What Lens

“I wondered a little when you posted
that you were buying the 5D with a
28mm lens. I had you pegged as a 50mm
man.” – Stephen Bray

Yes, it’s true.  If I only had one lens to use, it would be a good 50mm f1.4 (full frame).  I picked up the 28mm 1.8 because I got a good deal on it (honey they were on sale, look how much I saved) and because it had been a long time since I had used true wide-angles on a full-frame.  And it is useful for scenics.

If you were to go through the images in the store, you’d find that 90% of them were shot with the equivalent (not counting the camera format) of a 50mm, give or take a few mm’s.  It is one of my gripes with camera makers that the first thing they try to sell you as part of the “package” is a zoom lens.  I would rather see them offer a 50mm f1.4 equivalent.  It’s one of the first things I end up talking about when people (friends, cousins etc.) ask me how to “get better” at their photography.

I look at the kit they have, and try to forbid them from using the zoom lens that came with the kit, and going to a normal type prime lens, at least f2.0

This almost always seems like a novel idea.  How will they be able to get closer to the subject?  (You walk closer).

But what if it is a mountain that is far in the distance (I will make exceptions for objects that you can’t get close to, or if you need the perspective of a long lens).  However, this is a different subject, and you are asking about how to get better and I am giving two rules: use a normal and hopefully “fast” lens, and take the camera with you everywhere.  Yes, everywhere.

The two rules are related.  It is going to be more difficult to take the camera with the heavier zoom lens with you everywhere, and since the zoom lens is going to be slower than the prime lens, you are going to end up wanting to use flash more often.

It is a little bit like the advice a friend once got about playing the trumpet.  The teacher refused to give the student a trumpet at all, and had him only blowing into the mouthpiece for about three months to develop the armature before handing him the trumpet.

My own experience, when I went back to photography was to use a camera with a fixed normal lens for close to a year before getting a camera with interchangeable lenses.  It is really an excellent way to get a feeling for what is in the frame, and what walking a few steps forward or a few steps back can do.

I have nothing against zoom lenses; I just don’t think they are a good way to begin.  Once you’ve got a feeling for a normal lens, I would add a semi-long (maybe 90mm or so) lens for portraits, or getting closer.  And after that you are on your own and can buy out the store.

Before I get mail about my prejudice against zoom lenses – let me put it into context – I’m only talking about the beginner, or the student (at whatever stage) that is in need of a kind of optical purification.  I own and will use a long zoom sometimes – but it comes at a point where I understand the consequences, and I can say for sure that I don’t carry it with me at all times and use it when I need a good long lens.

Wide-angles on the street are often used as measurement of street courage.  The shorter the lens, the closer you need to be to the subject, and hence there is a sort of macho thing about using short lenses for street shooting.  However, I don’t believe any prizes are given for street photography with the shortest lens.  The shorter lenses for the candid shooter usually come later in the career; when you need to up the challenge a bit; or you like the challenge of having more bits of the puzzle in the frame.  So, just as the long lens is not for the beginner, neither is the short lens.

– The Art of Photography, Dave B’ck-mahn


Matt Weber Blog


Click image for large size

Subway Preacher - Click for large size
Subway Preacher by Matt Weber

I met Matt a few years ago when he asked me to takes some pictures of his daughter at the Central Park Zoo.  We’ve been good friends ever since.  His old site was was simply not worthy of someone that I consider a major  street photography talent.  (Sorry Matt – you know that was how I felt).

For a few years I was trying to talk him into redoing the site somewhere else. Maybe just a simple blog with pictures.  Every time he heard the word “blog” mentioned, it turned into an argument.  Why…?  Well, he has very specific ideas about how his work should be presented.  The pictures should be BIG. Back then anyway, all the blogs he looked at had small images or thumbnails.  He didn’t like any of the templates he saw.  I told him they could be changed.  At the same time, he was disgusted with his lack of web traffic and thought it was all due to a lack of certain magical metatags.

True, there are one or two metatags that are important, but really you want people to link to your site and come back to see what’s new, and that’s not going to happen if the site is poorly displayed and hard to navigate.

And so finally, I managed to convince him to do a blog at wordpress.com (which is where they host it for you) and it’s free.

And so, a few days ago, while we were discussing (loudly) the possibilities over the phone, he said, wait a minute, I think I found one (a template that he can live with).  It is a fluid template that will expand to fit the size of his pictures, and eventually, he’ll purchase the CSS option for $15 and I’ll be able to change the background color etc.

So welcome Matt into the 21st Century at: mattweberphotos.wordpress.com and let him know how happy you are that he has a photo blog.  And   In all seriousness, he’s a talented street photographer that has not had much web presence.  I’ve linked to his new site, and if you are interested in amazing New York street photography you might consider linking to his new site.  He’s a good guy at heart who has mostly been invisible on the web (if you don’t count his flickr presence) which regularly gets lots of comments and has a following.

