Last tutorial I talked about the two main types of street photographer: Hunter or Gatherer. This time I’m going to go into the tools of the trade. My street photography kit is very different from my working kit in many ways; my usual working kit contains everything I think I’m going to need for a job, a lot of things I’ll probably need and many things I’ll never need but feel better for bringing. My street photography kit however is usually only about half of what I would like to bring on a given day. The reason for this is simple, on a job I have to be ready for any possibility I can think of and be prepared for the fact I didn’t think of everything. Less is more however when it comes to street photography; I could be walking around for hours so the less I’m carrying the better, and the fewer lenses I bring the less I’ll be inclined to focus on lens selection instead of watching whatís going on around me. There’s many reasons to keep your street photography kit small, which I’ll get into as I go, but first things first, lets talk about the foundation of any kit: your camera and lens(es).
There’s many great choices for the basis of a street photography kit, some people favour fixed lens rangefinders like the Olympus XA or Yashica Electro 35 others prefer an interchangeable lens kit like the Leica M or Contax G systems. In recent years there’s even been quite a few digital cameras released that are suitable for street photography; in the end, fixed lens or interchangeable, digital or film it doesn’t really matter but there’s certain features that will make your life much easier or significantly harder.
First biggy is manual contols. Being able to control and set your exposure settings and focus before you even lift your camera is a must in many situations. It’s true that autofocus can be faster than manual focus, especially in good light, but in low light when autofocus can hunt around to grab focus, a rangefinder is much faster and easier to focus. And faster than both auto and manual focus is not having to focus at all. One of the best tricks in the street photographers arsenal is preset focusing. Having a distance scale on your lens will make this easier, but the basic concept is to have your camera pre-focused at the distance where you expect your subject to be. Using as small an aperture as possible will give you a decent margin of error on your guess as well, giving you an entire zone of focus. Now you’ve got one less thing to think about when it’s time to snap a shot off.
Another important thing to look for in any street photography camera is ease and speed of use. Whatever camera you decide on, make sure it’s user friendly, there’s plenty of cameras out there that will take amazing shots but are really fiddly to use. Timing is absolutely critical in street photography; when you see a shot , you’ve often got only a fraction of a second to take it before it’s gone forever. If you have to spend time fiddling with buttons or menus, waiting for sluggish autofocus or shutter lag you’re going to loose the shot. Ideally almost all the technical aspects of a shot should already be dealt with before your finger even touches the shutter release.
I also recommend using fixed lens cameras, or primes on your interchangeable system; zooms are convenient at times, but they’re usually of lower optical quality, have more distortion and slow you down mentally. Zooms make you too comfortable; you stop thinking about position and framing and rely on your zoom to do your thinking and moving. They also slow you down physically; again, you have milliseconds to respond to a shot, if you have to zoom your lens you’ve lost time and possibly the shot. I recommend starting with one fixed focal length and learn it inside and out. Your goal is to get to the point where you can frame the shot in your mind, see what’s going to be inside and outside the frame without looking through the viewfinder. It takes practice, lots and lots of practice, but there are exercises that can speed up the process that Iíll talk about in an upcoming tutorial.
Most street photographers prefer their lenses on the wide side. Street photography is about capturing people interacting with their environment. Longer lenses tend to separate your subject from the background, cutting out the environment; go too wide and you run the risk of the opposite, too much environment, not enough people. The sweet spot most photographers fall into is between 20mm-50mm; Iím not saying itís impossible to use lenses outside this range, but those are the most versatile. Remember, you want to avoid switching lenses as much as possible, so you want one that can be used to frame any shot where you plan to shoot.
Lens choice will also be greatly influenced by your style: do you like to get up close and personal, or do you prefer to keep some distance. There are advocates of both schools but itís mostly a question of how comfortable you are shooting around strangers. I prefer the 25mm-35mm range, depending on where Iím shooting. I like my lens to be on the wide side so I can get fairly close to my subject, and the added DoF on the wider lens means I can keep everything the shot in focus. If youíre having trouble deciding on a lens/camera brand, model or focal length try browsing around Flickr; itís an amazing resource for researching what images are possible with the a piece of gear. Take a look at sites like Rangefinder Forum as well, thereí s tons of great online resources to pour over.
Finally, donít forget about ergonomics and usability. It can be very easy to lose yourself in reviews, lens sharpness charts and technical comparisons but at the end of the day you have to remember your camera is just a tool. No matter how good a tool is for a job in theory, if itís not easy to use itís going to stay in your bag or on a shelf at home. Make sure to give your potential camera a spin at the store, or better yet borrow one from a friend. Make sure the camera is comfortable to hold and your fingers fall naturally on the controls, Iíve got big sausage fingers and find some smaller cameras a PITA to use.
If you plan on shooting from the hip, make sure the camera is comfortable to use hanging from a strap. Cameras are designed to be held up to your eye and the controls are positioned for that. A lot of cameras are terrible hip shooters; either they donít hang nicely on a strap or their controls arenít positioned for easy access while hanging. Ideally you want the camera to hang with the lens pointing perpendicular to your body; many cameras hang with the lens pointing down or at an angle and itís going to look awkward and unnatural if you have to hold the lens perpendicular while youíre walking around. And pay attention to how the controls are laid out; make sure theyíre intuitive.
Ideally you should be able to operate the camera without looking at it, but especially with newer digital cameras, important controls are being buried in menus and touch screens. If youíre going to go digital make sure all the important controls are on an external button or control wheel and at the very least on the top level of an on screen menu. Thereís nothing worse than constantly fiddling with menus and controls; itís a left brain process that I find interferes with the right brain creativity you want to be focusing on, plus itís one more thing to slow you down and make you miss shots.
At the end of the day though, a camera is only as good as the photographer behind it. Donít try to get too caught up in the technical aspects at the start, itíll just take up time better used for creativity and will lead to a serious case of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Iíve seen amazing shots taken with a cell phone and Iíve seen people drop thousands on a kit expecting it to take great pictures for them. Skill, practice and creativity will trump gear any day of the week, so just grab a camera, get out there and shoot.