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Street photography

Street is a theatre where happens the life of a city. People come and go, kids play, here takes place the history of a people. By those small details, the photographer has the duty to record nothing less than history.

Have you ever watched the street photographs of Cartier Bresson ?

Cartier Bresson did not do more than just recording with his camera the day to day life of passing people in various situations. They were interesting at that time because Henry Cartier Bresson is a great photographer at any time, but they are even more today because they show a time who has disappeared already.

The time of today is the time of today, it will eventually disappear all the same. Because rules and laws change, because tradition is lost and new habits come to replace old habits. Images of the city change day by day.

The street photographer has the duty to record images of this theatre at this very moment.

A priest is giving a blessing inside a house. Bangkok 2023.

If the art of photography follow rules, the art of street photography has none but the daring of each street photographer. What I share here is only my view, my way of doing things, most of those rules should apply in most cases, but some people are more daring than others.

To make street photographs, I run the street. I walk more than ten kilometers every week end in the streets of wherever I live at the time and I shoot, I shoot again and I still shoot until I can not shoot anymore. To force me to shoot more, I use the guilt feeling of purchasing expensive photographic gears, I would not feel good not using them, so I go out and use them to take shots of whatever surrounds me.

A woman is cleaning some dishes in the street, Nanjing, China 2010.

I improve my technical knowledge. Whatever my camera does automatically for me, I must be able to do it myself. Preferably, I work in manual mode, make my own focus, use a hand cell to define the shutter speed and the aperture. This knowledge will give me the mean to alter the photograph at the time of taking the shot, not trying to get things good during the post processing.

Street cooks, Bangkok, Thailand 2023.

I mostly shot people in action. A theatre means that there is an action, it happens that the action is performed by animals or vehicle, but most of the time, action is performed by people. So I take photographs of people while they are doing things, trying to not be seen myself (otherwise, it would change the way they perform their action).

I prefer wide angle lenses. Believe it or not, I have less chances to be seen taking photographs of people when I’m close to them using a wide angle than when I’m far and using a tele-lens. Ma favorite lens is the 21mm, but I’ve worked with some 12mm in the past.

Nanjing, China, 2010. Nikon D700 with the 15mm Nikkor.

When people see me, I smile, I great them, say “hello”, re-assure them on my intention. Most of the time, it happens good, people just want to ensure I mean them no harm, but it happened in the past that I face people unhappy to be in the photograph, even become aggressive, I usually leave the place.

I never shot inside private property without prior autorisation. Living in Thailand, where the border between private property and public place can be quite blur at some time, I miss many shots because of this rule. But that’s a point that I would not like anybody to be invasive in my home, so I’m not invasive in their home.

Nanjing, China 2008

I learnt that I must never shot official and governmental facilities, ports, airports, train stations and especially military facilities (that can lead to a whole lot of problems). However, most of the time, there is no issue to photograph police in action (it may depend on the country). I’m not a reporter, so I prefer to stick with street photographs.

Rubik cube competition, Bangkok 2023

I use every opportunity and join events when I can. During events, I don’t hide myself to make photographs, on the contrary, I’m invasive. It’s a place where people will even perform better in front of the camera, it gives them more importance.

I travel light, in fact it depends. When I’m walking in a city where I live, I know I’ve time for myself. So I take one camera and one lens and I do my day with that. When I cover an event or when I travel, I usually work with two cameras and three lenses. As my lenses are M mount (whatever the camera I use), they’re quite small and light. I never bring my whole set when going out, it’s too heavy and it does not make sense, I’ll never use all this stuff in just one day.

Aperture, speed and sensitivity

Aperture, speed and sensitivity are the tree parameters that we have to decide when it come to get a correct exposition of your photographs.

Aperture refers to the quantity of light that your lens will get trough. The maximum aperture = length of the lens at infinite focus / width of the frontal glass. So a 50mm with a frontal glass of 25mm has a max aperture of 2. Inside the lens, there is diaphragm that you can close to change this value. Each value of the scale is the previous value times the square root of 2 and it divides by 2 the quantity of light.

So for a 100mm F2.8, the next step is 2.8 * sqrt(2) = 4. Set at f4, half the light go through.

