Leica SL2 + Leica 24-90mm f2.8
Sometimes it feels like I write about gear too much. But it's much easier to write about than how and why we actually make photographs. Everyone seems to have their own way of warming up to subjects, their own way of working in the fields and even their own way of carrying or holding their cameras.
It's disingenuous to say that there are "two kinds of photographers in this world" but I do think we can draw a few conclusions about how people photograph based on how they pack and which cameras they use to cover various different subject matters. I posit that the split is between people who have "general" camera systems (selected once and unchanging) and try to press a limited amount of gear into the service of everything and every event, and then there are people who have sussed out different packages of gear that are brought into use for specific kinds of photography. "Ultimate versus flexible."
In the first example a person might have a DSLR and the "holy trinity" of f2.8 zoom lenses. You know; the 16-35mm, the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm lenses from any of the big camera system brands. Whether they go out to do "street shooting" or adventure travel or studio work they press one all purpose camera body and these three lenses into service. The have no other option in mind but what they researched, purchased and learned to use. In their minds these are the "logical choices".
While this selection might be perfect for a wedding photographer, an event photographer or a photo-journalist it's a selection of bigger and heavier lenses which were most likely chosen to methodically "cover" the range from 16mm to 200mm as though a non-broken sequence of focal lengths is of high importance in the making of photographs. This photographer ends up carrying a lot of weight and bulk which for some jobs might make sense but for undertakings such as documentary photography or street photography might be a burden. A classic example of overkill.
At the other end of the photography spectrum might be a person who selects one rangefinder camera body and one 35mm lens and tries to shoehorn everything possible into that very limited kit. If the "one lens - one camera" person limits himself to a single genre of work; say, street photography, and further limits himself to only making images that fit well into the 35mm lens's angle of view then, I'd guess the kit would work well. But trying to do a classic portrait, images with nice compression effects, controlled macro shots, etc. he might find himself limited. The single lens and body can hardly handle a wide range of subject matter. Fine if one is pursuing one specific style but not so fine for the generalists.
But beyond all this assumption I wonder how people actually use their gear when they are out taking photographs. When I photograph out in the street I'm not working for a client and am only out to please my self with the results. So I like spend time thinking about what the heck I'm really doing out on the streets of my home town.
After much self-reflection I've pretty much figured out that my first goal is really never the photographs I might take but a confluence of things the walking provides. I like getting away from my computer screen. I like meeting people. I love walking and looking. And when I see things that look peculiar or especially beautiful to me I like to stop and make a photograph. But the search for specific subject matter or "looks" is never the overriding impulse for a walk.
Regardless of which camera and lens I choose I proceed in pretty much the same way. I've done variations of this in many different cities and towns.
I generally arrive in the area I'd like to photograph by car. I park in a favorite place and then go through a little check list before exiting, locking up and heading out. I put my phone in the center console of the car. I hate carrying my phone around with me when I'm not on someone's temporary payroll.
I choose a hat from the collection in the back seat. If it's brutally hot I don't give a crap about fashion or aesthetic acceptability. No, I look for the hat that will provide me with the most protection and at the same time will keep me cooler. If the weather is mild I just look for a hat that will keep the sun off my thinning hair. In cold weather all hats look dorky so I just pick the one that's warmest.
I make sure I have an SD card loaded and formatted before walking away from the car. I don't know about you but I've had enough experience shooting "blanks" that confirming the existence of a card is now on the checklist. I'm pretty good about making sure the battery in the camera is fully charged but I also make sure I have at least one extra in my pocket. The camera, no matter which one I've chosen, hangs from my left shoulder on a conventional strap.
Before I walk away from the car I also check to make sure the camera's menu is set right. If I'm going to be walking around in bright sun (typical here more often than not) I make sure I set the lowest ISO, the little WB symbol for sun, a medium aperture and...the ability of the camera to automatically switch from the mechanical shutter to the electronic shutter should the exposure require it.
Then I'm off for the walk.
As I walk down a street or a hike and bike path I try to look as far forward as my eyes allow. Often I'll see a beautiful bicyclist coming my way and I'll chose a point along the trail on which to focus and I'll try to time her passage. Sometimes it works and sometimes not but the ones that get away aren't important to the walk. Scanning ahead also exercises my eyes. After hours at the screen it seems to help my eyes to work through a range of distances focusing on each and evaluating the potential photographs that are strewn around the place.
The first part of any walk is basically a "warm-up." As you take images that are most likely "throwaways" your two hands are getting used to the camera controls all over again. I'll focus on a exhaust smoke stack and feel my fingers on the focusing ring. Or I'll see exactly where I can put an autofocus square for the best results. I bring the camera up to my eye and focus it on a new piece of architecture and quickly evaluate the preview in the EVF. If the image is too dark or light I want to make sure I know exactly which dial to turn, and in which direction, to add or subtract exposure compensation. Same with my ability to quickly stop down or open up the lens at will. If it's a lens without a dedicated aperture ring I want to make sure I'm on target with the right camera control dial to make the change.
