Street Shooting In Italy is the best.

Men standing around in Rome.

I love to shoot in the streets but in my own town very few people ever get out of their cars and walk anywhere so it's pretty tough to practice here.  In my role as the persistent contrarian I disagree with everyone else's take on what constitutes a great "street shooting" camera.  And I'll probably conflict with some statement I've blogged previously but then I do that from time to time.  The prevailing idea of the street camera is one that is small, light, unobtrusive and which can be set to a hyperfocal distance and fired without taking time to focus.  The ultimate expresssion is often thought to be a small, light, stealthy small camera which has a lens that can be manually hyperfocused and brought up to the eye for a quick snap without having to mess with settings.  The ultimate expression of this kind of "street shooting" camera has often be posited to the Leica M series cameras.  To read what I thought about the M cameras ten years ago you might be interested in reading this old post on Photo.net.......

And lately I've written some lines of praise for the advantages of the Olympus Pen series cameras (the EPL being my favorite because it is slightly faster and sharper...) coupled with the older Pen F lenses which are manual focus and easy to set.  And I do like the results from those cameras.

On a later trip to Italy I took along a Mamiya Six camera and it was a good compromise with its quick rangefinder, sharp lenses and fast operating parameters.  But looking back I am just as happy, perhaps more happy with images like the one above and the one below which I took on a vacation with my wife, a few years earlier.

Men on the square in Sienna.  Standing around.  Talking.

For this trip around Italy in the mid 1990's I decided to go maximally minimal and take on camera and one lens.  I decided on the Hasselblad 500 CM with a waist level finder and the 100mm 3.5 lens.  I brought two 120 backs along.  While it might seem to be a counterintuitive choice it was based on my operational comfort.  At the time I was shooting with this kind of camera every day of the week and my hands were totally used to the operation.  It just felt right.  

But if you've used a medium format, waist level finder with a 100 mm lens you know that it's slow to focus, slow to operate and slow to compose.  The idea is to make all of these things into a virtue.  I work slowly and deliberately and try to make sure that I don't disrupt the dynamic that drew me to the scene in the first place.  You could march right up to a group like this and take charge but even if they were compliant you will have changed every thing.  All the energy and all the aesthetics.  You could take the passive way out and use a long lens from across the square to secretly capture them but you would eliminate all the contextual details that you get with the normal focal length used close in.  The middle way is to make yourself anonymous and quiet.

My technique is to find the scene and move myself into roughly the right position based on my understanding of the lens's angle of view.  Then I look at the subjects and smile.  Then I compose on the finder and then I focus.  Then I wait until I am no longer a curiosity or an amusement and I wait until I see the texture and gesture that first attracted me and then I push the shutter.  I try not to intrude but I don't retreat.  If they protest I walk on and look for other opportunities.  If they ignore me (yes.  please.) then I continue shooting till I have the frame I want and I move on.  But mostly I wait and wait to see something that resonates.

With the H-blad and rolls of film with only 12 exposures patience and timing is everything.  There's no way you can "motor" your way to a good shot.  And what I've come to know with fast digital cameras is that there is still no way to "motor" your way to success.  Scene with people move.  They are  subject chaos theory.  They come together and break apart.  The best you can wish for is to see the pattern as they come together and prepare for the moment when the image peaks for you.  Then you push the button.  And the photo works or it doesn't.  You print it or you leave it in the sleeve.

If you feel so disposed I would love to hear your street shooting techniques in the comments.  What camera and lens, how you use it and maybe even a link to some of your work.  We might all learn more.

Thanks, Kirk


Daniel Fealko said...


Both photos are great, but there's just something about that second one that really appeals to me. It makes me wish I could be closer to them, so I could listen in on their conversation. The stance each has and their expressions are wonderful.

Dave Jenkins said...

Thanks for the link to the Leica article. I was looking for it recently, but couldn't find it. It was neat, by the way, the see again the photos of Ben as a little tyke.

I am not a good street photographer, which I hate, because I would love to be one. However, I like to look at good work and am a fan of Cartier-Bresson, Erwitt, Doisneau, et al. But to repeat a comment I made recently, IMO street photography has seldom been done better than Fritz Henle did it with his Rollei in 1938 for his book "Paris" (which was not actually published until 1947).

There was a major retrospective exhibition of his work at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin in 2009. I wish I had known about it, because I would have made the trip in a heartbeat. I did get the resulting book which is lovely. ("Fritz Henle: in Search of Beauty," $40 at Amazon.) I already had most of his other books.

Kurt Shoens said...

Not that I have any useful experience to offer, but here's some random thoughts. I think you don't want to be too far from the subjects. Shooting from far away with a long lens gives a distant feeling and no engagement. Isn't that the same with portraits, by the way? People talk about focal length, but I think subject distance is the real decision.

