Obsessed with Bicycles—or How Obsession Fuels Projects

Tokyo is filled with bicycles—all sorts of bicycles. They range from trend-setting fixed gear bicycles to plain ‘mamachari’ (or old lady bike in other words), to hi-tech carbon fiber one-off syntheses of technology and art that could be straight out of a cyberpunk video game. Their multitude of variations-mutations-customizations keep me on the hunt, but what obsesses me is not their uniqueness but their ubiquity—their commonalities.

Curious Creatures

Most bicycles I’ve ever seen share two things: geometry and character. Every bicycle is two-an-a-half triangles bridging two circles with some gizmos and doodads hanging off. They also all say something about themselves. Just like people the bicycles can be plain and mundane, or they can be extravagant and eccentric. They might be sleek and expensive or old and rusted. I don't really mind. They all sing their tales to me.

The Roots of Obsession

A personal project is usually born out of a nagging curiosity—something encountered once or many times in life that triggers an itch. The only way the itch can be scratched is by exploring the subject that started it in the first place. In my case, it was the bicycles—strewn about the city like toys, in a myriad of color and style. Once I took a good look at one and made a photo out of one it became an obsession. I can’t walk past a bike with flavor and not glance at it. Sometimes I stop and stare the way one might at an attractive person. I soak it in. It pleases my eyes and scratches the itch.

Path of Discovery

Pursuing an obsession leads to discoveries about the subjects but more so about oneself as a photographer. I discovered a universe of aluminum and steel and carbon fiber—it led me to look inward and develop an eye for forms, colors, juxtaposition, and subtle details. It bred in me discipline to photograph consistently, taking care to maintain an underlying logic to the project in its entirety, while also creating a unique work with each shot.

A Story in Every Frame

I take photos of bicycles in the same mindset with which I photograph people. I want them to belong in their environment. I look for bikes that happen to end up in a place that seems to belong to them. That is, the bicycle and its parking spot should be in harmony. The bike’s setting should also convey its story and character just as much as the bike itself. But these principles did not exist in mind at the outset. They came to be as the obsession grew within me—they evolved over time with each snap of the shutter.

Getting Obsessed

What is the value of a project? Narrowing your photographic focus on a specific subject that captivates you will lead to discoveries about yourself as a photographer. For one, in pursuit of the project you will be stretched and challenged in ways that casual shooting does not. Concrete goals can be set within the bounds of a project—goals that go beyond ‘shoot every day’ or ‘always take your camera with you.’ The hard part is finding that project. On what subject should you spend your time and energy? Well, one way into a project mindset is to get hooked on something specific and go after it like a madman. Live and breathe the concept for weeks or months. Find your photographic obsession, and embrace it.

Positivity in Street Photography

These days, when I’m leading street photography workshops people often ask me: "what if someone gets angry when I take their picture?"

It’s an interesting question based on two assumptions. The obvious assumption is that people are likely to get angry when being photographed. The less obvious one is that people have a good reason to get angry—that being photographed in public is something to get angry about.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that the following thoughts are my own and I am not trying to unveil some hidden truth but rather show a personal approach and philosophy.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the fear betrayed by the question of "what if they get angry?" It’s easy to see where this fear comes from. Many societies hold privacy to be a basic right, while photography seems to be an easy way to invade that privacy—we make pictures of people minding their own business, and then publish them in public for others to see. Surely this is wrong… except this is exactly what happens to us daily all over the world.

On the contrary, recording the extraordinary moments of ordinary life and ordinary people is a good thing.

We are seen by other people, looked at, and recorded in their memories. It is the human condition to be witnessed by other humans. Photography is simply a tool that allows a moment to be preserved, nothing more. The act of photography is no more an invasion of privacy than the act of looking. Now don’t get confused with photographing truly private things. If you take a sneak peek into the ladies’ room, it’s just as bad to do it with your eyes as it is with your camera. It’s not the act of photography that makes it an invasion of privacy.

So, let’s once and for all divorce photography from any semblance of wrong-doing. Recording light is not a crime, nor is it unethical or immoral. On the contrary, recording the extraordinary moments of ordinary life and ordinary people is a good thing.

