"Stare. It is the way
to educate your eye, and more.
Stare, pry, listen eavesdrop.
Die knowing something.
You are not here long."
Walker Evans (in a
draft text to accompany the hidden camera subway photographs)
The best thing about street photography: serendipity
The best thing about street photography is that it is possible for the
final viewer of a print to see more than the original photographer.
One of the great things about a city is that more things are
happening, even within a small neighborhood, at any moment than any
human can comprehend. Photography allows us to freeze one of those
moments and study all of the small dramas that were taking place.
In this photo inside Greenwich Village's French Roast, the
photographer was trying to get a picture of the tuned-out New Media
exec with the women conversing in the background. The photographer
carefully adjusted on-camera flash and ambient exposure so that the
lighting is evenly balanced on subjects both inside and outside the
restaurant. What the photographer did not see, that we can see, is
that there is also a dog fight going on outside.
Here are a bunch of photos in which interesting details were missed by
the photographer at the time of the exposure, but caught on the film
Garry Winogrand is famous for having
exposed three rolls of Kodak TRI-X black and white film on the streets
of New York City every day for his entire adult life. That's 100
pictures a day, 36,500 a year, a million every 30 years. Winogrand
died in 1984 leaving more than 2500 rolls of film exposed but
undeveloped, 6500 rolls developed but not proofed, and 3000 rolls
proofed but not examined (a total of a third of a million unedited
This is the kind of dedication that you need to bring to a street
photography project if you hope to achieve greatness.
The classic technique for street photography consists of fitting a
wide (20mm on a full-frame camera) or moderately wide-angle (35mm)
lens to a camera, setting the ISO to a moderate high speed (400 or
800), and pre-focusing the lens. Pre-focusing? How do you know how
far away your subject will be. It turns out that it doesn't
matter. Wide angle lenses have good depth of field. If your subject
is 10 feet away and the lens is set for 12 feet, you'd probably need
to enlarge to 16x20" before noticing the error, assuming a typical
aperture. This is why the high ISO setting is important. Given a
fixed shutter speed, the higher the ISO setting, the smaller the aperture.
The smaller the aperture, the less critical it is to focus precisely.
The extreme case of this is a pinhole
camera, for which there is no need to focus at all.
Street photographers traditionally will set the lens at its
hyperfocal distance. This distance depends on the lens focal
length and the aperture but the basic idea is that it is the closest
distance setting for which subjects at infinity are still acceptably
sharp. With fast film and a sunny day, you will probably be able to
expose at f/16. With a 35mm lens focussed to, say, 9 feet, subjects
between 4.5 feet and infinity will be acceptably sharp (where
"acceptable" means "if the person viewing the final photograph doesn't
stick his eyes right up against it").
A modern alternative is to use a camera with a very high-performance
autofocus system and a zoom lens. The Canon EOS bodies coupled with
the instant-focusing ring
ultrasonic motor Canon lenses (about half of the EOS lenses use
these motors) are an example of what can work. How important is
modern technology? Testing out the Mamiya 7 rangefinder
camera, a mechanical design straight out of the 1920s, doing some
street work in Guatemala, my yield of good images was as high as it
ever was with the Canons.
Whether you go modern or traditional, many of your pictures will be
ruined due to poor focus, subject motion, hasty composition, etc.
Don't feel bad if you only get one great picture out of 1000. If you're
using a digital camera, you won't even have to lose sleep over how much
film and processing you're wasting.
The photo at left has a subject in sharp focus. The photo at right has more life. Both probably would need to be edited out.
A few more from Mexico...
Miami, 1995, from Costa Rica;
Canon EOS-5, 35-350 lens, program autoexposure, Fuji Super G + ISO 400 neg film
This photo, taken from the passenger seat of a car stopped at a red light, photo illustrates
the capabilities of the Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM, (buy from Amazon) (review)
(actually taken with an older version of the same lens, the 35-350L). Garry Winogrand's work
went downhill very quickly when he moved to Los Angeles and began photographing people from
the right seat of cars.
a few from Sweden...
and Israel (Ireland's neighbor in the UN, separating Israel from Iraq)..
China is one of the world's best places for street photography because
(a) there are so many people, (b) so much happens out in the open. Here
are a few images from China:
Japan is a good place to see extremes, either people practicing ancient
ways or people overwhelmed by modernity. Here are some images from the photo.net guide to Japan: