by Stephen Michael Garey
Street shooting is to photography what blues, jazz and rap are to music: It’s the soul side of picture taking, a recognized artform that strives to capture aspects of life that the average snapshot photographer might overlook or even avoid: real people living real life in their natural habitat.
Some of our most honored and cherished images fall within the category of Street Shooting. And many—if not most—of these timeless, treasured glimpses into the human condition are far less-than-perfect examples of technically great photography. There are the blown highlights; people out of focus; there’s visible grain, strange color casts and deep dark shadows devoid of detail.
But none of this has ever been important or even noticed. What comes through, always, is a fleeting, often rare moment in time, a moment captured by a street shooting photographer who happened to be there, at the right time, with the right gear and a street shooter’s eye.
Street shooting leaves little to no room for preparation. Whether walking or strolling about one’s home town or while on vacation in some remote land, the street photographer sees the scene or situation and, suddenly, there’s a permanent record of it. And as if the difficulties and complexities of a spontaneous reaction combined with speedy shooting weren’t enough, rarely is the available light, contrast, shadows, color and the people involved even remotely close to perfect. In fact, this kind of shooting presents monster-sized challenges not only to the photographer but to any camera or lens of any type or class.
Comfort is #1.
Successful street shooting requires comfort on several levels, not the least of which is feeling comfortable with what you’re wearing. This is often overlooked, but it’s vitally important. Clothing that’s inappropriate to weather conditions or the surrounding environment, clothing that restricts movement, clothing that makes you stand out unattractively, etc., will eventually take its toll on the quality of your shots. Loose fitting, earth-toned clothing with easily-accessed pockets is usually best. Much, of course, will depend on where you are and the time of year. Rule of thumb: dress for the weather, for freedom of movement and dress conservatively. And don’t forget comfortable shoes! Wear shoes that are absolutely up to the task and that truly fit your feet.
Comfort is also a key factor in selecting your gear. We discuss the technical aspects of the gear below. But even a perfect camera, technically, is of little value if it doesn’t feel right in your hands. If your fingers can’t easily and quickly reach the important controls, if the lens/camera combination feels too heavy or too light or feels improperly balanced, your shots are going to suffer. Even the absolute best camera and lens may be less important than an unobtrusive camera and lens that you have mastered and can control intuitively.
Let’s get past the basics right away. An ideal street shooter’s camera should be:
• Modest in weight (notice we didn’t say “light”)
• Modest in size (notice we didn’t say “small”)
• Quick and quiet in operation
• An optical viewfinder camera (as opposed to shooting with a camera that has an electronic viewfinder or only allows you to use an LCD for composition & focus)
Weight is an obvious factor because you’re going to be carrying it around all day, perhaps for several days. Tire of the weight and you’ll tire of shooting.
Size is a factor because you want to be as unobtrusive as possible. The larger the camera (and the longer the lens) the more a situation is altered by the “introduction” of the gear into the scene. When and where people are involved — and with street shooting they usually are — expressions and demeanors almost always change when people see a large, professional-type camera with a long, long lens. With a smaller, modest camera, they still might glance your way, but they’re more likely to return their eyes and attention to what they were doing … to the things that drew you to the scene in the first place.
In the days before digital, the film camera of choice for so many street shooters was the rangefinder camera. The primary reason: the quieter shutter and smaller size of the rangefinder. But no rangefinder offers the lens flexibility of a modern SLR, and all are manual focus, therefore slower in use than a fully automatic camera.
Why is an optical viewfinder so important?
There are three, primary methods of viewing and composing the scene or subject with a digital camera: optical viewfinder, electronic viewfinder (EVF) and Live View using the camera’s LCD.
EVFs are mostly found in what are called “bridge cameras,” SLR look-alikes with a fixed lens instead of a lens mount that allows lens changes. As good as some of these cameras are—and some of them are very good, indeed—they’re not SLRs and don’t allow you to see directly through the lens. Instead, you view the scene via a small tv camera, with distracting distortions and slow reaction time to changes in light.
The image seen through the majority of EVFs is less than acceptable under high contrast or dimly lit situations. Most EVFs also tend not to track subjects well when the photographer is either panning or moving towards or away from a subject. The color generally isn’t accurate, either. Simply put, even the best EVFs don’t allow you to accurately see what you’re actually photographing.
