After a long day of photographing life and death along the Ganges in Varanasi, India, I came across a most unusual scene in a fabric shop.
When it comes to street photography, Joel Meyerowitz is among the giants. In one of my interviews with him, we talked about his early work in New York. He started his street photography with a 50mm lens on a 35mm Pentax but soon felt its coverage too confining. He then picked up a Zeiss Flektogon 35mm lens with a screw mount for his Pentax: “It changed my life. A 35mm is virtually a 1:1 lens. If you stand someplace and look at something, it’s at the right distance so you see what you get. It’s not closer or further away.”
This came as a surprise to me since I thought the 28mm was the standard street lens when it came to prime, that is, non-zoom, lenses. I asked Joel about it. He told me: “Garry Winogrand used a 35mm. Lee Friedlander used a 35mm. All of our friends…Tod Papageorge. Everyone eventually bought a 28mm because there were times when you were working late in the day in crowds where you might want the benefit of a deeper field of focus, but then you had to learn how to use it so you didn’t bend it in a way where everything flew out the sides.” In the years since Joel’s early promenades, all the major camera manufacturers have developed aspherical lenses that correct this aberration, and with that improvement, the popularity of the 28mm for street photography has grown.
Indian master photographers Raghu Rai and the late Raghubir Singh both told me that if they could only have one lens and that lens was fixed, it would be a 28mm. I would do the same. With the technical advancements in zoom lens manufacturing, many pros roaming the streets of the world turn to a 24-70mm f/2.8 for much of their work. Rather than hiding behind a long lens, we use our feet to zoom—walking closer to our subjects—and channel a bit of the late, great Robert Capa, who said, “If your pictures are not good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Choosing The Right Lens For Street Photography
When discussing focal lengths, it’s important to keep in mind that I am, like many of my colleagues, working with full-frame sensor cameras. If you’re shooting with a camera with the smaller APS-C or Micro Four Thirds sensors, you need to do a bit of math to get the equivalent focal lengths of your lenses. For Nikon, Sony, Fuji and Pentax camera bodies that have APS-C sensors, there is a 1.5x crop factor, while Canon cameras have a 1.6x factor. In other words, if I placed my AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8G ED on a Nikon DX format (APS-C) body, it would become a 36-105mm lens. All of a sudden, my DX camera with a lens set at 50mm becomes a 75mm short telephoto. Micro Four Thirds sensor cameras, such as those made by Olympic and Panasonic, have a 2x crop factor, so a 50mm lens is effectively a 100mm.
The cropped sensor “sees” a narrower field of view. So if we go the other way and we want to work with the same coverage area on a DX camera body, I would need to put on a 16-47mm lens to get the equivalent of a 24-70mm—a lens that doesn’t exist. The closest lens Nikon makes to that for its DX format is the AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II. If I were working in that format, I would opt for the faster (a lens with a larger maximum aperture) AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED lens. The larger, constant maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 opens up more low-light possibilities and the opportunity to get creative with the shallow-focus bokeh effect.
Regardless of the focal length, street photography—at night, especially—benefits from fast lenses. For zooms, that’s ƒ/2.8, and for prime lenses, ƒ/2, ƒ/1.4 or even ƒ/1.2. While my 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 covers the 50mm focal length, I often carry a 50mm ƒ/1.4 prime for two more stops of light and the ability to produce an amazing bokeh.
Exposure Settings For Street Photography
Since street photography relies on working with ambient light, early morning and late afternoons with their angled rays and warm color temperatures lend themselves for dramatic imagery. When working more in the middle of the day, I look for open shade opportunities, shots, especially street portraits, that I can take using indirect ambient light.
While I typically shoot in the Aperture Priority mode for standard travel photography, where I usually have a little more working time to get the optimal combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO, street photography often requires split-second reactions and quick compositions to capture the decisive moment. These situations are often better served in the Shutter Priority mode to lock in a safe shutter speed.
Working in Shutter Priority in ever-changing lighting situations, whether it’s in the hutongs of China or exploring the labyrinth of souks in Morocco, allows for quicker reactions, especially when combined with a fast ƒ/2.8 zoom or even faster prime lenses. I will often carry with me a 50mm ƒ/1.4 when I venture back out at night in urban settings.
My go-to shutter speed—which is also that of most photojournalists—is 1/250 sec. Unless I want to convey movement, I feel comfortable leaving my shutter speed at 1/250 sec. or faster while keeping a close eye on my aperture’s effect on depth of field, to convey what I want the viewer of the photograph to focus on.
Once I hit my minimums for my shutter speed and aperture, I go to the third and final part of the exposure triangle: ISO. Even with the great sensor of my Nikon D850, I’m a bit old school and prefer not to go above ISO 1600 whenever possible.
The retro camera movement has many young photographers exploring the world of film, a great learning tool and perfect for traditional street photography. Shooting analogue means not stopping to check the LCD screen and instead focusing on what’s in front of your lens. It also creates a deeper technical awareness of image capture. When it’s taken a step further and the photographer prints the negatives in a traditional darkroom, a hyperawareness of aperture and exposure will be one of the benefits that will translate well when again shooting digital. My experience exploring the world with a fixed 28mm lens on one film camera body and a fixed 85mm on another, both loaded with Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film, then printing the negatives in my home darkroom, gave me a strong base from which to grow.
When it comes to putting the technical aspects of photography into practice, certain countries have such a lively street life that it’s almost cheating to hit the streets camera-in-hand. Almost. It still takes the classic techniques of photography to capture the essence of urban life.
India, for instance, is on the top of the list for street photography with its vibrant street life combined with many of its denizens wearing traditional saris. In Morocco, many people wear traditional derya, jabador or kaftan. In Fes, the country’s spiritual and cultural heart, the labyrinth of its Medina and especially its souk—which is alive with craftsmen, markets, tanneries and mosques—has incredible photo ops but in tricky, constantly changing lighting situations. This is where using a camera’s +/- exposure compensation to dial in the correct exposure is vital.
Preparing for assignments to document daily life on the streets of the world includes spending a few minutes each day gearing up with Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, Coursera or other audio language courses. Regardless of the country I’m working in, learning a few words of the local language leads to human-to-human interaction, which can translate into stronger imagery and more penetrating, “eyes are the window to the soul” portraiture and, in the bigger picture, a better global understanding.