Street photography is the purest, most spontaneous way to create art with a camera. No studios, no props, no poses; all you need is the right equipment and a street with people on it. In this original series for Engadget, we'll follow three seasoned street fighters and try to glean some practical wisdom about what engages their eyes, brains and fingers in the moments before they shoot.
In part one, we focus in on Antonio Zazueta Olmos -- a street photographer who has learned to rely on manual exposure to capture the images he wants, rather than making use of the ever-smarter, ever-quicker automatic settings available on the latest digital cameras.
Olmos works as a freelance photojournalist for UK newspapers like The Observer, and he's also the author of a grimly titled book of street photography called The Landscape of Murder. Each page of this work documents a street corner, lamppost or other grimy spot where a Londoner has met a violent and premature end. Each image tells a story of tragedy, observed through the eyes of a Mexican who migrated to London in the mid-'90s and emphasized through the careful and deliberate use of shadows and manual exposure.
Misery is an interesting choice of theme for a man who's actually the merriest and prone to laughter of all three photographers we'll meet in this series. Olmos laughs a lot during our day with him, and -- as you'll see in the video above -- he's happy to share and explain the joy he finds in his work.
As it turns out, the gloominess of his photos comes not from his own mood, and not even necessarily from the people he photographs. Instead, a large part of the emotion in Olmos' images comes from the very deliberate way he uses his camera: Canon's ever-popular DSLR, the EOS 5D Mark II. (Now superseded by the Mark III at $3,500, although Olmos isn't bothered about upgrading.)
Selected shots from Olmos' 'The Landscape of Murder'
Street photographers tend to like their cameras small and discreet, but Olmos is happy with his full-size, full-frame DSLR, and he carries no backup except an old iPhone 4 with a shattered screen. He uses the same DSLR for both his day job and his creative street photography, and the only thing he changes is the lens: Whereas he might use a range of focal lengths for newspaper portraiture, he sticks to a small, fixed wide-angle lens when he's on the street. Specifically, Olmos uses a 35mm lens, which is ideal for street photography since many photographers feel it comes close to matching the eye's natural field of view. (Note: If you're using a DSLR with a smaller, APS-C sensor, you'd need something like a 24mm lens to get a similar field of view.)
"Olmos uses a 35mm lens, which is ideal for street photography since many photographers feel it comes close to matching the eye's natural field of view."
The bulk of a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera is largely unavoidable. It's a by-product of the mirror-and-prism system that redirects light from the lens into the viewfinder, thereby allowing the photographer to see exactly what the lens sees. If you strip the mirror out of a digital camera, you end up with a "mirrorless" compact -- a design that benefits from being more portable, but which can't give you an immediate, optical view through the lens. Mirrorless compacts usually have electronic viewfinders instead of optical ones, producing a TV-like image of what the digital sensor sees.
It's also true that when you shrink a camera down, you reduce the room available for physical knobs and dials. The layout of the manual controls on his Canon 5D Mk II is what first made Olmos fall in love with it. In his opinion, Canon's design makes the best use of his right-hand thumb -- a digit that was once enslaved for the purpose of winding film, but which today is capable of making rapid adjustments to exposure. In turn, these manual adjustments lie at the heart of Olmos' dark visual style.
A guide to street photography
"Cameras are so good these days, with automatic settings and whatever, but paying attention to the light is your job, not the camera's," Olmos says. "Great photographs are about individuality. If you shoot everything on automatic, you're not going to get that ... You're letting the camera do the thinking."
Olmos sets his exposure manually, but he doesn't fiddle with it for every shot. At the start of a session, he'll pick some average settings, such as an aperture of f/8 (sufficiently narrow to bring lots of elements within a scene into focus) and a shutter speed of 1/250th (the minimum for catching people moving quickly at a short distance from the lens). He'll then take a random shot of the scene in front of him -- half street, half sky -- and assess the exposure in the Canon's LCD. He'll make adjustments to increase or (more usually) decrease the exposure until he's happy with the look, and then he'll leave the dials alone in order to concentrate on hunting for great shots.
"Paying attention to the light is your job, not the camera's."
If a photograph subsequently comes out underexposed, Olmos will correct it on his PC. He always shoots RAW, which contains nearly all the information captured by the camera's sensor (with nothing lost to JPEG compression) and which therefore offers real latitude when it comes to correcting exposure using photo editing software.
Olmos never consciously aims for any sort of perfection, and in fact his all-time favorite street shot by another photographer is a technically imperfect shot of Paris from the 1930s. This photograph would never have happened if its creator, Henri Cartier-Bresson, had stopped to think; or, worse, if he'd had a modern camera to do the thinking for him.