By believing that what we do is a good thing, we street photographers are empowered in our craft.

The act of photography, especially of the street variety, does a service to humanity. We can preserve the magical mundanity of human life—those very instances that we take for granted can have their beauty illuminated by photography. Not only that, but street photography allows us to glimpse the worldview of the photographer. It allows us to see the world as another sees it. It is a beautiful and good thing.

You may be thinking: “That all sounds well and good, but it’s merely one photographer’s opinion. Surely, other people have a right to feel offended when their photo is taken without consent.”

I wholeheartedly agree. The above worldview is not meant to be preached, not meant to sway opinions. In fact, it’s meant to be held in the street photographer’s heart—repeated like a mantra. By believing that what we do is a good thing, we street photographers are empowered in our craft.

Which brings us back to the question… “what do I do if people get angry when I take their picture?” With the above mindset, the question changes to… “how can I photograph people in a way that creates a positive experience for them?”

In other words, how can we project a positive mindset through the act of street photography? Let’s look at 5 things I try to do to keep a positive attitude…

1. Smile

First and foremost, I believe it is important to look friendly. In the past, I often caught myself with a downright scowl on my face while shooting. It wasn’t intentional, but it’s easy to be ultra-focused on the camera, on the frame, and the timing and forget about how I come across. These days I try to simply look positive, and be aware of how other people perceive my presence on the street. Just smile!

2. Be nice

It goes without saying, if you take photos in a way as to annoy people… they will be annoyed. When people say ‘no photo’ it’s a good idea to respect that. Using flash right in people’s faces without permission is another surefire way to get negative attention. Having said that, if you’re an artist first and a friendly human second, you can ignore this advice. Some great photos wouldn’t exist if the photographer didn’t get their hands dirty, so to speak.

3. Don’t hide it

If you hide what you’re doing, you look like you have something to hide. In other words, humans typically hide things they are ashamed of or perceive as wrongdoing. A shady looking guy on a street corner is probably up to no good—at least in the minds of strangers. Being open about what you’re doing is key. This includes avoiding shooting from the hip. I do use hip shooting techniques from time to time when the moment calls for it (the moment is short lived and I must react quickly), but I never shoot from the hip to hide what I’m doing out of shame.

4. Stand your ground

In similar vein to #3 above, don’t run away as soon as you take the photo. If you snap a photo then duck and run, it gives the impression you’re doing something wrong. You’re not doing anything wrong, so why run away. Yes, you are taking photos in the streets. Wear it with pride.

5. Talk to people

Unless you’re a master ninja, you will be noticed by your subjects eventually, without a doubt. It’s important in this moment to talk to people—tell them why you took their photo. First, it will make you more comfortable shooting in public. You will learn that most of the time photographing strangers leads to a brief, friendly conversation and nothing more. This will bolster your confidence. The second upside is that people will feel less put off by being photographed. Talking to them and explaining what you’re up to spreads understanding about street photography.

Conclusion & Caveats

Having said all that above, please use your judgement. Just because I’m an optimistic fool when it comes to people’s disposition towards street photography, doesn’t mean it’s the right course of action for you all the time. Read the air: if you are in a situation that looks dangerous or with people who look like they might become violent if photographed, use your discretion. Stay safe.

Also, in terms of the legality of street photography… well that’s a different story and depends on in which country / city you are shooting. But in general, I bid you to remember this: in your heart, know that by being a street photographer, you do the world a good thing.

A Photograph is an Experience

Recently, a friend told me of a photographer for whom he wanted to work. The seasoned fine art photographer, in his 50s, took a look at my friend’s 5x7 prints, taken on an assortment of digital and analog cameras, and said "these are not photos. Wait here." The man left for a moment and returned with a huge print mounted in a heavy wood frame. "This is a photograph," he said.

This anecdote got me thinking: what exactly is a photograph? Is it a physical object? Is it a record of light on a substrate? Is it merely information? Or is something more than that?

