By Mitch Alland
It is only three years ago that I started to do street photography: before that I photographed landscapes, buildings, objects, and sometimes made portraits of people I knew; and the exhibition that I had in Bangkok in December 2003 was of Thai temples, without people in any of the pictures. Indeed, like many other people, I felt uncomfortable photographing strangers in the street and saw no purpose in doing so. In 1993 when I participated in his workshop on colour photography in Tuscany, Sam Abell told me at the end of ten days, “You're certainly not a street photographer.” He was right. I wasn't.
It was only when I conceived of doing a book about Bangkok on the difficulties of living in a huge, hot, tumultuous and chaotic city, that I started doing street photography. The point here is that street photography, like any other type of photography, is easier to do when you have a project, even when you set the project yourself. This may be especially important for street photography because, without a purpose, street photography can be meaningless, particularly if the pictures don't have any graphic distinction: how many times have you seen on the internet humdrum photos of street people, of old men sitting on benches, that say nothing either socially or graphically? The other point here is that even photographers that have no experience in street photography can do it when they have a purpose and a reason for doing it.
Here is a picture that I particularly like:
Of course its meaning does not have to be social or narrative: as photography is a visual art, the meaning can be wholly graphic; or it might be psychological. Here's another photograph I like:
To photograph in the street I have to be in a “photographing mode” and have the camera in my hand. It's not enough just to have a camera with me, as when you carry a small-sensor camera in a case hanging from your belt: if the camera is on my belt rather than in my hand I find I just don't stop and take the camera out of its case and take a picture—unless the camera is in my hand I simply don't see things the way I do when it is. I don't think that the type and size of camera is the primary concern: it's best to shoot with the type of camera that you like.
While I am not a great believer in “stealth,” because I thinks it's the body language of the photographer that is the most important thing that determines the degree to which he or she will be noticed, nevertheless a larger camera, like my recently acquired Nikon D300, will be noticed more often than a small camera like the Ricoh GRD2; but sometimes it's good for people to notice, as in the following D300 picture:
In any case I think that it is useful to shoot for a while with a small camera like the Ricoh GR Digital II because you will be usually taken as a tourist, not as a serious photographer, which will help you to loosen up your style and learn to shoot at close range (1–2 meters). Shooting at close range is important because, unless you are close to the subject, in the midst of the action, you don't really see well enough what is happening. People not experienced in street photography think a telephoto lens will let you shoot unnoticed; but the trouble is that with, say, a 200mm lens you are so far away that you don't see what you see close up.
When shooting with small sensor cameras I've preferred to use the LCD on the camera to using a viewfinder: I use the LCD only for roughly establishing the edges of the frame and look directly at the subject when pressing the shutter. This leads to a looser, fluid style that I value. My feeling is that it's worthwhile for photographers to shoot with a small sensor camera for a while to experience and learn this looser shooting approach, which is likely to carry across to shooting with larger cameras, although it does seem like it's easier to shoot close up to people with a camera like the GR-D II compared to shooting with a camera like the D300.
One advantage I find in using small sensor cameras is the huge depth of field, because looking deep into the frame seems particularly suitable for street photography. When I starred shooting with the D300 I found that I missed the depth of field of the GR-D II and found that I needed to use ƒ/8 to get the look that I wanted; but this meant that I often had to change ISO as I changed from shooting the light to the dark side of the street: the solution is either to use auto-ISO or to set the ISO at a high value like 3200, which is no problem with the 3200. With the GR-D II this was never an issue because you can shoot at the maximum ƒ/2.4 aperture and still get a huge depth of field, while using a relatively fast shutter speed.
Another issue related to framing is that it may be easier to use the “rangefinder camera approach” by using the LCD rather then framing with a DSLR: some people feel that it is easier to compose well “on the run” when you see what is outside the frame, as you do with the Leica-M cameras and, essentially, by using the framing method that I use with the GR-D II, which involves looking at the subject directly, than framing with a DSLR, which shows only what is in the frame. My view is that this is a matter of personal preference and habit: after all, James Nachtwey uses a DSLR for color and a film SLR for black-and-white, and manages to compose great shots all the time. For anyone facing a documentary project I recommend looking at Nachtwey's website for inspiration.
Finally, I cannot stress too strongly that for any street photography it is the composition, the graphic form of the frame, that is paramount, because this is what strikes the viewer the most strongly: the form is the primary factor and the content, or the concept, or the story the shot tells needs to be wedded to the form. Without excellence in composition, the content loses impact.
Mitch's Bangkok Series—Book Project set