The speed refers to the time that the shutter is open to expose the film (or the sensor). It’s written in fraction of a second. 8 means 1 second divided by 8. As you can guess, higher is the number, faster is the shutter (1/1000 is faster than 1/8) and each step half the quantity of light to impress the film.

The sensitivity defines how much light the film needs to be properly impressed (corrected exposed). We talk of ISO (or ASA). For each step, we need to twice the previous number by 2 and it needs half of the light for correct exposure. ISO 100 need twice more light than ISO 200. ISO 32000 need twice less light than ISO 16000.

Let’s take a few examples:

1/125 at F2.8 on ISO 100 is the same than 1/512 at F2 on ISO 200

Let’s detail the calculation:
1/125 -> 1/512 = 4 times less light
F2.8 -> F2 = twice more light
ISO 100 -> ISO 200 = The film requires half the quantity of light

Why do you want to set those parameter your self ?

There are several reasons for that.

– You need depth of field. The DOF is the range of distance in focus. The smaller is the aperture, the wider is the DOF. So a lens closed at F8 will have more things in focus than the same lens opened at F2. This is important if you have 2 subject you want in focus at different distance. The DOF goes 2/3 behind the point of focus and 1/3 before.

– You need less depth of field. For a portrait, you want to isolate the subject from the background, so you need to open your lens to reduce the DOF.

– You want to give an impression of speed to a moving subject. You can do that by decreasing the speed and move the camera to follow your subject why you make the photograph. It will blur the background and give a feeling of speed.

– You want to catch a moving target and increase the speed of the shutter (that’s why lenses used by photographers of sport are very big, to catch as much light as possible and use the fastest possible speed).

– You want to have a feeling of grain on your B&W photographs. Of course there are filters to do that, but real photographers use high sensitivity films (or increase the sensitivity of their sensor) to get the same result.

– You want to make photographs in the night, so you need films or sensor with high sensitivity.

Exemples goes on and goes on. Fact is, once a photographer understands those basic principles and is able to calculate fast the correspondant values between an exposure and another (keep the same exposure while changing those parameters), he gets a whole world of possibilities and opportunities to make shots differently.

Review Leica M9

50 years ago, half of the watches sold in the world were coming from Switzerland. For some historical reason, Switzerland was the country to build watches. Unfortunately for them, in the 80’s the quartz and the watches built in Japan were about to revolutionize this market. More recently the rise of the smartphones, which are able to give the time more accurately than an atomic watch, came to end this market.

But Switzerland industry did not give up, they adopted a change of strategy to face the disparition of their market: they increased the price of their watches. And it worked. Less people buy watches from Switzerland, but they buy them very expensive.

So why do they buy those watches, since the cheapest mobile is better at giving time. They claim that they buy the Switzerland know how, the very high quality of hand made watches.

That’s BS.

They buy a social marker. They buy an expensive item to show to the face of the world that they have money.

Leica has a very similar history, they were the most important brand of camera for professional until Nikon released the F in the 70’s. The Digital cameras put an end on this market and Leica has become a very minor player now in professional photography.

They followed exactly the same strategy than the Switzerland watch factories: sell obsolete and very expensive cameras, and all the same, it worked!

Leica buyers claim that they buy a know how and a hand made high quality camera. That’s a crappy lie, any Leica camera is obsolete with a very average quality standard, a low reliability and a very unprofessional lack of serious support from the brand.

It does not stand one second the comparaison with a Nikon or a Canon in any aspect.

Let me give you an overview on my Leica M9:

– the rangefinder is correctly calibrated for the infinite, but the camera is not. It means that the sensor is not exactly where it should be, I have to manually correct each shot to be in focus (how is that even possible?)
– changing the lens is a nightmare, the locking mechanism does not work half the time.
– Leica does not offer anymore the firmware updates for download. I’m not saying that they don’t make any update anymore, but even the old firmwares are not available for download. Whatever firmware version I have, I stay with it.
– The sensor is a time bomb, it suffers some corrosion and Leica does not have any solution anymore to repair it. If the sensor dies, they just give me a discount on the latest M11.
– A spare battery cost 150 Euro.
– The LCD is the worst I’ve ever seen (even at the time the camera was released, such LCD was an outrage for a 6k camera)
– It happens that the camera take some black photographs. I trigger the shutter, but the photograph is just black.