Bon Voyage Matt.  May the web be with you.

1. Street Photography Techniques (Summary)


If you are a street photographer, you’ll find things to disagree with in this article. I often disagree with my own conclusions. I do concentrate on the current DSLR camera and skip over the Leica M since I figure if you’re a street photographer using the M camera you already have your own techniques down. But if street photography is new for you, and you are wondering about what sort of digital camera has the most useful features, and how to get over your initial fear of taking pictures of strangers in a strange land – then you may find useful techniques, both psychological and technical in this post. But fair warning – a seasoned street photographer will be likely to fall asleep while perusing this post. Someone who is just starting to do street photography may be overwhelmed by the amount information.


In this post I try to summarize the tips about street photography in one place.

When you’re getting started the challenge is overcoming the fear of taking pictures of strangers. Since telephoto lenses aren’t normally used in street photography, how can you stand a few feet from your subject, put the camera to your eye, focus, and click the shutter without getting nervous? A good street photographer is not only fearful in the beginning (this is a good sign of being sensitive) but they also don’t want to do anything which will change the how the subject is behaving.
Continue reading “1. Street Photography Techniques (Summary)”

Difficult to Photograph Subjects

In today’s atmosphere where every photographer is a suspicious character, especially if they want to photograph children – the easiest way to get yourself into trouble is photographing kids in a park playing.  Your motives maybe pure, but parks have signs posted about no adults allowed unless they are guardians or related to a kid; and so even though you are following in a street photography tradition that goes back to Helen Levitt and other famous photographers who did street candids of children playing, you are likely to be misunderstood.

So a collorary of the tip: Bring a Friend Along, is bring a kid along.  In this case, I would often visit a nearby park with my eight year old niece and have her stand in front of the scene I wished to photograph.  If you are a woman photographer – this is even easier since you are less likely to be regarded with suspicion.  My niece had a short attention span, normal in a kid, and I could get her to pose or pretend to pose for me only once or twice before it was time to push her on the swings.  But that was how this shot was taken.  The park was filled with mothers and upper-east side guardians, and even with my pretense of photographing my niece, they all had an eye on me so I had to work fast.  I wouldn’t waste my opportunity and had shots pre-designed before moving my niece into the path and taking my shots.  Here are a few from these outings.

Street Photography (Subway)

The techniques for shooting on the subway haven’t changed much since the early days of small portable cameras.  The “candid” unposed shot is at the heart of street shooting.  The idea of capturing the subject(s) without having them pose or being aware of being photographed.  Street photographers will also play with the startled or humorous looks they get when the subjects know they are being photographed – but the idea of finding reality in the unposed photograph is still at the heart of the matter.

“[James] Agee encouraged [Walker Evans] in his next photographic project, one he had been mulling over for some time: to make portraits of people with a hidden camera on the New York subway.  The idea was born of his desire to strip portrait photography of its artificial conventions … and to provide a sober counterpoint to the disingenuous smiling faces arrayed in the window of the small town studio photographer.

“And so, on the brink of a certain degree of fame, Evans literally went underground.  He was determined to capture his subjects completely unawares, in the privacy of their daydreams, when their vanity was for a moment suspended.  But a fear of being caught in the act deterred him from taking off on his own.  If the subjects discovered what he was up to the picture would be ruined and the confrontation awkward if not dangerous.

“To Helen Levitt, photographing in the subway (even though it was in fact against the law) was not daunting.  Prodding him along, she volunteered to ride the subway with him as the photographer’s foil.  During the colder months of 1938, the two would set out for several hours of subway travel on the Lexington Avenue local…

“In order to work inconspicuously, Evans did not use flash equipment in the subway car’s dim available light but slowed his shutter speed down to a risky 1/50th of a second.  He painted the black chrome parts of his 35mm Contax camera matte black, tucked its body under his coat with the lens slyly protruding between two buttons and rigged the shutter to a cable release on a slender cord that led up to his right shoulder, down his sleeve, and into the palm of his hand.” – Walker Evans by Belinda Rathbone

In the 90’s, I did the same thing, with a Rollei Twin Lens medium format camera.  But the camera was too big to hide beneath my coat.  I would dress in a suit, and carry a flat attache case.  With the case on my lap, I prop the camera up on it, tilt the case with camera towards subjects, and I had the long cable release going up my arm and into my pocket where I could squeeze it.  At that time, with a manual focus camera, I already knew various distances on the train. Most street photographers in those days could tell you how far it was from one subway post to another. Or what the width of a particular subway train was. The six train, for example was narrower than the D train.

You really couldn’t wind the camera to the next frame until the train stopped and there was the commotion of people getting on and off.

I don’t shoot like that on the subway nowadays. I generally just put whatever camera I’m using, up to my eye, frame the shot, and click away. You do need to be fast if you want to get your shot before the person(s) notice you. And you need to have a friendly smile ready for whatever comes after. Or maybe you are pretending to be a tourist and the whole thing is all very innocent in your own mind.

