Street Photography Articles
Obviously, any focal length will do in street photography and your creativity is really the only limit to how you perform with them. It is therefore not uncommon to see people hit the street with a 21mm, 28mm or even 75mm lens as their standard focal length. Nevertheless, the 35mm and 50mm focal lengths have traditionally been favorites of street photographers due to their versatility and ability to reproduce a field of view similar to the human vision. Many photographers, especially in reportage, actually do use both focal lengths (or have a zoom that covers both), yet they most often do have a preference for one or the other. Indeed, one is either a 35mm or a 50mm shooter.
So what kind of shooter are you ? Looking to buy your first lens for street photography or having doubts on your own preferences, here are some clues to help you to choose the focal length that will suit best your needs.
A) Distance to subject.
Unobtrusiveness is often key to street photography. How close can you get to your subject without being detected and therefore alter the course of a scene ? Evidently, the closer you approach, the bigger are the odds to be spotted. In street photography, most pictures are taken with the main subject located in the 1.5 to 3 meters range. This in turn means that the difference between a 35mm and 50mm focal length at these distances corresponds roughly to two steps. In other words, using a 50mm lens, you will have to step back two steps to get the equivalent field of view of a 35mm lens. These two steps don’t seem much, yet they make a whole lot of difference in some situations. Indeed, we all have a sort of comfort zone around us as we walk in the street. This zone varies depending on the situation and location. For example, you’ll face no issue to approach people within a meter in a busy shopping street, yet you’ll definitely have them feel insecure if you near them within 2 meters in a deserted park. In a urban environment, the two extra steps provided by the 50mm lens will often make a big difference. You’ll be able to keep enough distance to your subject so he feels that his comfort zone remains untouched. You’ll either remain unspotted or you subject won’t feel threatened by your shooting. For that reason, I think that a 50mm lens is a good way to start for a beginner in street photography. It allows you to take pictures of people without getting too close and let’s you time to learn how to interact with people.
Let’s say it straight away, there is not one focal length that is easier to work then the other one in terms of composition. Both can be very easy or very difficult. The 35mm focal being obviously wider, there will be more room to compose with. When viewing street photography pictures, I often feel one of the main issue is not the subject of the picture, yet what comes around it. Unorganized, irrelevant, disproportionate … are the terms that often come to my mind when looking at pictures taken with wide angles. This is often due to the empty space around the point of interest, as if the photographer was obnubilated by action and forgot to look around. Nevertheless, the 35mm focal length is great when you like to include a lot of the environment around your subject in the frame. It is also very handy in cities where streets are narrow (though 28mm is probably even better). The field of view of a 50mm being tighter, there are less elements likely to interfere in your frame. You don’t have to worry as much about secondary elements such as passer-bys, cars, or building walls. This makes it easier in some ways to have to concentrate only on a few critical elements. Yet, looking at it the other way, a 50mm makes it much more difficult to include the key elements in a tighter frame of view. You’ll have to either back off (which is not always possible) or take a different angle, which can be quite challenging. The result can often be cut heads, legs or feet or simply missing on one of the key parts of a scene.
C) Depth of field.
For a given aperture and distance, the shortest the focal length, the largest the depth of field. This is true to all camera systems, yet is especially important with large sensor (or film) cameras. Indeed, at 3 meters, a 50mm lens at F1.4 will have a 30 cm zone of acceptable sharpness while it will be double to 60cm with a 35mm lens at the same aperture. Even at F8.0, the depth of field of 50mm lens will be of 2 meters, while the 35mm will have be in focus for 5 meters. More practically, these numbers have three consequences. First it will be more difficult to get your subjects in focus using a large aperture on 50mm lens since the zone of sharpness will be very thin. Secondly and consecutively, you will lose shutter speed as you close the aperture to achieve a longer depth of field for a given ISO level. This will expose you to blur if speeds go below the 1/125th range. This evidently can be somewhat compensated by a raise of the ISO level, yet it is not always possible to change ISO’s as scenes often unfold very quickly (even more on film cameras for sure). Finally, 50mm shots with subjects situated on several planes will be more difficult to execute since it will be difficult to get a zone of sharpness covering all planes. As an example, if you first plane stands at 3 meters from you and the second one is at 7 meters, only a F16 aperture will get both of them in focus. Imagine the consequences on shutter speeds and image quality (diffraction) at such small aperture. Again, these numbers refer to a full format sensors, so these consequences will be felt to a lesser extend on cameras with smaller sensors and it will be a non issue on compact cameras.
A 35mm lens will induce more distortion then a 50mm lens. Not so much because of the lens intrinsic quality, but because a slight tilt of the camera will results in lines starting to converge. So if you like to take street portraits from very close, remember that a small tilt of the camera might distort your subjects faces, arms and legs. The same also applies for 50mm lenses, yet to a much lesser extend. The two pictures below illustrates this.
Fast wide angle lenses are more difficult to design, so in general, 35mm lenses will be more expensive than their 50mm equivalent. This is especially true at very large apertures such as F1.4.
After school in Parana – Leica M9 with 35mm Summicron IV at F8.0, 1/750, ISO200
So 35mm or 50mm ?
As you can see, there are both advantages and disadvantages to the use of these two focals. None of them stands as better then the other one. Ultimately, it will come down to your shooting style preference and your personality, so ask yourself the following kind of question might :
– do you like to get very close to people ?
– do you shoot mainly portraits of people in the street ?
– do your prefer large depth of field to blurred backgrounds ?
– do you live in an environment with narrow streets or a lot of wide open space ?
– or even, are you tall ? (it is my case, so mounting a 50mm means a lot of bending and kneeling down which is not always convenient)
If still undecided, you could evidently carry the two focal lengths along. I don’t recommend it though. Indeed, these focal lengths are close in field of view so it will be easier to make the two steps forward or backwards instead of losing time in a lens swap.
As for myself, I started shooting with the 50mm focal length and slowly started to drift towards the 35mm field of view. During this long travel, I simply find it more versatile for the variety of shots and locations I face. Also, I find it is usually easier to get closer to my subjects then to back off. Unless, as depicted in the picture below, backing off results a safer decision …
Gunner girl – Leica M9 with 50mm Summicron at F2.8, 1/500, ISO1000
In the city of Parana, the rescue team never stands up lazily looking at the horizon in a David Hasselhoff way. They even use the rescue boat to clean the beach after a night of storm. (click on picture to enlarge)
Leica M9 with 35mm Summicron IV at 5.6, 1/250, ISO200
This week let’s have a look at two pictures taken in two very photogenic cities of Europe : Amsterdam and my dear Paris.
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Untitled by Stig Hammerstam
Looking at the picture for the first time, I saw straight away that the dimensions were not the usual 24 x 36 one. In most case, it means that it is either a 4/3rd camera or it has been cropped. In the case of Stig’s shot, the EXIF data tells it was taken with a Sony A900 which is a full format DSLR. This basically means that Stig made some cropping in post-processing to adjust his composition. Some cropping is fine, but I personally prefer that whatever the crop, it keeps the original ratio. Not only will give more consistency to a series, but it will also help if you have plan to include within a book. This apart, the picture is well composed. It is cut in half diagonally and Stig made sure to include the end of the street, which gives a good impression of depth. The frames of the window as well as the poster girl does give a nice graphical composition. The elder woman is well positioned and it would have been difficult to take a better angle. Since Stig seems to have cropped his pictures, I would cut a bit of the poster frame on the right to leave out the very thin line of empty space. It would have also taken care of the very thin black line on the top right of the picture. These are details, but perfection is often in details. As for the very left part of the pictures, it is challenging to find a perfect cut of the words on the window without altering the rest of the frame. Note finally that the picture is slightly bent to the right, here again it could easily be remediated in post-processing.
Stig chose a black and white conversion that fits well this picture. Some highlights are slightly burnt but it would be difficult to avoid in such a shot. Overall the medium contrast works great in this picture. According to the EXIF data, Stig used a 50mm lens (or had a zoom positioned at that focal length). This is a classic focal lens and many street photographers strolled around in Paris with that focal over the last century. The picture is extremely sharp, prowess due to the high pixel count of the A900 and a good lens. Good choice also on the aperture since by setting his lens at F5.0, Stig ensured great sharpness on the whole field, but still allowed some blur to give some Parisian lyric mood in the background. My main advice on this shot would be to give a slight localized exposure increase on the elder woman face. It is slightly too dark and does not allow to have a good read on her expression.
Meaning / Mood / Feeling
This is a type of shot that I like to call “Trompe l’oeil”. In other words, it plays with your vision by providing key elements in unusual dimensions, perspectives or types of support. Stig did a smart juxtaposition of the poster girl with the elder woman, both in terms of age, but also quantity of hair. This shot is probably about youth and decay. Another secondary message could be about the cost of living in Paris. Indeed the woman has to bend to have a look at the prices and there is almost a feel of scare in her eyes. At the same time, the poster located above the price shows a woman that seems to be laughing.
Great composition and a good processing that could might be slightly be improved by recovering some of the burnt highlights. The message is clear and funny with a strong humanist touch. All in all, this is a classic Parisian street photography shot. A little exposure increase on the woman’s face together with a slightly tighter crop on the right and will be perfect. Congratulations.
Discover more of Stig’s photography by following this link.
“The sail dance” by Charles Janssen Schmidt.
