6.06.2010

Street Shooting In Italy is the best.

Men standing around in Rome.

I love to shoot in the streets but in my own town very few people ever get out of their cars and walk anywhere so it's pretty tough to practice here.  In my role as the persistent contrarian I disagree with everyone else's take on what constitutes a great "street shooting" camera.  And I'll probably conflict with some statement I've blogged previously but then I do that from time to time.  The prevailing idea of the street camera is one that is small, light, unobtrusive and which can be set to a hyperfocal distance and fired without taking time to focus.  The ultimate expresssion is often thought to be a small, light, stealthy small camera which has a lens that can be manually hyperfocused and brought up to the eye for a quick snap without having to mess with settings.  The ultimate expression of this kind of "street shooting" camera has often be posited to the Leica M series cameras.  To read what I thought about the M cameras ten years ago you might be interested in reading this old post on Photo.net.......

And lately I've written some lines of praise for the advantages of the Olympus Pen series cameras (the EPL being my favorite because it is slightly faster and sharper...) coupled with the older Pen F lenses which are manual focus and easy to set.  And I do like the results from those cameras.

On a later trip to Italy I took along a Mamiya Six camera and it was a good compromise with its quick rangefinder, sharp lenses and fast operating parameters.  But looking back I am just as happy, perhaps more happy with images like the one above and the one below which I took on a vacation with my wife, a few years earlier.


Men on the square in Sienna.  Standing around.  Talking.

For this trip around Italy in the mid 1990's I decided to go maximally minimal and take on camera and one lens.  I decided on the Hasselblad 500 CM with a waist level finder and the 100mm 3.5 lens.  I brought two 120 backs along.  While it might seem to be a counterintuitive choice it was based on my operational comfort.  At the time I was shooting with this kind of camera every day of the week and my hands were totally used to the operation.  It just felt right.  

But if you've used a medium format, waist level finder with a 100 mm lens you know that it's slow to focus, slow to operate and slow to compose.  The idea is to make all of these things into a virtue.  I work slowly and deliberately and try to make sure that I don't disrupt the dynamic that drew me to the scene in the first place.  You could march right up to a group like this and take charge but even if they were compliant you will have changed every thing.  All the energy and all the aesthetics.  You could take the passive way out and use a long lens from across the square to secretly capture them but you would eliminate all the contextual details that you get with the normal focal length used close in.  The middle way is to make yourself anonymous and quiet.

My technique is to find the scene and move myself into roughly the right position based on my understanding of the lens's angle of view.  Then I look at the subjects and smile.  Then I compose on the finder and then I focus.  Then I wait until I am no longer a curiosity or an amusement and I wait until I see the texture and gesture that first attracted me and then I push the shutter.  I try not to intrude but I don't retreat.  If they protest I walk on and look for other opportunities.  If they ignore me (yes.  please.) then I continue shooting till I have the frame I want and I move on.  But mostly I wait and wait to see something that resonates.

With the H-blad and rolls of film with only 12 exposures patience and timing is everything.  There's no way you can "motor" your way to a good shot.  And what I've come to know with fast digital cameras is that there is still no way to "motor" your way to success.  Scene with people move.  They are  subject chaos theory.  They come together and break apart.  The best you can wish for is to see the pattern as they come together and prepare for the moment when the image peaks for you.  Then you push the button.  And the photo works or it doesn't.  You print it or you leave it in the sleeve.

If you feel so disposed I would love to hear your street shooting techniques in the comments.  What camera and lens, how you use it and maybe even a link to some of your work.  We might all learn more.

Thanks, Kirk

What's in a portrait for me?


I am, on the whole, a fairly mediocre portrait photographer but I masquerade as a much better one.  And I get away with it because I cheat.  As often as possible.  What do I mean?  Well, I'm sure there are a number of photographers who can make just about anyone who stumbles by their camera look better than they do in real life.  They can make fat people look thinner.  Stupid people look smarter.  Ugly people less ugly.  I can't do these things.  In fact, I dislike photographing most people (which is a real sore spot for my CFO ) and I am drawn most often to make portraits of people who fit into fairly narrow types.  I love to photograph women but judging by the covers of every "how to" photography book published in the last five years or so, there's nothing unusual about that.

But the ones I choose have alluring and intriguing eyes, good cheek bones and dark hair.  The eyes give the viewer something quintessentially human to look at.  The cheek bones check the subconscious, internal mental box that says, "ideal beauty" and the dark hair is easier to photograph against different background and adds a nice, automatic contrast for the flesh tones of the face.


If I am no better a portrait photographer than the next guy, then why do I persist in doing it?  I guess it's because I am fascinated with each person's story.  As if the amalgam of stories gives me a big bell curve with which to understand my fellow humans.  Portraiture is an invitation to ask personal questions, to spend time with interesting people and to acquire new stories and new points of view.  In the end, for the most part, the print, or the image on the web, is just a souvenir of the shared experience.

The reason "the studio" persists lies in its nature as a private place where the shared experience of portraiture can be practiced in a comfortable and controllable space.

I love to take photographs of people.  I'm not choosy about styles or environments.  I like the studio because I can control the lights but I like the spontaneous nature of the street.  All I really need is the right person to shoot.  Then I can make both of us look pretty good.