Street Photography: Gear and a bit on the Brain

Through time as I've gotten more exposure to my photography, I keep receiving questions about the gear I use and how to make these shots, so my thinking was that this subject would be a nice blog for this month...

Let me start with the easy one, gear. I started out with a Canon 60D, bought a Canon 17-55 f2.8, shortly after that a Tamron 24-70 f2.8 and a Canon L 70-200 f2.8 and thought I was good to go... After all, I've spended a shit load of money on super gear, so my shots will be awesome, right? Think again... Big big mistake... First of all it's plain idiotic to walk around the streets with 10kg of gear around your shoulder and above all very uncomfortable to say the least. Besides that, walking around with semi-professional large gear can be perceived as intrusive by subjects on the street. Often people asked me if their photo would be in a newspaper or something... Quick handling of compositions on moving subjects is also something to think about. In order to do that, I wanted a light weight camera which can be easily maneuvered in any direction.

Samyang/Rokinon 8mm Fisheye - Click to enlarge

Nowadays I use the Fuji X-T1, a Fujinon 14mm f2.8, a Fujinon 23mm f1.4 and very often the Samyang/Rokinon 8mm Fisheye f2.8. The latter is not for everybody, since you need to go very close to get the most out of this magical lens. I see shots which are taken with the fisheye and are cropped heavily afterwards. That way you do not get the most out of it... Using a fisheye requires understanding of it's purpose, which is intentional distortion and the distorted ratios between subjects and their surroundings. In the example here on the left you can clearly see the effect of the fisheye. In order to get that, one needs to bend over deep, right in front of the subject and point the camera in an approximate 35 to 40 degrees upwards angle...  When doing this, I shoot in a distance of about 50cm (2ft) of my subject.
 

 

People stare at me sometimes like I'm some kind of lunatic, but I don't really care about what people think of me in life in general. Especially in street photography I don't since I just want to make a good shot... Last week I got stopped by three cops asking me what I was doing and if I was shooting under women's skirts... Of course I don't and thats not even possible without sticking the cam in a 180 degree angle under their legs, but still... They told me I should ask if I go this close, but I know my rights and showed them the shots from that day on my cam. They moved on and so did I... But just be carefull shooting women wearing skirts in the spring or summer. Better not use this technique, since it can be understandably awkward for the subject and you.

Fujinon 14mm - Click to enlarge

The 14mm let's me shoot scenes from very close without distortions and is my favorite lens for more regular street shots. The example here on the right shows one of the results from that fantastic lens. The 23mm is for use in countries or cities where people are not that open minded to having their photograph taken on the streets and I feel more comfortable myself to keep a bigger distance. Although, with the 23mm a distance of 3 to 4 meters (9 to 12ft) is about it.

Besides this I use an ND filter sometimes. ND filters have only one purpose and that is to stop a big portion of light coming into your lens. If I want to shoot with a low shutter speed, the lens will stay open for a longer period of time and therefor my shot will turn out all white. The filter gives me up to 9 extra stops to handle that. Longer shutter speeds can be interesting to create motion in my shot. For this I use the Hoya Variable Density ND filter for which you can find more information here...

Mostly I've thought about it at home where I'm gonna take the shot, how I'm gonna take it and what I want to achieve. When the circumstances are right, I grab my tripod (I use a Manfrotto) and the rest of my gear, head up there and take a few shots. Never had a failure, ever. This gives me a great adrenaline kick when I get home. To be able to take the shot up front in my brain at home and go out and do just exactly that what I imagined is an absolute awesome experience! Below you can see one result  of using this filter which I combined with the 14mm lens I've just spoken about...

Hoya Variable Density Filter - Click to enlarge

A bit about the brain: "Vision is the Art of Seeing what is Invisible to Others" -Jonathan Swift

During a conversation I had about this blog's subject with my Facebook friend Mbzz Nowhere, he pointed me towards world & humanitarian photographer
David DuChemin with a very relevant quote:

"Gear is Good, Vision is Better".

The gear is just that: gear! It's a tool, nothing more... We photograph with the brain. It's all about perception. I've learned about technique, camera settings, bought expensive gear, but if one doesn't see it, one cannot photograph it. If I don't feel comfortable or am scared or whatever, my shots will suck. The eye is a 40mm lens, but it's the brain which projects the reality I experience. Through my two 40mm lenses my brain receives ten's of millions of bits per second, but only projects a few thousand bits. Telling someone how to see is very difficult. If I go out shooting the streets with someone and we shoot the same subject at the very same time by counting down, the results will be very different and so will the viewer's experience for that matter.

Then there's the left and right side of the brain. When I'm using the left side more, I intend to make rational non-intuitive images, when using the right side, I tend to shoot more spontanuous without any planning. Mostly I am a right brainer... When someone asks me why I took a certain shot, I have difficulty to explain. It's just intuiti on which preserved at that time. It's also that side I love the most. It's my creative side...

Some tips in developing the left side...

  • Explore the technical aspects of your camera;
  • Try to make an objectively image as possible from a person and describe to yourself later what that picture is all about;
  • Try different settings and write down what shot you did with which settings;
  • After you did the former, analyze your shots and be amazed by the different results it will get you.

Some tips in developing the right side...

  • Break the damn rules!
  • Take your chances with apertures and shutter speeds. If you think you need an aperture of 11, use a 3.6, if you think you need a shutter speed at 1/400 then use 1/8 of a second. and so on;
  • If you think you're close enough, get closer;
  • Over and under expose your shots all the time;
  • Try all kinds of angles, go way low, keep your cam way up high, keep it diagonal or whatever.

To conclude, I just want to add that my gear is not THE gear, but I like Fuji the most since it can handle very high iso values. I often use high shutter speeds, so a sensor that can handle high iso values to compensate for the lack of light comes in very handy for me. Fuji is the absolute best in handling high iso values. But Olympus OM-D, Ricoh GR series are also camera's I read very good reviews about. Hell, I see fantastic shots which have been made with a smartphone!

A shitty carpenter with great tools will create crappy furniture. A great carpenter with shitty tools will create great quality furniture...

Hope you enjoyed my latest. Next time my blog will be a bit more of a personal story about my wife Sandra and me shooting the streets together...

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Have fun!

Willem