There are those who advocate shooting in overcast weather, because it’s easier: no harsh contrasts. I’ve never really understood this line of argument. After all, it’s easier still to stay at home and watch television, or go to the beach, or read a book. I don’t love street photography because it’s easy. I love it because I want good pictures; and getting them isn’t necessarily easy. Also, I’d rather be out in the sun, ideally with a Leica (here an M8) and either my 35/1.4 Summilux or my 50/1.5 Zeiss C-Sonnar, than under grey skies. The people you see tend to be happier too. This includes other photographers; who are, I have always thought, particularly fair game for street photographers.
In the narrow, twisting streets of ancient cities (this is Arles), a couple of paces can take us from the bright, hard sunlight of the sunny side of the street to deep, inky shadow. Here you’ve got the lot , via varying degrees of open shadow. The brightest highlight on her leg is “blown”, it’s true, but it’s a very small area and the “limb effect” (the way that light creates an impression of roundness) allows our brains to ignore it, filling in detail that isn’t actually there. Likewise, the darkest areas of her hair are “blocked” to a featureless black, but again it’s a very small area where our brains can fill in the detail.
Copyright © Roger Hicks
Elsewhere, there’s detail and texture everywhere, from the almost-blown drain beside the stepped street to the almost-blocked deep shadow under her leg, though if her face were any darker it might look unnatural. Any attempt to lighten the picture overall immediately blows the lightest areas, and any attempt to “fill” the shadows by lowering the contrast reduces the picture to flat dullness. There is no such thing as “correct” exposure, but you can have “perfect” exposure: perfection is when you get exactly the result you want.
This is what makes negative film, whether mono or colour, especially suitable for street photography. As long as you expose generously enough to get details in the shadows (the darkest areas in which you want texture), you should be OK. The classic way to describe this is to say that the exposure is “keyed to the shadows”. An “empty” or under-exposed shadow contains no detail: it is just clear film. With adequate shadow exposure you will however record any highlight detail you need, higher up the characteristic curve.
Even though sharpness suffers slightly with overexposure, many people prefer the tonality with a stop extra (rate ISO 400 film at EI 200); the negative is likely to prove entirely usable, if a bit dense, with two stops extra (ISO 400 at EI 100); and you will probably get away perfectly well with three stops extra (ISO 400 at EI 50). If, as is often the case in street photography, you don’t have time to adjust your exposure, the solution is clear: set your exposure for the minimum you are likely to need on the shady side of the street, and live with the overexposure if you are on the sunny side.
With digital sensors or slide films, on the other hand, the exposure is “keyed to the highlights”. A “blown” highlight contains no detail at all; it is like the “empty” shadow on clear film. You can often recover shadow detail when post processing digital images or scanning and post processing slides, but you can’t recover highlight detail that isn’t there.
Fortunately with digital cameras it costs effectively nothing to shoot “digital Polaroids”, so in street photography it makes sense every now and then to shoot an assortment of highlights – anything white, or very light coloured – under direct sun, in open shade and under heavy shade, just to see what sort of exposures you need. Once you’ve established these basic exposures, with a little practice it becomes second nature to adjust the exposure, even without looking, as you raise the camera to your eye.
Finally, believe it or not, there’s no dodging or burning on the wall behind her. It just looked like that. Sometimes you get lucky. Yes, getting the exposure right is important; but luck and fast reactions are often far more important in street photography.
Thanks for this amazing article. I am very much fond of photography, especially street photography.