The Physical Nature of a Photograph

Before the advent of digital photography, all photographs resulted in physical objects. In the case of black and white 35mm film, releasing the shutter sends light through the lens, which focuses it onto the film plane. There awaits the film, coated with a gelatin containing silver halide crystals. The crystals in turn react to light, turning darker as more photons come streaming in through the aperture of the lens. Thus, a film photograph starts out as a physical object, composed of microscopic light and dark crystals. The details are a bit different and more complex for color, but the principle is the same: the photograph is an object resulting from a chemical process.

The object has been created but before it can be experienced by a viewer, it must undergo more changes. First and foremost, it must be developed and most likely printed. Finally, it should be mounted and displayed, which provides the photograph with context. All of these additional changes can add or detract from the object in various ways, but the original information present in the photograph (artistic manipulation not withstanding) has not changed. It is still a record of what was in front of the lens when the photo was taken. So, is the photograph’s essence that which was actually recorded?

Today, most photography does not occur as a chemical process. Instead it’s electronic—photons strike a silicon chip and are read as an electrical signal, which gets encoded digitally. Though digital, this is still an imprint of the light that entered through the lens. The light initiated a physical process that resulted in a representation of itself, albeit in binary code. The light gets ‘encoded’ regardless if that information is encoded in silver halide crystals or in bits. So is this the essence of a photograph, information that can be decoded into a visual medium?

If so, then what did the wise master mean when he derided my friend’s photos and exalted his own craft? What is it that separates the works? Surely, it’s not simply the size or even the presence of a large and heavy frame. In its essence the information encoded within the photographs themselves is not of a particularly different quality. So what's missing?

Beyond a Simple Object

The answer lies in the fact that photographs, or all works of art, are not static objects that exists with any meaning on their own. For them to be works of art, they require a viewer to experience them in some way. It's like the paradox of the tree falling in the woods: is a photograph anything more than a record of a process initiated by light if there is no one around to look at it?

"is a photograph anything more than a record of a process initiated by light?"

It would seem that the essence of a photograph, and possibly all art, is not the information that it contains or the parts that make it up, but rather the experience it captures and the experience is provides for the viewer if there is one. Though the reasoning might be a bit roundabout, it's apparent that the old photographer's proclamation—"this is a photograph"—was meant to underscore the difference in experience which a large, framed print provides to a viewer.

A photograph, or any artwork, is not so much a static object as it is a catalyst that instigates a process of thoughts in the viewer. Furthermore, it also contains a slice of the experience of both the photographer and subject at the moment it is created. This goes even for long exposures or inanimate subjects; such as photographs of starts in the night sky. The exposure, even if it is minutes long, captures the experience (perhaps the more appropriate word is 'process') of the earth's rotation, and thereby trails of starlight are recorded on film or on silicon. It makes no difference if the subject is sentient or if the exposure is 1 minute or 1 thousandth of a second in length.

A Grand Experience

If photographs are best defined as recorded experiences, then we can begin to understand the difference between 5x7 prints and the works of a photographer such as Andreas Gursky. Gursky's towering prints certainly provoke a reaction in the viewer even if only by their imposing size. Beyond simple imprints of light, the images are meant to evoke an experience in the viewer, whether it is awe for their depth and detail or even disdain for their oversize spectacle. The photographs also convey the experience of the subject within them. This is especially remarkable in the work of a photographer such a Gursky who deals often with landscapes devoid of people. Yet thanks to the artistry, size, and level of detail of the photographs the subject can take on a life-like quality.

"...continues through time until it initiates a chemical reaction—one that takes place in our brains."

A photo then is not so much a static object, a record of light, as much as an intermediary step in a chain of reactions that begins when photos interact with a substrate and continues through time until it initiates a chemical reaction—one that takes place in our brains. This process is our experience of the photograph.

So what does this mean for us as photographers? What are we trying to do? Well, another friend of mine once told me that a photograph should satisfy the eye, the mind, and the heart. The notion is a bit romanticized, but what it means is that a photograph should have good composition, convey an interesting idea, and evoke an emotion. It could be said that these are distinct but complementary ways in which we experience a photograph. When viewing a strong photo, we take in its geometry, understand and consider its intellectual content, and we are moved emotionally by it.

When we are out making photographs, we should not only consider how the photo will look but also the experience it will provide to its viewers. I keep this notion at the forefront of the mind when I am out shooting in the streets.

