I’m shooting again. Relax, I’m talking about photography, not guns.
You can blame my comeback to street/candid photography on David, an incredibly talented Python developer I worked a while ago. He’s an avid fan of Pentax Lumix and Leica gear. We’d often get bored waiting for business guys to decide what they wanted to do and we would talk about life, cameras, and photography. Turns out, we both like street-style photography.
It didn’t take long for me to put a point-and-shoot in my bag, get on the Tube, and wait for something to happen. I was on my way to Russell Square when I spotted a woman who was so deeply immersed in whatever was going on her iPhone that she forgot about the whole world. I see dozens of people glued to their iPhones on the Tube every day, but this was different, this was an extra level of immersion. So I snapped a photo of her. And, as I was deleting images that were out of focus I realized I had something going on here. A beginning of something interesting. A photo project. But what was it about? Beauty. Suddenly the coffee tasted better, and I felt something I had not felt in a long time.
That quick snap done with a cheap point-and-shoot was (to me) the best picture I had taken a few years.
Yes, it was taken with a cheap point-and-shoot. I’m not one of those photographers arguing about camera specs or fighting for the perfect exposure. I am looking for beauty which is often found where there are a lot of imperfections and, unlike my former Nikon F4E-obsessed self, I am now very much into minimalistic setups, because I believe that having some reasonable limits helps create good art. Yes, good street-style photography can be good art, more on that later.
My camera of choice for my first project in 20 years is a simple Nikon 1 J1. I would love to continue using my Canon A495, which takes good pictures when it can focus, but it missed far too many good shots. Yes, a cheap point-and-shoot can take great street-style pictures, if you are prepared for it to not be able to focus or select fast enough shutter release time. To be fair to my tiny Canon, it was given an impossible task considering its maximum sensitivity of ISO 1600 and a slow f/3.0 lens. I suspect the newer point-and-shoots with higher sensitivity (6400 or better) and faster lenses are more suited for capturing those fleeting moments I’m after, but the prices of Nikon 1 J1 kits have fallen below 200 GBP this year and it made more sense to me to go that route. Also, Canon insists on decorating their PowerShot cameras with shiny silver rings, which attract attention of the people you are trying to take pictures of. You can solve that with a little bit of isolation tape, but my Canon was still blue.
My Nikon 1 J1 has had a couple of misses when I was still learning how to use it, but it’s been 100% accurate after the first day. It is slightly bigger than my Canon A495, but it’s black and has a very accurate and fast auto-focus system. It also has a 1-inch sensor, which is a noticeable improvement on a 1/1.23-inch sensor inside A495. Curiously, both sensors deliver 10 megapixels per frame, but you can certainly see the difference in image quality. It really is noticeable and a greater success rate of the Nikon 1 J1 hybrid autofocus makes me a very happy photographer.
It is tempting to want to capture everything you see and therefore a zoom lens seems like an obvious choice. It is not. Street-style/candid photography, at least as I like to see it, is about capturing emotions, fleeting moments, something that is here one second and gone another. There is no time to focus, crop, or otherwise fiddle with the lenses. You try to frame your shot as best as you can, press the shutter release, and hope the camera captures what you want. There is no time to frame your perfect shot with a zoom lens. The moment your subject notices you, you have disturbed the ecosystem, tainted it. I am not saying you should not try to frame your shots, if you have the time, but in this day and age of sensors with 36 millions of pixels, you can afford to crop.
For that reason, a lot of street photographers choose 24mm-35mm lenses or their equivalents (for cameras with sensors smaller than full-frame). Prime wide-angle lenses, especially those more expensive models, are usually faster (f-stop 0.95-3.0) giving you a fighting chance of taking a picture in poorly-lit bars, clubs, and other dark places.
Yes, you will miss a number of shots you could have taken with a standard to telephoto lens, but if that’s want you want to do, you can always carry another camera in your bag.
Another reason for not using a zoom lens is the size of it, always attracting attention and giving hints that you may be taking a pictures. For that reason, prime pancake lenses are a godsend for a photographer who wants to get close to the subject without disturbing the scene.