IN SEARCH OF DECISIVE MOMENTS:
The Challenges of Modern Street Photography
By Bill Dobbins
Anyone knowledgable about photography and the great photographers of the past is bound to respect the career of Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was a great street, journalistic and documentary photographer who coined the phrase “the decisive moment,” describing his goal to use his camera to observe and capture images of significant instants in time.
Cartier-Bresson was able to do this, starting in the early 30s largely because of a relatively new technology available to him – the 35MM Leica camera. This format was an innovation in a world of larger format cameras and in 1932 Leica produced a version which became the basis for all Leica 35MM cameras that followed. This instrument was extremely well made, small, unobtrusive and along with superior Leitz lenses produced images of a quality that compensated for the relatively small size of the film format.
Until this time, most cameras were fairly bulky and anyone being photographed tended to be highly aware of the fact. Plus using roll of film instead of individual sheet meant the photographer could shoot 36 images in a row, quickly reload and then continue shooting – the photographic equivalent of a repeating rifle. A photographer like Cartier-Bresson could wander around for extended periods and shoot a considerable number of images over time.
Of course, there had been small box cameras like the Kodak Brownie around since the turn of the century. But these were used by amateurs to shoot snapshots, not professional photographers creating serious candid, journalist and street images. Box cameras in that sense were much like the smart phones of today.
The type of photo created by Cartier-Bresson have been accepted as being “classic” – BW, usually relying on few lenses or only one (in his case 50MM) and printed full frame without cropping or a lot of darkroom manipulation. Because Cartier-Bresson’s photos are considered among the best ever and have become a fundamental part of our cultural history, the photography community has tended to treat his work method as somehow an especially “pure” way of making images and he has become an iconic role model for many other photographers.
But in light of the subsequent more than eight decades of technology, the question remains as to how much of his style and approach was primarily an artistic choice and how much was dictated by the limitations of the technology available to him.
After all, you can’t choose what is not available. Cartier-Bresson didn’t have, at least not at the beginning of his career, things like quality color film to work with (Kodachrome was introduced in 1935 but BW continued to be concerned “more artistic.”) He didn’t have zoom lenses or even the range of telephoto glass available today. Although film emulsions at the time were much faster than they had been only a few years earlier, they were still relatively slow. No shooting at 25,000 ISO in low light situations. He did not have graded contrast paper to print on, much less digital printers. All of these factors created an environment in which many or most of his “artistic choices” can hardly be viewed as being any real choice at all.
Nowadays, we have photographers who use still vintage and historic technologies to produce striking images. There are some who create daguerreotypes, tintypes, shoot wet plates, use pinhole cameras and/or use alternate printing techniques. Each different technology, despite involving significant limitations, can yield very striking and unique results. But each is adopted with full knowledge of its special requirements and limitations. You gain certain artistic advantages exercising these choices but there is a trade-off because there are no many things you can’t do compared to relying on state-of-the-art photographic equipment and techniques.
So for anyone interested in replicating the techniques used by Cartier-Bresson to shoot street, candid or journalistic photographs in the modern age, the question becomes where it is worth limiting your choices and control in order to pursue a more “pure” although limiting approach? Certainly, limiting yourself to BW you can never produce the fantastic photos we often see done in color. Shooting with only one lens, usually fairly wide angle, you end up with a certain kind of style and perspective.
Nonetheless, there is a huge subjective element to the art of photography and each photographer needs to find out what approach best stimulates his or her artistic sensibilities.
There have certainly been many street, candid and journalistic photographers beside Cartier-Bresson and not have all worked the same. Over the decades, the sociological environment in which photographers have been working in has kept changing. When Cartier-Bresson first started shooting in the 1930s most people shot didn’t even realized their pictures were being taken. There had not been small and unobtrusive cameras available before so it was easy for the subjects to be unaware they were being photographed.
Today people are much more aware of being photographic subjects and many can react very negatively when a stranger takes their picture without explanation. A photographer doing candid or street images has to remain aware of this.
Actually, over the course of time there have been some version of three basic approaches to street photography commonly used. (1) Some candid photographers try to work with the subjects remaining largely unaware of them. (2) Others interact with their subjects, put them at ease and get their cooperation. (3) Another approach is more overtly secretive, such as shooting from a distance with long lenses or working with cameras disguised to look like something else. (One photographer was known for using a camera with a fake lens set at aa 90 degree angle so he appeared to be shooting something in a different direction than was actually taking place.)
Photographers may end up using different approaches or combinations of approaches over the course of various photo shoots. But it remains true that the choice and availability of equipment also makes a difference in what kind of images you are likely to end up with. Whereas Cartier-Bresson could only get a certain kind of result with a Leica, BW film and a limited selection of lenses somebody working with a modern DSLR using a zoom lens and with the ability to output images in color,
Actually, when shooting RAW you are only recording pixels, so you can leave the decision as to whether to output results in color or BW until later. With the ability to change your mind down the line.
With this in mind, in order to explore this question of the effect of cameras and technology on street photography, for the purpose of this blog post I decided to do experiment with a few weeks of street shooting using different cameras to see how this affected the results and how I felt about the process.