But I assure you, that this sort of shooting without being surreptitious is the best way (or my favorite way) to go about it. You are out in the open, and if discovered, it’s not like you were being sneaky. And so long as your motives are okay – and so long as your subjects are relatively normal (neither are always true) you can do very well with a straight forward approach.

2. Street Photography

Contax G2 - Rangefinder with Zeiss Lenses
Cartier-Bresson used to say that he could tell whether a photographer was any good by seeing how the photographer held the camera.  I can’t go that far, but I can give a few tips that would tell me whether the photographer was a novice or not.

The street photographer is a bit like the old western gunfighter – which is to say they are twitchy – and always ready to take a shot.  Their world is filled with missed shots, and possibly great things that are going on all around them.  You may be walking along the street with them talking about what to have for dinner and find them suddenly spin around – take a shot – and keep up the conversation.   Their eyes are searching for something all the time.

So what that means is:

1) The use of lens caps.  If you are walking around with a lens cap on your camera then cannot be a street photographer.  Use a UV filter to protect the lens and never use a lens cap, at least not on the lens that’s attached to the camera; even if the camera and lens are in your bag.

2) Always have the camera hanging around your neck, in a mode that is ready for what could happen next.  I know that lots of street photographers walk around with the camera in their hand with the strap wrapped around their wrist.  My own take on this is that it makes the photographer more – not less visible.  My advice is to think and act like a tourist.  And a tourist doesn’t hold the camera in their hand – they have it dangling from their neck. (Obviously I’m not talking about point and shoots). Continue reading “2. Street Photography”

Bring a Friend Along for Better Photos

One of the scariest things for the beginning street photographer is – yes you guessed it – photographing strangers.  Whether they are walking alone towards you on an empty street, or even in the relative comfort of a crowd – many photographers are afraid to put the camera to their eye, aim it at what might be an interesting street scene, and press the shutter.  I began this over twenty years ago, so in order to write this I need to go back a long way, and remember that sense of dread that filled me when I began doing street photography.

My heart was in the right place.  I wasn’t looking to hurt anyone or make anyone look bad; but I wanted to be able to find design and meaning in the human experience.

So if you fall into this category of shooter, I have a number of exercises that may help.

This one goes back to the beginning of street photography: bring a friend along.

And it couldn’t be more simple.

Select your shooting spot.  A place that is crowded with tourists is the easiest because everyone has a camera and is lining up friends in front of landmarks to document their trip.

With a full-frame camera, you would want a 50mm to 75mm lens.  With a cropped camera you can do this trick with a 30 or 50mm lens.

And so you wait for something interesting and try and place your friend nearby, and wait for the moment – and move the camera away from your friend to capture the scene you wanted.

Important note for all street photography: after you take a shot of your subject(s) do not remove the camera from your eye.  This gives away what you just shot.  Keep the camera to your eye and bring it to point back at your friend.  Continue the charade until people get used to you.  Unless you’re very unlucky, or very obvious with your movements – you should be able to pull this off over and over again.

Shoot Something Every Day

This is a take off on an old exercise. It used to be something like, “shoot one roll a day.” Or some variation of that. The idea was to force you to keep an eye out for some possible shot during the day, especially while you went about your normal business.

The 35mm roll has 36 exposures.

My exercise is much easier: shoot 20 digital shots every day for 30 days. The part of the exercise which is most important is that you have a camera with you at all times. No, unless your cellphone camera is what you normally shoot with, you’ll have to use your normal shooting camera.

But this leaves you with what. What can you expect to get from this, and what are you going to do with all those pictures.

The first lesson is that most photography is an adventure with failure. Typical for me, as an example was last week where I was asked to photograph a Halloween parade. I shot about 400 captures. From that I could say that about ten would suit the purpose of the assignment, and that one was actually what I would call “good.”

If you think of photography as a zen-like practice, you know that to be mindful you must meditate every day. Shooting is the same thing. You are trying to move into a state of visual mindfulness. And by forcing yourself to shoot every day, you’ll take a step towards that goal.

As part of this zen photography (that may be a stretch, but it’s not a bad way to approach it) you will want to show your work to someone. If you are a beginner, see if you can control this urge for a month or two but whether you can or can’t, I consider that your ability to take criticism and praise without being influenced important.

I try to leave my students with the idea that I am wrong quite often with my opinions about my own work. My life has been filled by critics and praise and I learned to take them both with a grain of salt. I’m not talking about technical stuff – anyone can see that a picture is out of focus or underexposed. But when you take a step up from that and begin to approach the expressiveness of an image – even in terms of how it might be cropped – that’s when you are stumbling in the dark.

Street Photography has nothing to do with the street.  It can happen anywhere.  It’s just a way of seeing.