The second is that I think people react better if they can interact with you. Having a camera in front of your face is like a mask. Having a big camera with a big lens is even more so. Being far away with a long lens is another sort of mask. The relationship is already asymmetric if you have a camera and the subject does not. Any sort of hiding from the subject makes it worse.

I don't have a MF camera with a waist-level viewer, but I wish I did. I substitute with a p&s with an LCD screen that can be twisted to simulate a waist-level viewer.

I like pictures taken with the subject's approval (even if tacit). It keeps me from feeling like a sneak. Last week two guys agreed as long as I didn't post the picture on the web! Regretfully, I also missed two pictures because I was too overwhelmed to think to take them.

thetrickstergod said...

The Mamiya rangefinders were amazing. I've gone digital, posting a new photo every day...

Matt Buntyn said...

I read this today after watching an online class with Jay Maisel on the same subject last night. Someone must be trying to tell me something.

Anonymous said...


I've been reading your blog for awhile now and have enjoyed it all thoroughly. Lately you've been on a tear with back to back posts and a real sense of vim and vigour for the pursuit and passion of shooting. Love it.
I have been noticing however and in turn wondering, why you don't currently shoot film?
Why aren't you the guy in Austin who shoots film?
I may be exaggerating when I say that of any image you have shown over the past two years that either means something special or captures something special...conjures some deeper emotion and fondness, they've all been film.
I can appreciate that there are certain professional expectations by clients now that require a digital rig but not even in your "shooting for pleasure" escapades do you dust off the ol'Leica M6 or the 'Blad.
What gives?
Am I living in the land of idealism, while you are currently planted in reality? :)
Let's see some film! I can just imagine what sort of special energy you could capture from a swim meet or the like with slide or black and white film shot with something other than ol'faithful (70-200mm).
Look forward to it.


Anthony Cronin said...


I have been following your blog for sometime; I came here to solve the mystery that is flash (still unsolved!). I really like your street shots in this blog, the sharpness is beautiful and it takes a lot in my short experience to not intrude and get such candids.

Street, it is pretty much all I know since I started. (Here is the disclaimer) In the 3 years I have been doing photography (so take my opinions with a grain of salt) I find that Street is all about anticipation and then sheer brass neck if you are spotted.

Before I give the benefit of my thoughts, I’ll cover my usual cameras.

35mm: Nikon F80 with 50mm Prime, Konica Auto S3 Rangefinder, Voitlander Vito’s
MF: Minolta Autocord TLR, Super Ikonta IV and Agfa Isolette III.

My thoughts.

If your subject is more than two metres (7 feet) away it will not be a great shot, there are of course exception, but it a rule of thumb I use.

The most important thing is to blend in. This is surprisingly difficult to do, people though tend to ignore you if you are stationary or moving slowly in a crowd. Stand near streetlights etc out of the common flow.

I deliberately walk slowly around, looking like some imaginary sniper when I see someone interesting. I’ll stand near them or sit with my back to them, judging the distance and pre-focusing. Sneaking off a light meter reading.

35mm is certainly easier for fast moving scenes, especially more modern auto focus SLR’s like my Nikon F80.

MF though offers something different. I find the TLR very easy to use as you can shoot 90 degrees from where you are looking (a technique I use often), but is heavy for a day wandering searching for subjects and a tired arm does not make for a willing mind. I find old folders light and very easy to use. Yes you have to lift them to the eye, which increases the risk of being tagged. This leads to my main finding.

I always try for the unseen candid but if spotted, especially with people who seem full of character. Move in and make the next step, talk to them explain yourself, your motives ask them about themselves, you get great stories to add colour to your pictures and often a chance for a few more closer studies. An example of this is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13111789@N00/sets/72157623330301288/

Other thoughts, if you stroll a regular area week in week out, relax if you miss someone, they will be there again. People are creatures of habit. I frequent the less salubrious inner city streets of Dublin so often now, many have come to know and accept me.

My most interesting finding is if you have snapped someone who does not like their photo being taken, talking to them and showing them it is an old film camera (especially old MF folders & TLR’s) disarms them. As the world thinks digital so they feel less threatened by film. In fact they probably think you are more off the wall than they are!


Anonymous said...

Shut up and shoot is the way I do it.

Kyle said...

My best ever street shooting was done from the front seat of a slow-moving Xiclo in the Old Quarter of Hanoi... Tien, my Xiclo driver was almost psychic in his abilities of sensing when I'd seen something I wanted to photograph and he would expertly bring the Xiclo to a halt the instant I even moved a muscle to raise my camera. Then he would glide smoothly onwards, ensuring I saw all the twists and turns and interesting parts of Old Hanoi, all the while seamlessly blending with the environment, so people did not feel 'stalked' or 'watched'.

kirk tuck said...

Kyle, LUCKY!

Colin said...

I don't really have a technique per se since I am only just starting out. I do often wonder, if street photography is much easier for members of the gentler sex than it is for us warm blooded guys? After all, their subjects will feel much less creeped out when a pretty girl is pointing a camera at them than a guy!