A Series of Decisions

In its methodology, photography can be reduced to a series of decisions which determine the exact characteristics of each photo. When conducting street photography, in particular, the opportunity to make these decisions is limited. The process begins slowly, with lots of time allowed for selecting gear, setting the camera, and so on. It then advances to a fast stage with little time for the photographer to react—the actual moment when the photograph is taken. This is followed by another slow stage after the decisive moment in which the photo can be edited and processed.

This decision-making process can be broken down in order to minimize the decisions that must be made during the fleeting decisive moment. This, in turn, allows the photographer more time to make the two key decisions that remain in that moment: composition and timing.

Before You Shoot: Gear Selection

The first decision the photographer must make is which camera and lenses to take out of the bag. Gear selection is an often-discussed subject with many dissenting opinions. However, in order to leave the house with the best combination of equipment, an essential principle when selecting gear is anticipating what kind of situations and conditions you will face. While the camera body and other accessories can matter, by far the most important piece of equipment is the lens. In order to make a wise decision regarding which lens to mount on the camera, it's necessary to understand the effect focal length has on perspective. There are many diagrams and examples illustrating this relationship, but I find it's always necessary to put the concepts to practice and learn from experience.

So, first, discover what different focal lengths allow you to achieve. For instance, 20mm lenses* allow you to get close and, therefore, distort the perspective. They also allow you to 'fit more in,' which can be beneficial in tight quarters. A normal lens, approximately 35mm to 55mm, allows the photographer to shoot from a distance that produces images with perspective similar to that which the human brain is accustomed to. As a result, lenses in this range are a favorite of street photographers (I myself shoot with a 40mm lens). Longer lenses, such as 85mm, compress the image by allowing the shooter to stand at a distance from the subject. This has the effect of reducing the amount of converging lines in the scene, flattening it out.

*Note: all focal lengths are discussed in the context of a 35mm (full frame) camera. Consider the appropriate crop sensor equivalent for your camera.

Additionally, one must take into account the maximum aperture of the lens and the expected lighting conditions in the target area. Obviously, fast lenses are more suitable for low light. Finally, ergonomics should be taken into account. Large, heavy lenses can be cumbersome and can wear you out on long excursions. Small prime lenses are light and fast, but can offer less versatility than zoom lenses. As stated above, regarding lens selection, a personal preference has to be forged by trying a lot of different glass in various conditions. Once you know what you like, this decision can be made easily. For instance, when street shooting, I keep the same lens on my camera 99% of the time.

Setting Your Camera

After selecting your gear it's time to decide how to set it. Try to predict the shooting conditions and set the camera accordingly before the moment of shooting. We do this because when the action happens, we often have mere seconds (or less) to get the shot. However, when setting your camera there are three aspects which must be balanced: control, speed, and accuracy. In practice, these three concepts tend to limit each other. For instance, shooting with Manual Focus maximizes control but might reduce speed and accuracy in most cases without the proper techniques. On the other hand, shooting with the camera set completely to Auto-exposure with AF maximizes speed but hurts accuracy and reduces control. Finally, putting the camera on a tripod, manually selecting focus through the viewfinder, and using a light meter to select exposure maximizes control and accuracy but, slows down the entire process.

When setting the camera, it's necessary to balance these three aspects in a way that minimizes reaction time when shooting, and maximizes accuracy and control. Certain settings are better suited to each end. For instance, using a lens with an aperture ring, and shooting in Aperture Priority mode, allows for very good control of the aperture, and therefore the DOF, while taking very little time. As another example, using a manual focus lens allows the shooter to utilize zone focusing, which reduces the focusing time to zero and allows for a high level of control (at the expense of some versatility, and possibly accuracy).

In some cases, accuracy and control can be deferred until after the photograph is taken. For instance, in the case of digital photography, if we choose to shoot in RAW instead of JPEG, we can change various settings after the photo was taken. For example, while shooting in RAW we can leave the White Balance set to Auto, or to an approximately correct setting, which allows for it to be changed in post. This way, you can save time by not setting a perfect White Balance while still nailing it in post-processing.