There is nothing perfect in the M9. There is no high quality whatsoever. If I were a professional, that’s the last brand I would use to make money and I would not trust it one minute to cover a mariage or an event.

So why did I buy a M9 in the first place?

That’s very simple : it’s a rangefinder and there is no competition on this market. I sincerely regret that Voigtlander did not follow up on digital rangefinder after their test (and commercial failure) with Epson on the RD1. The Bessa were very good cameras and I would have a RD4 or RD5 if it existed today instead of a Leica M9.

I can use M lenses, it’s all manual and I love that.

The color jpg of the M9 (thanks to Kodak) are piece of art, some say that they can get all the same with post-processing, I’m still to see the proof of that, fact is I could not reproduce the jpeg of the M9 starting from a DNG file from the same camera.

The B&W are average, I can not get out of it what I expect from such a camera. I regret that Kodak did not think of adding a TRI-X mode on their sensor. I did not test, but I’m quite sure that Fuji camera (especially GFX) are pretty good as well on this aspect.

Do I use my Leica as a social marker ? Let’s be clear, when you have a watch from Switzerland, nobody cares. The only person you convince is yourself. A Leica camera is exactly the same thing, nobody cares. People are much more impressed by a Nikon Z8 or Z9 than by a Leica. For common people, a Leica just looks like a cheap camera, if you tell them that’s not the case because a Leica is manual focus and has only a very crude light meter, then they don’t even see the point in using such a camera. Definitely, for the common people, Leica does not even have the aura of a Rolex or a Mercedes.

What is a real photographer ?

This article was first posted on “RPF”, the Real Photographer Forum.

Since the forum is called “Real Photographer Forum”, it should trigger a discussion about how we should define a real photographer. Those past few weeks, I had a strong review of my own opinion about this when I watched some old photos I’ve made in the past with a Voigtlander Bessa R2 (a film camera).

Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t say that my photo at that time were better than all the photographs I’ve made since this time. In fact, I’ve made much better than that since I’ve owned the Bessa. But I’ve become a mediocre photographer if my photographs were better. I confused the travel with the destination, I believed that the destination was more important than the travel, that making good photographs was better than being a good photographer.

The first photograph is made with a Voigtlander Bessa R2 and I don’t even remember which lens I used at the time. It’s not what I would consider a good shot, but back then I still decided to keep it and I think I was right. The second one has been made recently with a Nikon Zfc and the 16-50. It shows a small street of Bangkok half flooded and a woman trying to make her way without ruining her shoos.

Both images have no relationship whatsoever, but the second one is definitely better. Technically, it’s colorful, it’s all in focus, there is a clear context and an information. Taken from below, not being exceptional, the composition is still OK and fits the purpose. But I get no honor here, the camera has done everything for me, I just had to get there and press the shutter at the right point. I would never have been able to catch this shot with a Bessa R2 today because there are too many parameters I would have to handle to be ready in time.

I’ve seen professionals cover an event with some Nikon Z9 (or equivalent) without even watching what they were shooting. Holding the camera above their head and shooting continuously hundreds of photographs per minutes in every direction. In post processing, they will just delete 99.9% of what they shoot, post-process whatever remains in Capture one (or whatever software you may name here) and still come with a reasonable result, maybe even better than whatever I can do with the very same Bessa R2 I was talking about.

Is that being a good photographer ?

For years, I’ve been cheating this way. I’ve been using the Nikon D1h and D1x, the D700 (what a wonderful camera) and I’ve shot hundreds of photographs per hours in the streets of wherever I was living at the time.

But I was cheating. I was just shooting RAW files, then I post processed them to get exactly the kind of result I wanted. I consider today that’s not being a real photographer. I got very good photographs, but it’s easy to get photographs when the only thing I have to do is to shoot 300 hundreds photographs in two hours, select the 2 or 3 a little bit better and post process them to get a kind of film feeling and give myself some compliments: “it looks like Cartier Bresson, I’m so proud of my work”.

But Cartier Bresson did not have a Nikon D700, he had a Leica M3 and one lens to work.

My view changed when I acquired a Leica M9. This camera is not like the ones I owned so far. I does not shoot 300 photographs per hour, it does not focus for me, its light meter mesures the light as it arrives on the shutter, as we did for years before the AI was included in every camera to handle every and each case. The framing is approximative, on my camera, even the focus is screwed and I have to correct each photo manually. And I have to consider all those parameters and imperfections while I’m making the photograph, not during the post processing. The camera is so slow (1 shot per second at best), there is no second chance. I get the shot or I miss it. But there is no before and no after, just the right moment, the one opportunity for me to get.

And to make matter worse, the DNG are less good than the JPG out of the camera (let’s say that the JPG are really super good). So bye bye post processing, get back the shadow or the burnt area. If the shot is not good out of the camera, It’s not good at all.

All this is very frustrating, to say the least. The overall quality of my work has decreased significantly since I do not post process my photographs anymore, since I don’t cheat anymore. I miss many opportunities and shots when I walk in the street. I’ve to see things in advance and get prepared if I want the shot … in other words, I’ve become a better photographer, a real photographer.

Can I post blurry photographs and be cool with that?

By it’s very definition, photography is the art or the process of producing images of an object on a photosensitive area, either chemically (film) or electronically (sensor). “Art” in this context is not to be taken in its first degree but as a synonym for “skills” : “If you describe an activity as an art, you mean that it requires skill and that people learn to do it by instinct or experience, rather than by learning facts or rules.” (Collins dictionnary).

Photography is not a process of creation, it’s a process of “production” and it changes everything. Because we do not create photographs, we reproduce an object (a landscape, a situation, a product, a person) on a support. This object may be a piece of art, it may even be created by the photographer itself, it does not make the photography of this object a creation, but just the reproduction of this creation.

A camera is a tool to record and produce images.

A photography is better when it’s focused and correctly exposed because it give a better view of the object that was taken on the photograph. The photographer has some latitude in his art to alter significantly the picture to give a more dramatic sense. Very often, the photographer makes reference to the work of other photographers to give a sense of nostalgie to the image, this practice is common in most activities, we tend to reproduce what we know.

It makes that a photograph carries two kind of informations:

– The reproduction of the object
– The alteration of the photographer

Some photographs contains such a valuable information (they reproduce a very rare object), that the perfection of its technical production don’t carry a vital importance.

Those photographs of Robert Capa are blurry, but they contain very valuable information. There is an historic event of the first importance that will never occur again. Nobody cares the framing, the alteration, the composition, the focus … Robert Capa himself did not care much about that when he made them. His point was to witness a moment. For those shots, the answer is yes, a photograph can be blurry and the photographer can be cool with that.

In some case, we want to make a blurry photograph, or at least a partially blurry photograph because it’s part of the object we want to reproduce.

In this picture, the blurry part emphase the feeling of speed of the object in the photo. It’s an alteration of the photographer to emphase part of the information he wants to pass in his picture.

We find as well this kind of alteration when we want to isolate a subject from its background using a narrow DOF.

There is a third case when some photographers can blur a photograph for no apparent reason and still be cool with that.

That’s a painting of Picasso. We all know Picasso, he was a great painter and we owe him for his work. But that picture in particular is a piece of shit, it could have been done by my nephew of 8 yo. We would have encouraged him and told him that’s great, he can paint like Picasso. Fact is that the only thing who gives any value to such a picture is the signature of Picasso.

I don’t know if this behavior is alienating, but it’s clearly misleading because it gives the impression that we can create anything and it’s good to go, that there is no background rules to understand, no skill to acquire, no experience required to make a good shot (or a good painting). It created the modern art (in French, Art contemporain, we say “Art comptant pour rien” or “Art counting for nothing”) where the creation does not matter anymore, the only thing who matters is who created it (and what is the BS behind his “creation”).

Excuse this long article, but I’ll finish with Victor Hugo here, and I quote :

“Votre livre est-il manqué ? tant pis. N’ajoutez pas de chapitres à un livre manqué. Il est incomplet ? il fallait le compléter en l’engendrant.”

“Your book is bad ? So be it. Do not add a chapter to a bad book. It’s not complete ? you should have done it while you were creating it”.

If your shot is not good out of the camera, it’s not good at all.