First let me state that it has been a difficult shot to critique. On one side, there is something very likeable about it at first sight; there is movement, joy and a great B&W development. On the other side, mainly details soon jumped to my eyes that bothered me a lot. So let’s go through my systematic analysis and see what comes out of it.
Charles used a Leica M6 with a 35mm lens. Taking vertical shots with a 35mm lens from close distance brings up a big difficult which is to keep the vertical lines right.They do not always have to be perfectly straight yet in this case, both the boats’ masts andbackground buildings lean to the right. This is further exaggerated by the body position of the male dancer that also points in the same direction. This perfectly illustrates how our vision is often influenced by the first plane of a shot. In this case, the framing should have been done by keeping an eye on the lines of building in the back. This being said, Charles did a good job with the position of the camera by allowing a good feel of the setting of the action. We can clearly see that it was taken within a city harbour and probably at an event. I like the central position of the girl, she is the star of the picture. Too bad a guy succeed to stick his head in between of the arms of our happy dancers, but I’ll come back to it. I’ll also come back to the backpack laying the first plane, yet I think it should either have been excluded from the picture (not easy in this composition) or fully included. Same applies to the feet of the dancer.
This shot shows two things that I personally think ruin many 21st century photography. Backpacks and sneakers (or basketball shoes). They are not photogenic at all and it will completely take the glamour out of a shot. In Charle’s pictures we have 2 backpacks and two or three suspicious styles of shoes. I am obviously joking a bit, yet is shows one of the dilemna of street photography in some scenes. Do you favour its documentary function or do you want it aesthetically pleasing ? To me backpack ruin pictures (especially the Italians colorful ones), yet at the same time they are contemporary items and should not systematically be ignored. In some ways, the backpack in the first plane could have been left in the frame to give a sense of a little dance break. Yet I would have done everything to leave the one shown in the background because it is to me the key picture breaker. Another way to take care of it would be to use a larger aperture and blur the background, yet Charles probably set an aperture of F8-F11 to allow a read on any single details. As for the general look of the picture, there is the right amount of contrast, though I would simply put some more exposure time to the girl’s body. This is not that easy to do in the lab I guess. Finally, let’s mention the wonderful shape of the flying dress. Charles allowed a lot of dynamism in this shot by selecting a low shutter speed, great choice.
Meaning / Mood / Feeling
The meaning is crystal clear, that is a couple enjoys a dance in a harbor. The mood is happy, it seems to be an event where people are enjoying themselves. It is clearly a contemporary shot, the backpack and clothing leave no doubt about it.
The shot is dynamic and brings a sense of happiness. It is pleasing to look at and brought me smile, no doubt about that. It is a good document of life in our times. I am sure that 50 years from now, many people will look at it with a nostalgia look. “Where shoes and backpacks really this way back in 2010 grandfather ?” could very well heard in the future. Nevertheless, the guy looking towards the dancer in the background bothers me somehow. He breaks the union and at the same time his body posture doesn’t really introduce some sort of interaction with the couple. All in all, these kind of shots taken at events are always very difficult since so much is going on. It is complex to analyze every single detail and position them correctly. Using a large aperture is often the easy way yet it sometimes take key elements of a picture by blurring them. The only way to keep both the large depth of view and eliminate some of the unaesthetic elements would have to have come close and shoot upwards. (Sorry Charles, but I just can’t get my eyes out of that backpack ;) )
To discover more about this harbour series as well as Charles photography, click here.
On the piers of Santa Fe, a couple stares at the Parana River at sunset. Words to come, or already told ? (click on picture to enlarge)
I have just returned from my 3 days stay in Santa Fe. The weekly Critique-a-shot column will be posted tomorrow.
Leica M9 with 90mm Tele Elmarit at F2.8, 1/180, ISO800
The famous football Club named Rosario Central was actually named after a railway company. The original train station still exists and like the team currently stuck in the second division, that train seems to be going nowhere.
Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F8.0, 1/750, ISO200
As surprising as it might sound, there are street merchants in Rosario that sell exclusively eggs. He was a bit puzzled though when I asked whether he sold bio eggs too. A new business opportunity ?
Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F2.0, 1/350, ISO200
Interested in following a street photographer for a few hours ? Be it preparation, itinerary, shot selection, exposure settings, composition or interaction with subjects, this article describes and illustrates with pictures a full morning of shooting in the streets of Rosario. Click here or on picture to discover it.
Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux Asph at F2.8, 1/500, ISO200
When one travels on the roads of Argentina, he often see those old fabulous cars appear. All of a sudden, you feel transported in the midst of a Dukes of Hazzard or Starky and Hutch episode. Too bad there is no siren to put on the roof of our car. (click on picture to enlarge)
Leica M9 with 90mm Tele-Elmarit at F2.8, 1/2000, ISO200