In the end, finding the best settings for yourself is a matter of experience, as well as trial and error. Don't be afraid to try a variety of different techniques, some maximizing control (go all manual for a day and see how it feels) or maximizing speed (set the camera to Program mode and focus on composition and timing) or somewhere in between (use Aperture Priority and a manual focus prime lens.) The goal is simply to make these decisions before the moment of shooting so that you can focus on the few things the camera cannot do for you.

The Decisive Moment

This is the moment you've been preparing for. Hopefully at this point you confidently selected the right lens for the job, and the camera is set just the way it needs to be. Now it's time to press the shutter release and take a perfect photo. Before you can do that, two key decisions remain: how to compose and how to time the photograph. This is obviously a deep topic on which volumes have been written. I will not go into the details of good composition and timing here. Instead, let's consider ways in which these decisions can also be streamlined in order to reduce reaction time.

One benefit of consistently shooting on prime lenses is that the photographer gets used to those particular focal lengths. As a result, it's possible to visualize the framing of a photograph before looking through the viewfinder. This does not necessarily reduce the amount of time it takes to 'frame' a photo (the framing takes place in the photographer's mind rather than in the viewfinder). But it does create a larger window in which the decision process can take place.

Similarly, regarding timing, it's possible to visualize how a scene will evolve before it actually takes place. By watching the actors (whether living or inanimate) and trying to predict what action they will take can add precious time to the decision-making process. These two techniques combined can increase the amount of time you have in order to compose and time a great photo.

For further reading on the mechanics of these kinds of decision-making processes, see the OODA loop.

After the Shot

The moment has passed and the photo is safely in your camera. You get home, and you find the photo as you look through the day's catch. The first key decision to make: is this photo worth processing and adding to my portfolio? Editing (that is, selecting) your photos is an important skill for any photographer. It's often difficult, and likely impossible, to be truly objective when viewing your own photographs. However, it is possible to select photos based on objective criteria while still leaving room for a subjective, overriding decision. For instance, you can eliminate photos that fail in various technical aspects, such as sharpness or exposure. It's also an option to avoid photos that do not meet thematic requirements, such as including an obvious main character. Having criteria can speed up the selection process, but this framework should not be arbitrary. Rather, it should come from personal experience, both by viewing the work of master photographers, as well as reviewing your own.

Once the photo passes the selection process it's time to decide whether or not post-processing is in order. My personal philosophy is that every good photo deserves at least a bit of adjustment. A good photo can be made great by spending five minutes in your favorite photo editing software. I will not cover the actual post-processing here. There are loads of options and this is another topic that has been explored elsewhere. The key driving principle for any post-processing should be your personal taste. To edit photos well and get good results requires good taste developed by exposing yourself to the work of master photographers and attempting to emulate their style. As you do this, you will find your own expressive mode while avoiding the pitfalls of the cliché.

A decision that we made earlier comes in to play at this stage. Was the photo shot in RAW or JPEG? I'm a proponent of RAW simply due to the fact that RAW provides the photographer with a greater set of options after that photo was taken. To free up the decision process during the decisive moment, it's preferable to implement constraints up to the moment of shutter release. However, after the photo is taken, there are no longer any time constraints, which allows the photographer to make decisions at their leisure. As a result, having more options is generally more beneficial, and that is what RAW provides. There are, of course, exceptions to this. For instance, in the case of photojournalists in the field, expediency is often crucial and may necessitate a short turnaround time, which JPEG shooting can provide.

After the Editing Process

At this point your photograph is a result of a long series of decisions that began when you opted to get out of the house and take some shots. The photo you have before you is the culmination of all your hard work, but one key decision remains: do I show this photo to the world? It may be disheartening to get your photo all the way here and then decide to never let it see the light of day. Despite the disappointment, making this final decision as objectively as possible is how you can build an excellent portfolio consisting of only your best photos.

Now get out there, and make some decisions!

Candid vs. Interactive Street Photography

I've seen a lot of discussions on various forums explaining that we should talk to our subjects before taking their photo. This approach works well and can be very effective. But this method is not without its flaws, because it forces the subject to interact with the camera in a self-conscious way. Let's break this down.

