As I looked at this photograph, I thought it might be a good opportunity to discuss some of the techniques and principles I follow when documenting life on the street.
First of all, I try to make myself as discrete as possible. I use manual focus Leica rangefinder cameras with Leica lenses, and the combination of the rangefinder body and lens is small compared to a DSLR and therefore attracts less attention. The rangefinder bodies and lenses are black, and so I usually wear a black shirt when I’m out shooting, The camera kind of fades into my body and isn’t so noticeable. The objective is just to blend in with the people on the street, which allows me to hopefully capture really candid moments that depict everyday life as it happens.
This photograph was taken in New Orleans, and so I chose to use a 35mm focal length lens. The 35mm lens is a wide-angle lens and allows me to photograph from a relatively close distance, while still being able to get some context in terms of the scene, which is important in street photography.
My manual focus rangefinder camera and lens has no autofocus. That may seem strange to those who use point-and-shoot cameras or even very expensive DSLR’s. But the truth is, manual rangefinder cameras are really the best tool for this type of photography, providing you understand the technique of shooting using either zone focusing or hyperfocal focusing. By using either of these techniques properly, in combination with a wide-angle lens, you can become very skilled at shooting from the chest, the waist, or the hip, and be assured that your subject is in focus and framed properly. It takes a lot of practice, but once you begin to master the skill, it enables you to take a photograph with utmost discretion. If you look at my reflection in the window, I am using this technique, and you can hardly see my camera, and I’m shooting from my chest, so I’m in a very discrete position.
You can Google “zone focusing” and “hyperfocal focusing” and read some very good articles about how to use those techniques with a rangefinder or manual focus camera/lens combination. In this particular photograph, I set my aperture to f/11, my ISO to 2500, and used hyperfocal focusing so that everything in my frame from a distance of about 5 feet to infinity was in focus. My shutter speed was 1/45 second, so I knew that would give me just a slight motion blur, and you can see that by looking at my subject’s feet. Therefore, as long as I was greater than 5 feet from my subject, I knew everything would be in focus. So all I had to do was hold my camera close to my chest, wait for the right subject to come by, and I could frame and take the shot. Sometimes I even take the shots while my head is looking away from the scene, so as to completely disguise that I am taking a photograph. The shutter on a Leica rangefinder is so quiet, it is essentially inaudible on a public street.
Leica rangefinders were the camera of choice for photojournalists and the forefathers of documentary photography from the early 1950’s, for the very reasons I’ve described above.
And so now you have an inside peek of how I make some of the photographs you see in my galleries!