I often get asked what gear and camera settings I use when venturing out to shoot on the streets. What works for me is less gear and very basic camera settings.
Let’s talk about the gear first. I switched from my Nikon setup to Micro Four Thirds because I was tired carrying around a big backpack with 5 kilos and more of camera equipment but without compromising image quality. Another benefit from using m4/3 gear is that when you carry a big Nikon with a big lense attached (and even Nikon prime lenses are huge pieces of glass) you always get attention, you are automatically regarded as a serious photographer, with all the negativ implications and restrictions many photographers encounter today when roaming the streets. Now with a m4/3 camera that is much smaller and a small prime lense attached you generate much less attention, blend more in, and that is generally what you are looking for as a street photographer. People tend to much less notice you and when they do, they more regard you as a tourist snapping away than a photographer looking for some serious shots.
Having said that, I typically go out with a single camera, either my OM-D E-M1 or my PEN E-PL7. Attached to it I have typically my M.Zuiko 17mm f1.8 prime lens. 17mm in m4/3 translates to ~35mm in full frame format. A fast, perfect and small piece of glass with excellent image quality. Many famous street photographers shoot 35mm only, as it is more or less equal to the normal field of view of our eyes. In the streets I like to shoot wide as my desire is to show people in the context of their environment.
For compressing perspectives or putting something farther away in focus I usually carry my M.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 along (mostly in my pocket). A small but marvelous lense with a superb price/perfomance ration. A must have for any m4/3 shooter. This lense is also great for shooting street portraits, as its full frame equivalent focal length is 90mm.
Sometimes I bring my second Olympus camera body with the 45mm already attached in a small messenger bag. But even carrying both the E-M1 and the E-PL7 and the two small prime lenses is ridiculously little in terms of size and weight, and it is all I need for my street photography.
Carrying only max two prime lenses and no zoom, it allows me to really focus on the shot I want to take and doesn’t let me waste time worrying about what lense would be best for a certain shot. I know the limitations of my lense in terms of field of view so I know that I have to work the scene rather than just having to zoom to take the shoot. Having to use my feet as zoom also lets me think more creatively. Generally I think my photography benefited from that fixed focal length prime lense approach.
If I want to have it even lighter I only take my Ricoh GR II. Despite having an APS-C sensor (the same that I used to have in my Nikon D7000) the Ricoh has a tiny all metal body and a tack-sharp 18.3mm fixed lense (~28mm full frame equivalent) giving me an awesome image quality. This little camera almost disappears in my hand, so it is even less noticeable I’m taking pictures, and no one would consider the Ricoh as more than a cheap point and shoot cam just because of its looks. The only downside to the Ricoh is that it has (as opposed to the two Olympus cams) no tiltable monitor, so it is much more difficult to shoot incognito from the hip or while kneeling down.
Now that I talked about my light and unobtrusive gear let’s come to the settings I use. And same as the gear, they are very basic!
I shoot in P (program automatic) mode, sometimes dialing in exposure compensation depending if too many bright/dark areas are in the frame. In 90% of my shots “P” is doing a great job selecting the right time/f-stop combination. And before you start your bashing, I do now how to manually operate my cams. But why should I worry about manually dialing in the settings when I can trust my cam to do the job it is built to do. This way I can fully focus on my motive, composition and creativity and just snap away with full confidence that my tool (my camera) won’t let me down. And as already stated, in my opinion in street photography the “P” settings work >90% of the time.
Besides using “P” most of the time I use matrix metering as in street photography you encounter high dynamic differences and typically you are too far away to use spot metering off the cheek of your subject.
Generally I shoot in burst mode a series of pictures to make sure I have a better chance to capture the perfect pose of my subjects arms or legs or that my subject has entered the perfect position of my frame.
Another important setting is that I set my camera to show black and white in viewfinder or on the monitor. I shoot mostly b&w when doing street photography and with this setup it allows me to read the scenes better when composing, as viewing it in black & white is totally different form the scene in full color. Street scenes are mostly multi colored which could create rather unrest in a photograph. I shoot color in the streets when one color is dominant and thus is part of the message or if the scene displays complementary colors that go well together (as for example red&green). But in all other cases I typically shoot B&W and seeing what I shoot already as it will turn out in the viewfinder helps me to focus on contents, composition, story, emotions and structure.
One last setting I change is that I switch to continuous autofocus “AF-C” when shooting motion when panning or shooting moving subjects otherwise. When working with motion I obviously work in shutter priority mode to dial in the speed I desire, a short speed like 1/500 when I want to freeze motion or a long speed like 1/20 when I want to show a blurry pedestrian.
And that’s it – as you see I do my street photography according the KISS principle – “keep it simple & stupid”
I hope you enjoyed my first tips & techniques blog entry on “Streets of Nuremberg”, comments are welcome and keep coming back for more!