“I play the street lifeStreet Life: Crusaders (1979)
Because there’s no place I can go
Street life, it’s the only way I know
I’m a child of the fifties so my teenage years spanned the 1970s and my musical tastes, whilst wide, tend to coalesce around music from that decade. I’ve always enjoyed this song, no more so than when I saw the Cissy Stone Band performing it live at The Oasis Leisure Centre, Swindon. These days you will often find me walking the streets where I live, photographing the urban environment, this is my street life and one of my happy places. But other people walk the streets too and whilst I normally rise early to avoid them there are occasions when I cannot.
Street photography is a genre that, for the most part, I enjoy looking at. It’s a genre though that I rarely work in myself. However, two unrelated circumstances combined to set me out with camera in hand recently on a mission to “shoot some street”. The first was banally domestic, the wife wanted to visit the open market in Huddersfield, whilst the second was a discussion I had with a couple of friends (hereafter known as the BOFs) about zone focusing. One of the things we discussed was using zone focus on the street for candid photography.
Let’s start with a definition of street photography: a genre of photography that records everyday life in a public place. I say “a” definition because there are plenty but this one will do for our needs I think.
For my Saturday morning outing I took the Canon VT paired with a 35mm Jupiter 12 lens. A wide lens to be sure but one I’m comfortable with in general terms. How I’d fare using it for “street” was another story although I have used my digital Fuji X100T with its 35mm equivalent lens for street, albeit in tourist hotspots like London. I loaded the Canon with a roll of Fomapan 200, a film I’m growing to like immensely in 35mm. A couple of spare rolls in my pocket and I was ready.
Ready for a Full English – well you can’t photograph on an empty stomach!
I said earlier that “for the most part” I enjoy looking at street photography. I should expand on that a little as it influences both how I shoot and how I edit my images. I do not enjoy looking at images that are exploitative or intended to mock the individual. When making candid images of strangers on the street I do feel we have a responsibility to these unknown people not to make them look foolish, not to laugh at or encourage others to laugh or mock and certainly not to take advantage of their circumstances simply for a picture. Always treat others as you’d like to be treated yourselves is a very good maxim by which to guide the photographer’s eye I think.
I do take this responsibility seriously, choosing not to make some photographs and also when editing later I remove any negatives where I feel my standards would be compromised if I used the image. At the making and editing stages I apply the same basic principles. My maxim … if in doubt ditch it.
For this outing there was a motive beyond simply making some candid photographs. There was a desire to try a different technique and add to my store of knowledge and tool kit of techniques. In our discussions one of the BOFs had drawn our attention to a YouTube video in which the topic of the “sunny 16” approach to metering was discussed. It was a rare example of someone using the system and explaining what aperture they were setting based on what they, and the viewer, were actually looking at. Rather than rely on dry written descriptions the author, Roger Lowe, was showing and telling (link at the foot of the page). It’s one of the best explanations of the “sunny 16” and most importantly how to use it that I’ve seen and inspired me to actively use it on Saturday. I’ve used it at need in the past but these days with a meter on my smartphone I rarely need to call upon the technique.
Another aspect the BOFs discussed was zone focusing, something all three of us do from time to time but not something I’d typically use for urban photography. When making candid photographs though there is not always time to manually focus before the opportunity slips away or before the subject spots you and the moment is lost. Note, manually focus, very few of my film cameras have auto-focus and with the rangefinders I typically use manual focus is absolutely the order of the day.
So, serendipity at play again. I had the opportunity courtesy of the wife’s shopping trip, the inspiration through the BOFs conversation and the example of watching Roger Lowe’s practical demonstration. All I needed to do was put it into practice.
Easier said than done!
With Fomapan 200 I have been slightly over-exposing the film by rating it at ISO 160. For the “sunny 16” method I need therefore to set a shutter speed of 1/160th or as near as practical. I plumped for 1/125th. For the most part this was the shutter speed I used all day although in some instances I dropped it to 1/60th rather than open the lens right up. One thing that I was concerned about was how slow this shutter speed was, easily enough to handhold and get sharp images but many of my subjects would be moving and up close. I’d normally have opted for around 1/500th second and so with hindsight I was wondering if I should have loaded a faster film. Next time I probably will because I have lost a few frames to motion blur but on the whole I “got away” with 1/125th on the day.
With the ISO baked-in due to the film stock I had loaded and the shutter speed pre-determined my only way to control exposure was via the aperture ring. It was here that I almost regretted my lens choice as the aperture ring on the Jupiter 12 sits inside the lens barrel rather than around it as is more normal. It’s slightly less practical and you can’t change aperture without looking into the lens barrel. With the Canon 50mm lens that I usually use the aperture ring is located around the barrel and with gentle click stops I don’t need to remove the camera from my eye to change aperture (so long as I know what aperture it’s currently on).
That aside however, my main concern was focusing. It’s a comfort thing I guess but I’m used to focusing manually and, allowing for the aperture, controlling what is in focus and what is not. A wide angled lens makes this slightly less problematic but nevertheless after two rolls of zone-focused street photography I remained concerned about focus until I got the negatives on a light box.
There we have it. Two rolls of “street”, both zone-focused and “sunny 16’d” for the most part. I found the hardest part was deciding upon exposure but this was partly a comfort thing. My cold-shoe meter was, reluctantly, left at home and I only used the phone metering app a handful of times to double-check my decisions. Each time I went with my “sunny 16” estimate. Zone focusing was less of a concern, although I was nervy about subjects being in focus I have used zone focusing a lot recently and understanding the characteristics of the Jupiter 12 lens also helped. Ironically, the thing I worried about most was the thing I knew best!
During this excursion I went wide and got in closer than I’ve typically done in the past. Previously people would be an incidental part of the image but I set out today to make them the subject.
Did I succeed? You be the judge of that and I’d welcome any advice or guidance in the comments section below.
LINK to the “sunny 16” video
You must be logged in to post a comment.