Live View, a new and interesting trend in digital SLRs, allows you to use the camera’s LCD as a viewfinder, just like you would with a point-and-shoot. But it’s not particularly useful for street shooting. First, it mandates that you hold the camera away from your body … the least stable position imaginable for taking crisp, sharp pictures, particularly at low shutter speeds. Second, using the LCD doesn’t isolate the scene or your subject from your field of view. Separating the scene from its surroundings is important not only to composition but for complete concentration on the task at hand. Live View certainly benefits landscape photography, portraiture and other disciplines, especially when a tripod is being used or when using manual focus lenses. But for precise, rapid street shooting, a quality optical viewfinder is essential.
Fortunately, all dSLRs have them.
Crop cameras like the Canon 50D or T1i, Olympus E-520 or E-420 and Nikon D300 or D90 seem to fill the bill quite nicely; better, in our view, than their larger, full-frame counterparts due to smaller mirrors and therefore measureably quieter shutters. But if a full frame camera is a must-have for whatever reason (including how the camera feels in your hands), the choices for full frame, though limited in number, are all excellent and include Canon’s 5DMkII, Nikon’s D700 and Sony’s A900. It’s still very important to keep in mind that full-frame dSLRs are heavier and louder than crop cameras, with the big pro models like Canon’s 1DsMkIII and Nikon’s D3x being the heaviest of all.
Beyond the basics of size, weight, etc. already mentioned, there are several other technical aspects that need to be satisfied. Noted at the beginning of this article is the fact that the moment of capture for the street shooter is almost always less than ideal. This is worth repeating: the moment of capture for the street shooter is almost always less than ideal. And there’s not much one can do about it. Flash is out of the question nor can one wait for the light to change since, by that time, everything else will have changed as well. Nothing can be re-arranged. Nothing can be moved out of sight. With street shooting, the scene is the scene, the people are the people, and one has to make the best of it or, more accurately, the camera has to make the best of it. Additionally, there is the speed with which the camera (and photographer) must react.
This all means:
• A camera with instant turn-on from sleep mode (or from Full Off)
• A camera with low or non-existent shutter lag
• A camera with fast, accurate auto-focus even in dim light
• A camera with a reasonably fast frame rate in continuous shooting mode
• A camera with excellent high ISO performance
• A camera with good-to-excellent dynamic range
• A camera that performs well in full-auto mode
The majority of today’s dSLRs will meet these requirements, some better than others, some excelling in one aspect or another. The Canon 50D, for example, offers a frame rate of 6.3 frames per second, a speed nearly as fast as one of Canon’s pro models of just a few years ago, and more than twice as fast as its smaller brother, the Canon 450D/XSi. The Nikon D300 is the rapid fire king of crop sensor cameras at 8 frame per second, again about double the speed of the D90. Modern dSLRs are also equipped with much-improved processing engines compared to earlier designs, allowing the photographer to set the camera to Full Auto if necessary and shoot quality, high resolution JPEGs.
Guiding your selection of camera should be the fact that all of the criteria mentioned here are important to successful street shooting. This doesn’t mean you’d necessarily have to purchase the fastest camera in the world, but it does mean you need to avoid the slowest. And it doesn’t mean you need a camera that has no noise at ISOs 800 thru 1600 (or higher). It means you should look for the camera that has low noise at these ISO settings — noise that’s well-controlled, fine-grained and can easily be handled in post-processing.
Selecting a lens for street shooting is a little less complicated than selecting a camera, mainly because there are fewer criteria and, secondly, because the majority of lenses made today are pretty darn good, even when shooting wide open.
The ideal criteria are:
• Speed: your lens should open to f/2.8 or wider
• Modest weight
• Modest size
• Excellent auto-focus speed and accuracy
• Low zoom ratio (3X zoom maximum)
Some might say we should add Sharpness & Good Contrast to the list, but I can’t agree. First, there are too many variables. Among them: sample-to-sample variations, factory calibrations that are slightly off the mark, lens/camera interaction, etc. Sharpness & contrast are also subjective to a certain extent. How sharp are we talking about? What degree of contrast? And finally, what lens made today isn’t sharp? Most are; perhaps not at their widest apertures, but certainly when stopped down to f/4 or so. Even at f/2.8, f/2.0 and f/1.4, the center sharpness of modern lenses, particularly primes, is almost beyond reproach. (For more insight and discussion about this somewhat controversial topic, Click Here)
The “right” focal length for a street shooter’s lens is another area of some controversy. Some say a street shooter’s lens should be no longer than 50mm (35mm equivalent) and that a lens like the Canon 16-35 f/2.8 is ideal, particularly on a crop camera. Others suggest longer lengths in order to be somewhat removed from the subject matter, resulting in a “more desirable,” totally candid capture. Some suggest carrying both.