There are two general approaches to street photography: a candid approach and an interactive one. The first is an attempt to capture the subject in way that does not influence the subject's behavior. In the second approach, the photographer is known to the subject and this awareness dictates how the subject behaves.

Interactive Photos

I call these kinds of street photos 'interactive' because the subject is influenced in some way by the process of their photograph being taken. The subject is always interacting with three things: the camera, the photographer, and the viewer. The interactive approach is much akin to breaking the fourth wall in cinema and other media. The subject is aware that they are being viewed, whether it is in the given moment by the camera and photographer, or in the future by the viewer. What makes the photograph interactive is that it causes the subject to become aware of themselves, in other words, self-conscious. This self-consciousness is not necessarily a negative characteristic. Some people are more comfortable with it than others. But it does create a layer of behavior on top of the 'grounded' behavior that is exhibited by a person who is not interacting with the photographer, camera, and viewer.

This is not to say that an interactive photograph is not natural, or somehow shows the viewer an artificial aspect of the subject. On the contrary, the emotions, expressions, and actions portrayed by a subject in reaction to being photographed are natural functions of a human being. Rather than being considered unnatural, a subject in an interactive photo is self-aware, or at the very least, aware of the photographer. This modifies their behavior accordingly. Certain photographers employ various styles of interactive street photography, such as Bruce Gilden or Charlie Kirk.

Candid Photos

On the other hand, in a candid photo, the key difference is that the subject is not self-aware in the above sense. They are behaving as though the camera, the photographer, and therefore the viewer, are not present. Their behaviors are not filtered by their consciousness and modified for the benefit of the audience. This can be achieved in two ways: one is to utilize stealth or speed to catch people unawares. For instance, we can use a long lens (though I personally don't recommend this strategy). Another way is to shoot from the hip, from behind, or the side, or photograph people who are preoccupied in their current activity.

The second way we can achieve candidness is to ask for permission, take a few photos while interacting with the subject, and allow the subject to get comfortable with the presence of the camera and return to their 'grounded' behavioral state. This is where photographers such as Martin Parr are most at home. It's necessary to be outgoing and make your subject comfortable by talking to them. Once they are again acting as they would be without the presence of the camera, we can continue to photograph them while capturing truly candid moments.

Choosing a Path: Learn from the Masters

Which approach is better? Well, this is a wrong question in the Zen sense. Neither approach is right or wrong. Instead, the question we have to ask ourselves as photographers is this: what do I want to photograph, and what story do I want to tell?

On the interactive end of the spectrum you have the above-mentioned Bruce Gilden, who gets right into his subject's space and forces a reaction out of them. He photographs close and with a flash. It's nearly impossible for his subjects not to react. As I mentioned before, this does not necessarily mean we're not getting a real glimpse into the subject's psyche. On the contrary, the subjects immediate and visceral reaction to being photographed so abruptly illuminates their true character.

There are other times when interacting with your subject will result in more effective photos. For example, if you're doing street fashion, such as the work of Scott Schuman at The Sartorialist, then an interactive approach will let you work with the subject to create the most effective photograph for documenting each particular individual's sense of style. However, Schuman does also use a candid approach in some of his photographs, as it's not always necessary to pose and stage a good fashion photo.

I mentioned Martin Parr above—another photographer who employs both styles. He starts with a candid approach, getting very close. Once the subject is aware of him, always smiling, he speaks with them, making jokes. This puts the subject at ease, allowing for more photographs, some of which are more honest than the candid shots. You can see him at work in this video.

Finally, on the far candid end, we have photographers such as Joel Meyerowitz. His style is one of an invisible observer. His subjects do not pay any attention to his camera or his presence. He gives us as close to an impartial, unadulterated view of his world as we can get.

With this in mind, it will be easier to select a tactic or strategy for making street photographs. Good shooting!

