Most people favour something in the 35mm to 50mm range for street photography, though there are those who prefer wider lenses and a few who prefer something a bit longer. This is, I think, the longest lens I’ve ever used for a “street” picture: a 300/4.5 Tair-3 on a Zenith Photosniper. This improbable piece of Soviet-era kit might get you arrested or possibly even shot nowadays, consisting as it does of the lens itself, a specially modified Zenith E and a somewhat exiguous rifle stock. I’d bought it a few days before I took this picture, for just thirty quid (call it $45 or 40€ at the time) in Cash Converters, a modern replacement for a pawn shop. I got a slight discount because it didn’t appear to be working properly. It was, but I didn’t know its foibles and nor did the man behind the counter.
The first thing it illustrates, as has been the case with a number of pictures in this column so far, is that “street photography” does not necessarily mean “photography on a road, thoroughfare, avenue, boulevard, square, etc.” No: it’s people going about their business. And pleasure. In the streets, yes, but also at markets, fairs, re-enactors’ camps, public transport… Some would disagree with the breadth of such a definition. Let ’em. Only I can define what I regard as “street photography”, and only you can define what you regard as “street photography”. The important thing is to try to shoot pictures that mean something to you and (with any luck) to other people too, rather than arguing about degrees of purity.
Second, there’s a different mood or feeling when you’re dealing with people en masse instead of with individuals or small numbers. To be honest, no-one in this picture is doing anything especially interesting. The appeal of the picture lies in the fact that they’re all doing it together, at quite a high density; a density that is further emphasized, of course, by the perspective compression of a 300mm lens. I am tempted to go out an try some more of the same sort of thing, though probably with a different lens; maybe even with my 600/8 Vivitar Series 1 Solid Cat.
Third, there is an inevitable temptation to make a much bigger print: a sort of “Where’s Wally” poster. The trouble with this is that between the resolution of the lens, and the necessarily modest depth of field even at f/11, parts of it (especially the foreground) would quite soon become even softer than they are here. Also, the almost ant-like scale of the people encourages us to concentrate on the whole, rather than the parts.
Fourth, it reminds me of a truth I know well, but do not always practise. A very useful technique in street photography is to choose somewhere that provides a good background, and then just wait until someone comes along. That’s how Henri Cartier-Bresson got his famous puddle jumper, for example, with the camera poked through a gap in a fence; and in his last book, Derriere l’Objectif de Willy Ronis, M. Ronis himself revealed just how often he used this technique. Of course you need to pre-focus, but you have plenty of time to do so, and with a digital camera, you can check the exposure at the same time. I’m currently waiting for a quote from SRB-Griturn for adapting a Fotosnaiper (another but equally valid way of spelling it) to my Nikon Df.
Fifth, it’s a fine example of the applicability of an explanation I’ve often used when people ask me what I’m doing or why I’m taking pictures. I just answer, “I’ve only recently got the camera, and I’m trying it out.” This neatly avoids any discussion of street photography: a phrase that can worry photographers, never mind their subjects. If need be, you can then launch into an explanation of what attracted you to the camera, or what’s unusual about it. With an outfit as frankly weird as the Photosniper, people are more than willing to believe you, but it can be equally true of any camera old or new; even, if you’re willing to stretch the definition of “just got it”, to cameras you’ve had for years. For some reason, people are happier with the explanations “I’m a consumerist idiot” or “I’m an eccentric collector” than with “I’m a photographer. I take pictures. It’s what photographers do.”
You can see more from Roger on his website – Roger Hicks