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by Genghis


Although street photography has included subject matter such as the environs on and around streets, the subjects of greatest interest have traditionally been people, for good reason. The moments when strangers on the street are spontaneously caught by street photographers engaged in the acts of living out their lives, provide the emotional content that is not possible in other genres of photography. It is the human condition, human faces and to some extent human body language, that reveal this emotional content in a photographic freeze of those moments. It is imperative that street photography feature strangers, rather than friends or family members who are expecting a portaiture approach. Photography of strangers who aren't expecting to be photographed, generates the emotional impact in the street photo, so prized by street photographers. Ideally, a connection is made between the photographer and his or her street subject, that is spontaneous and real. This can be characterized as an emotional bond of sorts. That's why I personally find studio photography of people so boring, because they inevitably result in a predictably artificial response in subjects, that is devoid of spontaneity. Spontaneity is street photography's secret ingredient. The posed picture is the enemy of spontaneous emoting in subjects. The capture of unknown people who are completely unaware of the photographic act can be exhilirating to view. Equally exhilirating, are street pictures of people who realize at the instant of shutter activation, that they are being photographed. This realization reveals the whole spectrum of emotions in this latter category, from anger to delight. The fact that photography of these people takes place at extremely close ranges that are dictated by the use of wide angle lenses, magnifies the interest in these pictures because of the intimacy that is conveyed by the photographs.

"Affable" is an example of a subject photographed at extremely close range with a wide angle lens (20mm), where the subject realized at the very last instant when I made the exposure, that I was photographing her--hence the title. I was two and a half feet from this woman when I tripped the shutter. As you can see, the subject was completely affable at the moment that she knew that I was taking her picture. To me, the spontaneous reaction that I elicited from this subject, is worth more than a hundred posed pictures of the same woman in poses. Her reaction is as real as the moment is unrehearsed. A viewer of the photograph can almost hear the thoughts flash through her mind when she realized that I was taking her picture. Admittedly, there is always some shock value inherent in a subject, when a camera is presented to the subject from a distance of two and half feet. This is literally, close enough to reach out and touch someone. Analogously, a street photographer shooting someone at a range of less than three feet, is reaching out and touching that subject's mind with his or her own mind. This is the "connection" I was referring to. Photographers and viewers who are less than knowledgeable, cannot appreciate the physical challenges that street photographers face when shooting subjects at close distances. Indeed, these clueless viewers and photographers may not even realize from perusing a typical street photograph, that a wide angle lens has been used. It is the wide angle lens that lends the feeling of intimacy in a street photograph that is so desirable. Longer lenses that yield similar subject-to-frame-border relationships, result in a detached feeling by comparison.

There are specialized techniques that are used in photographing street subjects at close ranges, that I've described in detail in "Tutorial: Techniques of Street Photography". In the case of "Affable" I will outline my technical approach to taking this photograph, which will encapsulate the techniques I advocate in close proximity shooting. First, I had the exposure correctly set for the immediate area of the street where this subject was, as I constantly check exposure as I walk along a street. This way, exposure is not a concern when I encounter a potential subject. Speed in execution is of the essence, after choosing a subject. A street photographer doesn't have the luxury of copious amounts of time that a landscape photographer does. The mountain will not move, but the human subject in street photography is as likely to move before the photographer is ready to make the exposure, as not. Every step must be taken to ensure that all a street photographer has to do to complete the photographic act after making a final approach to the spot chosen to shoot the subject from, is to frame the picture as previsualized, and to trip the shutter. When you reach your destination of a few feet away from the subject where you will be shooting the subject from, you don't want to be spending any time setting exposure or focus. By default, I standardize on shooting exclusivley at wide open and I recommend this. In the case of my 20mm f/4 Nikkor, it is at f/4. This way, the shutter speed can be maximized for the given light conditions for each photograph. I believe that this standardization of using the widest aperture, is critical in the success in shooting street pictures of people, who are always in flux. After I noticed this subject from a distance and decided to photographer her, I chose a distance from which I wanted to shoot her, and mentally visualized the completed image from that distance. That predetermined camera-to-subject distance was two and half feet, which I preset using the distance scale on the focusing ring of my 20mm lens, before I made my final approach.

Before I took even the first step toward the subject, I had my exposure and focus already set. I also had previsualized the final composition before approaching. I walked to the spot I chose to the subject's right, two and half feet away. I planted myself, brought the viewfinder up to my eye and framed the composition as I mentally visualized it. At this point, I had two final choices. First, I could trip the shutter and take her picture with the subject's face in profile, as she would be unaware of my presence. Alternatively, I could wait for her to become aware of my presence. In such situations, the subject then turns towards me and reacts. The latter is what I wanted. I wanted to experience and record the true emotions of the subject as she reacted to having her picture taken. For an experienced street photographer, there is a sense of slow-motion as we wait for this to happen. In actuality, this takes a split second to occur. Close proximity shooting in street photography as witnessed in the taking of "Affable" is indeed an art. The complexity of technique required to make an exposure like this, is what makes street photography such a difficult and challenging, yet greatly rewarding photographic discipline.