Mastering Manual Focus

Have you ever cursed your camera for missing that special moment in the streets? Do you ever struggle to get the subject quickly in focus before the fleeting moment is lost forever in the aether? Well then why not try manual focus? Below is a brief guide to a few key manual focus techniques that can help you capture the decisive moment.

manual focus - photo 4.jpg

Prime Lenses

Before we can look at the benefits of manual focus, we first have to discuss the use of prime lenses. The reason prime lenses have become a staple of street photographers is simple: speed. Without the need to select a focal length, and forcing yourself to work with one field of view (FOV), you can drastically reduce the time necessary for framing the subject. Of course, the single focal length puts a constraint on what the photographer can do. It also forces us to use our feet. You might think this can slow things down, and zooming would allow you to change framing more quickly. However, by practicing with the constraint in place, proper positioning becomes second nature. As with the rest of the techniques described in this article, the goal is to make the technique automatic, and therefore, fast.

I don't feel it's necessary to go on with the upsides of prime lenses, since most of you are already converts, or even started out on fixed lenses. So on to manual focusing!

manual focus - photo 2.jpg

Manual focus, zone focusing, and hyper-focal distance

Manual focus might seem like a daunting prospect, but it is not as difficult as it sounds and it can really open up many possibilities when it comes to street photography. The main advantage of manual focusing over auto-focus is speed. Yes, it can be faster to manually focus rather than letting the camera seek focus automatically, regardless of whether you're shooting with a high grade camera body or not (sports photography, certain wildlife photography, etc. are exceptions due to the erratic motion of the subjects). This is especially true in good light because it allows shooting at f/8 or f/11. At small apertures the depth of field, or DOF, becomes large. Also, with sharp lenses, one does not need to nail focus exactly on the subject. Even if focus is slightly off, the subject will be sharp due to the large DOF. When using auto-focus, the camera will search for perfect sharpness which increased the time required to focus.

With practice, one can very quickly guess the approximate best focus with great speed and accuracy. In addition, depending on the auto-focus settings (matrix, spot, etc.) the camera might not focus on the desired point in the frame. The photographer has more control over what should be in focus, and most importantly can make the decision more quickly with manual focus. There's no need to mess around with focus select points and little joysticks on the back of the camera body. Selecting the focus point happens instantly in your mind.

But this isn't the real advantage of using manual focus. Modern AF systems have come a long way, and can nail focus on eyes and faces even in extreme conditions. The real advantage comes with having the focus already setting before you even know what your subject is. Then there is no need to focus at all.

manual focus - photo 1.jpg

To achieve this, we can use a technique known as zone focusing. We can select a 'zone' between various focus ranges, say between 3 meters and 5 meters. Then you position yourself in such a way as to keep the subject in that range. You can also take advantage of the large DOF at high apertures, such as f/8, and maximize it to the point that no focusing is necessary beyond a certain range.

This is how it's done: all manual focus lenses have a gauge depicting the DOF at small apertures. It will look something like this:

On the focusing ring, the focal distance is depicted in meters (and feet), with infinity marked by ∞. It looks like this:

So together the two scales look like this:

For example, at f/8 we can set the focus such as to place 5m at the left '8' mark, like this:

manual focus - diagram 4.png

This gives us a focus zone between 5 meters and 3 meters. That's a pretty big area in which everything will be in sharp focus. You might think it's difficult to consistently place subjects within this range, but you'd be surprised how quickly you can learn the effective focus range of a particular favorite lens. This is also where prime lenses become a key to the techniques. It can be done with a zoom lens, but the varying POV makes it difficult to instantaneously frame the subject as desired, which mitigates the speed advantage of zone focusing.

We can also take this one step further. Say we set the aperture to f/11 and set the focus such as to place infinity at the left '11' mark, like this:

Now everything from infinity down to ~2 meters will be in focus at f/11. So, as long as we keep the subject more than ~2 meters away from the camera, the subject will always be in focus. In fact, everything beyond ~2m will be in focus. In this way, we have entirely eliminated the need for focusing in bright lighting conditions! This is known as 'hyper-focal distance.'

Of course, we don't always shoot in bright light. Sometimes we need to stop down to f/2 or less. In this case, hyper-focal distance is not a viable option, but zone focusing is still effective. Say you set you focus to 5m at f/2. The zone has become quite small, being as small as a 1-meter-deep ‘zone’ approximately 5 meters away from the camera. However, by consistently practicing with the same prime lens, you can even learn to shoot from the hip with this technique and get razor sharp results.

Shooting from the hip and quick draw

Once you take advantage of zone focus and hyper-focal distance you can easily draw the viewfinder to your eye, compose, and release the shutter, without taking any time to focus. In addition to this, you can even shoot 'from the hip', that is, without looking through the viewfinder. At first, this might look like a way of simply getting lucky. However, with the assumption that a prime lens is being used, you can learn that particular lens' field of view. With practice, you can predict what will be in the frame without even looking through the viewfinder. This is very difficult to master, and I don't suggest that anyone relies on this technique exclusively. But, I believe it can be a useful tool in your photographic toolbox. Finally, being forced to memorize the lens' field of view, allows for very fast composition and subject placement. In conjunction with zone focusing, this technique allows split second decision making: crucial when capturing the decisive moment!

And this of course is the crux of it all: you want to be absolutely ready to capture the moment without hesitation when it happens. The above techniques, with a lot of targeted practice, can help you do so.

I’ve included some photos that I took by using these methods. In fact, I feel that I would not have been able to get these shots had I not used manual focus.

Of course, I understand that manual focus is not for everyone, and not for every situation. But it can be a very useful skill as well as a fun new way to shoot in the streets.

Gear & Process

I often get questions about the camera that I use and the editing process I employ. Since many of you would like more detail than just the make and model, I would like to give an overview of my gear and editing methods. If you're interested in my shooting process, I have written a more detailed explanation. Anyway, let's start with the gear.


Nikon D3/D4

The camera I shoot with is a Nikon D4 (previously D3). You may ask yourself why I shoot street photos with such a massive camera. And you'd be right to feel that it's an odd choice due to its size, weight, noisy shutter, and complete lack of subtlety that most street photographers seek out in the Leicas, the Fujifilms, and so on.

However, when I bought this camera in 2010, the D3 had some qualities that made it a great fit for the conditions in which I do most of my street shooting; that is, at night. First and foremost, its low light capability and dynamic range were very good for its time, and even to this day the high ISO performance of this camera is nothing to sneeze at. Since I do much of my photography at night, this is a huge plus. Besides that, the view finder is massive, and bright. Besides the weight factor, the ergonomics and balance of the camera are great for me. Finally, the camera is fast in all respects (focus, metering, etc.)

Despite all this, the camera body itself is not as important as the glass we put on it. So onto lenses!

Voigtländer 40mm f/2.0 Ultron SL II

The Voigtländer 40mm f/2.0 is a manual focus lens best suited for full frame cameras. For a relatively low price it can produce very sharp images with generally pleasing bokeh wide open. But what I really like about it are the 40mm focal length, and the ergonomics of using a dedicated manual lens when it comes to street photography. The buttery smooth dampened focus ring and relatively long focus pull both allow me to use manual focus techniques such as zone focusing without issue. I've practiced with this lens for years, and I've gotten quite good at nailing the focus at 4 meters out, even wide open at f/2. You can read more about how I use this lens in my Manual Focus tutorial.

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G

It's very expensive hunk of glass, but the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G is worth every penny. I picked this lens up last year and it replaced my Nikon 28mm f/1.8G (a good wide prime). The 14-24 is a beast of a wide angle lens. It's heavy and obnoxiously large, but it produces exceedingly sharp images at 14mm, even wide open at f/2.8. The distortion, typical of ultra-wide lenses, is also easily fixed in Photoshop when necessary. I use this lens for urban landscape photography, with and without a tripod. It's my preferred lens to take up on the rooftops for dramatic views of the Tokyo metropolis.

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G

Finally, on occasion I use an the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G for portraits and the like. Compared with the more professional Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, the smaller, cheaper, Nikon 85mm f/1.8G does the job for me. On occasion, I use this lens for street photography as well. It's an affordable lens that serves its purpose very well.

The Editing Process

For editing purposes I use Adobe Camera Raw, which is a component of Photoshop. It's essentially a stripped down, but still very functional, version of Lightroom. I use Camera Raw over Lightroom because I don't require the management and organization features. Regarding editing, I spend as little at 2 minutes on most photos with an upper limit of about 15 minutes. However, all of my shots have at least some work done on them, and are never published directly from the camera. If there is more interest, I will write a more detailed tutorial in the future.