I tend to agree with the latter, except I would recommend a small, light and excellent lens like Tamron’s 17-50 f/2.8 on the wide end and a small, light prime like Canon’s 100mm f/2 for the long end. Another tele-option for Canon shooters is Canon’s 70-300 DO IS . This image stabilized lens is more compact than others in that range and therefore less obtrusive. But I can’t say it’s of “modest” weight. It will add noticable ounces to your gear bag! Nor is it a fast lens, rendering it somewhat limited in dim light. Nikon’s 85 f/1.8 and 105 f/2 are also superb lenses (although the latter is a bit larger than the others we’ve discussed) for streetshooting, as are the Olympus 50mm f/2 (remember the 4/3 system has a 2x crop factor) and Sony 85mm f/1.4 .
In my own experience, 98% of street shooting is captured at the wider to normal angles, with the photographer close to and even “into” the scene, interacting with any people that might be present. A longer length is always good to have and I recommend having one with you, just in case; but it’s not absolutely necessary to take one along.
Prime lenses are always the right choice when the highest possible image quality is desired or is essential. There are several wide angle primes available with apertures of f/1.4 and wider. These lenses allow you to shoot under extremely dim conditions without having to resort to the detail-robbing, highest ISO settings. Canon’s 24mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4L , Nikon’s 50 f/1.4 , the Olympus 25mm f/2.8 pancake lens … as well as Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4 EX for all camera makes … are well-regarded lenses that focus quickly and accurately. Though not truly “modest” in size and weight, these lenses aren’t exactly gargantuan either. Primes, of course, mandate a lens change when a particular focal length is inadequate, which in turn will slow things down, perhaps causing you to miss a shot entirely. Multiple primes also add up to a lot of weight if you’re trying to cover the most popular focal lengths, ie 24mm, 28mm, 35mm and 50mm. This is all very important to consider when making your lens choice.
The point and shoot: is it an option?
Modest size. Modest weight. Nearly silent operation. But only a handful are still made with viewfinders (inaccurate and small viewfinders at that!), and fewer than a handful have reasonably well-controlled noise above ISO 400. Most suffer from measurable shutter lag, and many have restricted dynamic range. Auto-focus speed and accuracy isn’t bad, but it isn’t the best, either … certainly not up to the standards of even an entry-level DLSR. Shooting wide angle is limited to 28mm on the best of the best and 35mm with most.
There’s no question that point-and-shoots are getting better all the time. Canon’s G10, Nikon’s P6000 and Panasonic’s LX3 are good examples of the current state-of-the-art. If pocketability and near-weightlessness are important to you, then a top-quality point-and-shoot should be a consideration, perhaps in addition to a DLSR and lens combination. But you do need to be aware of the many trade-offs and types of situations and conditions that point-and-shoots simply aren’t equipped to handle.
There are always trade-offs when selecting gear, whether for street shooting or any other application. But the one trade-off the dedicated street shooter can’t make is to sacrifice any one of these important criteria completely in favor of another. The best high ISO performance in the world, for example, isn’t going to do much good if the camera and/or lens constantly hunts in dim light and can’t achieve proper focus under those conditions. And satisfying each and every technical requirement except fast turn-on pretty much negates all of the others. Seconds matter when it comes to street shooting.
Sooner or later, of course, things boil down to cost. Fortunately, the latest cameras and lenses are offering the kind of street-shooting performance discussed here at prices unheard of just a few short years ago. In fact, if you’re a world-traveling street shooter, you’re more likely to pay more for your round-trip airline ticket and hotel than for your camera and lenses!
But wherever you’re headed, even it’s just around the corner, enjoy. Street shooting is among the most satisfying of all photographic efforts. It’s well worth the effort and time to select the gear that best meets your particular street shooting needs, especially when you look at the results in the years to come.
—Stephen Michael Garey
About the writer: Stephen Michael Garey spent the majority of his creative career in the advertising and design industries, where he served some of the world’s best-known companies, including Disney, America Online, General Electric, CBS News, Apple Computer, IBM and Honda. Over the years, his creative work has earned numerous national and international awards for excellence. Stephen turned his attention to fulltime freelance photography in 2002.