, street photography is not the domain of the zoom lens (or lighting rigs, Dicorcia aside), so the closer you are to the action, the better. (For more on this, see “telephoto is for cowards“.)
That said, you don’t need a Leica to be a good street photographer. Carolyn Anna Hall at UrbanMusings uses a Contax rangefinder. Other than the Epson, there are no digital rangefinders at the moment, so they’re all film, all the time. To save $$$, take a look at Bessa.
You don’t have a camera yet, but you like street photography and want to start. If you have access to a computer (you do) you’re in a great position to start-out with a digital point and shoot. Prices have never been better, selection is great, and you don’t need anything totally advanced. 4 or more megapixels should work just fine. A used digital camera would work fine, too. Take a look at Canon’s Powershot series (I really liked the s50.) Just get one and get out there and get started.
Here’s a list of what we’ve discussed, and what’s to come: