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"WHY WIDE ANGLE FOR STREET PHOTOGRAPHY?"
Photo by Genghis
Traditionally, street photographers have used wide angle lenses in our art, for a simple reason: No other focal range can provide the initimate and involved feel in the photographs that wide angles do.
If a viewer with a trained eye looks at "Film Noir" for example, that knowledgeable person can discern that I was at a rather intimate distance from the subject, in this case, 3 1/2 feet. Even un untrained viewer can sense that there is something intimate about the photo, as opposed to the same subject photographed from a greater distance with a longer lens.
When photographed with a 85mm to 500mm lens, the same subject in "Film Noir" would seem somehow more "detached" as she would indeed be in every sense, from the photographer. With a telephoto lens, the distance between the photographer and subject would be so considerable, that the subject might well be unaware of the photographer's presence.
The longer the focal length, the greater this feeling of distance and detachment becomes. This feeling of univolvement is exacerbated by the compressed depth of field that telephoto lenses cause. In street photos taken with wide angle lenses, the depth of field is very shallow, lending a feeling of intimacy with the subject that is unattainable with long lenses. The subject seeming "close" while the background appears "far away" because of the wide angle's inherent shallow depth of field, is what gives a viewer the sense of initmacy with the subject. It is psychological: The person "looks" closer because the background "looks" farther away by contrast, because the background is out of focus.
The photographer's close proximity to the subject becomes the viewer's closeness to the subject, and the feeling of intimacy that the photographer feels with the subject becomes the viewer's sense of intimacy with the subject.
If you look at "Film Noir" you can see how the subject is in focus while the background is out of focus. This renders this intimacy feel that I allude to, and this shallow depth of field is a direct function of the wide angle focal length.
When shot with a long lens, a viewer gets a sense that the subject doesn't know that the photographer is taking his or her picture.
This is not the case when a street photographer shoots a subject from less than five feet away. In this situation, the photographer's presence is known, unmistakably honest and forthright.
The street shot taken with a long lens renders a voyeuristic feel, that imparts a sense that the photographer is unconnected with the subject. That emotional tether that we feel in traditional street photos is missing.
The street shot taken with a wide angle on the other hand, leaves no doubt as to the emotional connectedness between the photographer and subject. This element of connectedness with the subjects is of paramount importance to street photographers, because street photography is a very emotional genre of photography. It is this emotional component of street photography, that is the attractive part in the execution of this art. In order to achieve proper framing and composition in street photos taken with short focal lengths, the photographer of necessity, must be extremely close to subjects. The implied intimacy generated by close proximity, is what makes this art so exciting and stimulating to street photography practitioners.
For photographers who do not routinely use the proper close distances that wide angle lenses dictate in street photography, this brings up the motivation that dares not speak its name, that is the barrier that keeps photographers from creating the intimacy so desired in their images.
Namely, a lack of courage. Is there any doubt that that shooting people from three feet away, produces a squeamishness in photographers that leads them to use longer lenses that lengthens the playing field? This may not be talked about much, but it is true. There is an unspoken bias against street photography among practitioners of other genres, borne of denial of one's fear. Nobody wants to admit they are scared of taking a stranger's picture from few feet away. Denial is human nature.
This squeamishness, can be accurately characterized as a lack of courage. Street photographers are known to be tough, in the sense that they don't exhibit delicate sensibilities.
An example of these delicate sensibilities is seen in a comment from a photographer, regarding a shot of a person on the street that I saw recently: "These types of shots are very tough to take because the photographer is basically confronting the person..." In the photo, the subject is looking in the general direction of the photographer, who seems quite far away.
Ironically, this commenter was the judge in a "People On The Street" contest at an internet photography forum, in which the aforementioned photo was an entry. This type of squeamishness with respect to "confrontation," is what prevents photographers from becoming proficient in traditional street photography. Admittedly, this tentativeness is a large hurdle to overcome in order to excel in street photography, but it is a necessary step that has to be taken, if one hopes to advance.
Ironically, if that commentator had closely scrutinized that photo that he felt uncomfortable about, he would be able to tell that it was taken at a great distance with a long focal length lens, in this case a 200mm lens.
Even the terminology used for such photos taken on the street with long lenses from great distances, are a giveaway to the unfamiliarity with traditional street photography philosophy and techniques. Instead of calling them "Street Photography," they are called either the insipid (and implies voyeurism) "Candids" or the even more generic "People On The Street." Either hesitant categorization speaks to the lack of courage that such approaches take. "Candid" photography suggests a photographer hiding behind a building to take the shot, or from fifty feet away with a 500mm lens, or "shot from the hip" with one's camera held by one's hip, while surreptitiously tripping the shutter to escape detection of one's intent. This is not honest photography.
The only way to practice honest street photography that imparts that intimate and involved feel to the images, is to use wide angle lenses. I personally use a 20mm lens exclusively, but anything 35mm or wider is acceptable for traditional street photography. Of course, for "candids" or "people on the street" photos, long focal lengths are not only acceptable, but abundantly used. later.