Specifically, I shot with my own Canon 5D Mark III DSLR and a zoom lens, a Fuji X-Pro 2 mirrorless camera with a fixed 23MM lens (35MM full frame equivalent) and a full frame Leica M9 with a 35MM lens. It is a fact that, aside from the purely technical aspects of a camera/lens combination, photographers tend to find certain cameras and formats much more comfortable to use than others on an individual, subjective basis. Many photographers over the years have loved using the 35MM format, while others preferred formats like 2 1/4 Hassleblad or Rolleiflex or 6X7 like the Mamiya RZ.
For those whose artistic goals required a large format view camera many would have found a 4X5 film size to be too restrictive. For them formats like 8X10, 11X14 or 16X20 were available. But these cameras are not generally used for candid, street or journalistic photos – although 4X5 cameras (and those using other sizes of sheet film) like the Speed Graphic or Graflex were used for journalistic work before 35MM became available – and in many cases long after.
There is no doubt that some cameras and formats feel best to individual photographers, make them feel more comfortable and allow them to best exercise their photographic skills and talents,.
Although I had used a Leica back in the film days, and the M-9 and M-10 digital versions are beautifully made devices that produce superior quality files. working on this project I found the need for manual focus and lack of other automatic features somewhat too restrictive. A camera like this is almost like a sniper rifle is to a soldier – a wonderful tool for solving a particular problem but not something ideal for general combat. A Leica is going to allow you to create great quality files, but somewhat limited in type and style. If you are very comfortable with this camera, if it suits you, that’s fine. But this may not be true for the majority of photographers.
The Fuji X-Pro 2 is a small and unobtrusive camera with all the technological bells and whistles you could ask for from a modern digital camera. Auto exposure, auto focus and even a built-in ability to internally convert photos to a variety of color and BW looks that is really amazing. The Fuji allows you to shoot as you would with the Leica but with a more modern technology – including a choice of different view finders. In practical terms, this is a much more advanced way of achieving generally similar results. This camera also has the advantage to being able to record to two SD cards rather than one, either having one card back up the other, shooting RAW to one card and jpegs to another or simply to give yourself the ability to make more exposures.
The Canon 5D Mark III also records to two cards and is my favorite all-purpose camera. Used with a zoom lens, it allows me to shoot everything from models in amazing landscapes to sports, products fashion, portraits street and candid photography as well. What it is NOT is unobtrusive, especially when I use my 28-300 zoom lens, which is huge. So unless I am some distance away there is not much chance I can do candid photos subjects without their knowing what I am up to.
I like zoom lenses and, since I find digital images to often be too sharp, I am only concerned about the superior quality of prime lenses in specific circumstances. In fact, I like zoom lenses so much, and the X-Pro2 is such a great camera in a small package, I have back ordered a zoom lines for it from Samy’s – a lenses which is considerably smaller and lighter than the zooms I have for my Canon.
But in thinking about how to do street or candid photography in the modern age, one question that needs to be brought up is whether or not what we know as street photography is already archaic, old fashion and on its way out as far pro photographers are concerned.. After all, there are millions of electronic devices out there, including smart phones and tablets, and people are shooting and uploading trillions of images on a regular basis. We see them published in swarms on services like Instagram and Facebook and it would seem having so many images like this being created by so many there would seem to be little need for professionals to do candid or street photos.
But I would draw an analogy between this situation and the introduction of the snapshot at the beginning of the 20th century. Snapshots done using simple box cameras allow the average person to create photos of their friends, family and environment without the need for a pro photographer – something never before possible with older technology. Millions of snapshots were created and many are very interesting in terms of documenting time, place and behavior of past times.
But how many of these snapshot are now respected as treasured, important, artistic photographs? The answer is not many. Because they were not created by a trained, experienced photographer using his or her skills to produce the best quality results. Snapshots are the equivalent of somebody singing in the shower – interesting in a documentary sense but not likely to have much influence off the culture as a whole.
Digital photography with automatic cameras has made it much easier to anyone to create okay, mediocre images, not particularly good but not all that bad. Even an entry-level DSLR set on automatic eliminates the majority of technical mistakes. But while giving a monkey a camera with autofocus and a motor drive will give you at least some interesting images, if you want a relatively high percentage of quality, interesting photos of some significance – something at a higher level than a snapshot – you had best put the camera in the hands of an experienced, capable photographer.
In reality, ANY of the cameras I used – any number I might have made use of – will allow you to do effective street photography, as long as you realize what limitations one technology or the other is imposing on you. As the old saying goes, when the only tool you have available every problem becomes a nail.
That’s why good carpenters try to work with a complete tool box.
But the essential element to getting good street and candid photos on a regular basis is (1) always have a camera available and (2) stay on the lookout for photo opportunities at all times. The latter is more difficult than it seems. It takes lot of effort to look around for chances to shoot interesting photos on a continual basis. It is exhausting! You not only have imagine whether something you are looking at is worth shooting but you also have to consider whether it would actually “register” in a picture. That is, will the image get across to viewers what your intention is in shooting it.
You are only going to get a relatively few really successful results wandering around and shooting at random but with practice you can improve your averages. It takes practice to hone your skills and instincts. It’s the kind of thing author Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his book Blink. The highest level of skill is when you an act without thinking based on thousands of hours of experience.
In other words, to be a good street, candid or journalistic photographer you need to take a camera and get out and shoot. This is much easier nowadays without the need to pay for film and processing. But you need to become like a catcher throwing to second base – be able to instantly react to a situation and take appropriate action.
LINKS TO MORE BILL DOBBINS STREET PHOTOS ON PHOTOSHELTER
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: