In 2009, I wrote an article defending the use of lenses longer than 50mm in street photography. I wrote the piece for another website but it was never published. Perhaps it was too contentious. It didn’t criticize the use of short lenses on the street; or, certainly that was not my intention, even if some people might have construed it that way. But the fact that it was not published caused me to reflect that, perhaps I should explore the use of short lenses before I write anything else on the subject. So, during a trip to Hong Kong in the same year, I bought a Ricoh GRD III…with a 6mm fixed focal length lens!
For someone with a history of using telephoto lenses and tele-zooms, this was quite a departure. In my initial attempts with the new toy, the subjects I was trying to capture were miniscule. I was standing far too far away. Gradually, I got closer. But the closer I got, the more uncomfortable I felt; and this brought me to the question of why I had always preferred long lenses in the first place.
I’m essentially a shy person. Why that is the case would take up too much space to discuss; and besides, I am not trained as a psychologist and I doubt if I could talk objectively about it anyway, so I won’t bore you with my speculations. Let me just say that I am not the sort of person who can walk up to a complete stranger in the street, shove a camera in their face, and take a picture. I just can’t do it…or, I didn’t think I could. So the Ricoh immediately presented me with a dilemma: how do I get close enough to fill the frame with the shot I want to take, and still keep a comfortable distance from the subject?
My first thought was to shoot surreptitiously: “from the hip”. I started walking around with the camera in my hand, clicking at random, for practice rather than in expectation of taking a series of great shots; which was just as well because most of the shots I took were terrible. The exposure was often way off; the focus was often on the background rather than the subject; and on many occasions, I missed the subject completely. So I experimented with the camera’s controls looking for settings that would perform more reliably under these circumstances; and I practiced my aim to try to get the subject completely in the frame instead of completely or partially out of it. I was reminded of the first photograph I ever took. It was supposed to be of my mother in our back garden but I missed her completely and captured the garden shed instead. With the Ricoh, I really, I mean “literally” had to start learning how to take photographs all over again.
Gradually, with experiment and practice, I got better; and I began to appreciate the skill of photographers who can shoot “blind” and still get great results. But I was still too far away and I felt that people often knew that I was sneaking a shot of them and were reacting to it. This raises another issue about street photography for which I believe there is no “right or wrong” answer, just a personal preference: whether the photographer should be an unseen observer, not influencing the activity in any way; or whether he or she should be right in the thick of the action, engaging directly with the subject and even provoking a reaction. Personally, I have always tried to be the unseen observer. I have always felt that it was my role to photograph what would be happening on the street if I weren’t there; and I have read that some of the greats of street photography have followed a similar approach. But having said that, I have seen and enjoyed many superb photographs where the other approach was taken; so I reiterate my contention that there is no “right or wrong” answer to this; only personal preference, even if it is, for me, simply a way of appeasing my shyness.
So, the problem facing me was still, how to get close without being detected. I read somewhere that Henri Cartier-Bression used to wrap his Leica in a handkerchief and pretend to blow his nose when he was taking a picture; so I got a small plastic bag with a black and white motif, cut a hole in it for the lens to poke through, placed the camera strategically in the bag, then held it in my hand as though it was my lunch or something. That worked up to a point. I felt that I could get closer without being detected, but all the shots I was taking where from a low angle looking up and that point of view didn’t always suit the subjects I was trying to capture.
I consulted a Flickr friend who is a long-time Ricoh user and he recommended getting a neck strap. That way, the camera is positioned higher and it can be easily raised to eye-height when necessary or appropriate. He also recommended getting a remote control for the shutter. Easier said than done in Sydney. Not many camera shops here stock the high-end Ricohs and accessories are even harder to find; but eventually I found a camera strap. It didn’t exactly fit the model of camera I had so I had to improvise; but I did manage to get it to work. The remote was a different story. I couldn’t find one anywhere. So now I am walking around like a tourist with a P&S camera slung round my neck, thumb glued to the shutter release button and twisting and turning to face my intended subjects like one of those clowns at the fairground where you try to throw balls into their mouths. Suddenly, I felt that I was more obvious than ever, and not just a little bit ridiculous; but the results were getting better, I think. And this is about where I am up to at the moment.
So how do I feel about short lenses now?
I reiterate that I was never anti- short lenses; just not habituated to their use. If I were more brazen and prepared to use the camera as it was intended to be used, I would be much happier. I am accustomed to and therefore feel much more comfortable with looking through the viewfinder to frame and compose the elements of the image I am trying to take. I like that direct and deliberate approach to photography – a WYSIWYG approach, if you like. It makes me feel more in control of what I am doing; and it makes me feel as though the image produced is the result of decisions I have made and not just a happy accident or, at best, good guesswork. But then again, some of the happy accidents I have had with the Ricoh are quite exciting; and I can see the attraction for some in working that way. I do respect the skill of those who shoot “from the hip” (or from the belly, as in my case); but I don’t know if it will ever become my preferred way of working. This is a personal reflection, not an implied criticism; because there is nothing more exciting for me (in photography) than catching sight of a shot that cries out to be taken, raising my camera to my eye, focusing and firing. It is the atavistic reaction of the hunter; and it feels to me like what we were put here to do.
On the other hand, shooting from the hip or from inside a plastic bag feels, to me, sneakier than standing out in the open with a big camera, making no attempt to conceal what I am doing. Okay, with the tele-zoom I am standing farther away and the subject might not see me – that’s the whole point of being the unseen observer; but with my DSLR I don’t feel so much like I am skulking around trying to “steal” a shot. Again, this is how I feel and does not imply criticism of how other people work. If you are someone who can shoot from the hip without these pangs of conscience, more power too you!
Many of the shots I’ve taken with the Ricoh that turned out to my satisfaction I’ve felt were not really taken by me, but by the hand of some unseen Power guiding my hand. But then, you could always say that the same Power guided me, even when using my DSLR with its zoom lens, by alerting me to possible subjects as I passed on the street; but I do hope that, as my skills improve, I’ll begin to feel more like I am the one in control.
So, for me, the jury is still out on my personal relationship with the short lens. I feel that I am gradually making the transition from “point and hope” to “point and shoot”. And I will persevere with the Ricoh because it is a marvelous piece of engineering with tremendous possibilities.
The picture featured above was the first Ricoh shot I uploaded to Flickr. Since I wasn’t close to the people in the shot, I was able to take it in the conventional way, the way I feel most comfortable with, composing the scene through the viewer. I used the fastest possible shutter speed in the prevailing conditions (1/320 sec.) to “freeze” the snowflakes. Okay, I know that they were already frozen but you know what I mean.
My second Ricoh upload to Flickr (above) was a “hip” shot, full-frame (minimal crop); taken at a fast speed to minimize camera shake (1/2000) and f3.2 to give some depth of field leeway. What attracted me to this shot was the way the sunlight was catching the cup (hence the title of the shot). This was not a case of “shoot everything and see what comes out” but rather a deliberate attempt to capture something that had caught my eye (the sunshine on the cup) in a proper street context of (a) the woman holding the cup and (b) the street in which the action was taking place. In this case, at least, had I had the courage to look through the viewer, I doubt that I would have composed the shot differently. But had I done that, the shot would have been different, because the woman would have realized what I was doing and would almost certainly have reacted to it.
In my third Ricoh upload to Flickr (above), I find myself returning to familair territory, doing what I like to do with my DSLR, just to see if it can also be done with the vastly different Ricoh. In a series of shots taken in this location (the Barri Gotic in Barcelona at the end of an afternoon), I took some shots in the conventional way, composing through the viewer, which enabled me to get the focus and exposure settings and shooting distance right; but this shot was taken from the “hip”. Perhaps this type of compromise is the way for me to go until my “training wheels” can come off. It is exciting to cross new frontiers; but it is also comforting to come back to the familar.
My purpose in writing this piece is to seek advice and guidance from those of you who are more proficient in this kind of photography/technique than I am; or indeed from anyone who has an opinion on what I have written. So please let me know what you think.
PS: if you’d like to read the (previously) unpublished article, please click here; but beware, it may be construed as contraversial; although it was written with no malice intended.
PPS: the original article comprised only text. I added the photos only when I decided to publish the article on this website.