After ten or fifteen minutes of walking, stopping to make images, and then walking on. I get more comfortable with the way the camera hangs on my left shoulder. I get more comfortable with the spot at which the camera itself bumps gently against my waist. The camera hangs there waiting until I see something. I know some people like to wrap a strap around their wrist and keep the camera in their right hand waiting to pounce. Instead of being a "fast pouncer" I'm more of a "look far ahead and anticipator" which means I generally have ample time to pull the camera up and get ready to make shot that depends to a certain extent on good timing.
I walk pretty briskly when there's no one around but when the streets get a bit crowded I walk a bit slower and look at faces more. I also look at the street fashion with more interest. I also walk more slowly because it's relaxing and I can emanate more a sense of casual affect rather than seeming to be on an important mission. I try to look like an old duffer tourist. A harmless addition to the street who is wondering around with a camera trying to wrap an out of town perspective around the sites, smells and people of the area. Sometimes, I even fiddle with my camera while looking up at a building I've photographed many times before to give the impression that I'm new or tentative about my "hobby."
Why? Because people are much more comfortable with the idea that they might be a direct or inadvertent part of an interested tourist's explorations than the "target" of a cynical street photographer who might be looking down his nose at the regular folks. I must be a good actor because occasionally, when I stop to just look around and try to decide which direction to go, some nice person will come over, ask me if I'm looking for someplace and offer me directions. I'm always willing to go there so I keep places on all point of the compass in mind for just these eventualities. If I'm on 2nd St. heading east and someone offers direction help I'll ask the way to the convention center. If I'm going the other way then I ask for directions to the library. I also take a moment to ask them where they are from and how it is they got to Austin.
Sometimes I ask if I can make a photograph of them. By then the seem comfortable. I thank them and move on. Sometimes people will give instructions that are just wrong. I smile and nod and thank them anyway. The whole time I'm chatting with a direction maven I hold my camera in my hands in between us and at least have the intention of asking them for a photo....
When I look ahead and see something or someone I'd like to make a photograph of I click the camera's power switch on and start planning what I'd like to see in the background. I may hurry up to a better intersection point so I can get the background I really want but I may decide that the background is totally secondary and slow down so I don't look too anxious about getting the shot. After all, why would a tourist need to be anxious about getting a shot?
If I'm addressed by a homeless person or a person just passing the time with his or her friends on the street I never ignore them and I never just walk away. I address them directly and as we're talking I try to decide, as best I can, if they'd make a good subject. And also if the time spent versus value of the photograph have a positive ratio. Many times you learn that with certain personality types you'd just be spinning your wheels but you have to be careful about that attitude or you might miss a shot that could be really fun.
So, one camera and one lens, rarely ever any camera bag or backpack, casual attitude and the intention of just having fun and making new observations occasionally punctuated by the taking of a photograph. And I almost always bring the camera to my eye to shoot. I never shoot from the hip and I rarely shoot using the rear screen. I want people to know that I'm taking a photograph. I thinking trying to hide the process makes it more difficult to trust my own intentions. It certainly looks creepy to the people around you if you try to get a quick, furtive snap instead of just "getting it right."
In this situation my frame of mind is to wait for photographs to call out to me and demand to be taken.
So, that's the way I work on the street but it's totally different for me if it's a job. The photo above was taken as part of a multiple day shoot in the central Texas wine country. I was introduced at the outset to everyone who was working/volunteering at the harvest. We had model releases that had to be signed. There was no mistaking that I was there for a job.
One the day I photographed the image above I arrived at the vineyard around seven a.m. driving an hour and change from Austin mostly in the dark. I packed a couple of camera bags. My main camera was a big Leica SL2 with the even bigger and more daunting 24-90mm zoom. Why? Because with the willing complicity of the subjects I could take my time, focus, compose, try a different angle, work a different exposure, etc. and after a few minutes of being the subject nearly everyone ignored me entirely and let me work as they got back to work.
There was no acting on my part. No subterfuge. No playing the tourist. My goal was to project the intention of making beautiful photographs of an important process. And as in most things one's honest intuitions drive the energy to make it happen.
I'd bring my big, tattered Domke bag to the small area I wanted to photograph in and I'd put the bag on the ground, open it up and select what I thought might be the right camera and lens for the shots I was looking for. I'd leave the bag on the ground and work the shot until I either thought I got exactly what I wanted or until I decided that the camera and lens were not working for the image I was searching for at which point I'd return to the bag and reconfigure.
I have the belief that on jobs without tight schedules that it's a wonderful and productive thing to experiment with different cameras, different formats and different lenses. Many of the photos I took in the vineyards were done with the more conventional Leica SL(x) cameras but for a number ( some of which turned out to be my favorites from the project ) I used a much different camera. One that made me approach images in a completely different way.
That camera was a Sigma fp camera fitted with the big, obvious, dorky rear loupe. It's a big loupe that fits over the rear screen, magnifies it by 2X and gives you a "poor man's" EVF substitute. If you don't work with it all the time each episodic visit to this camera and its attachments requires a lot of concentration to make stuff work. Concentration that isn't really elicited when cameras are easy and almost automatic in their operation. But, as a believer that friction in all processes makes the heat and energy of art, I've come to depend on the Sigma fp for a real workout.
Using the fp with a manual focus lens out in a grab field with a giant harvesting machine coming by a few feet to one side is a wonderfully challenging experience. Some shot will work and some won't but you'll never know it until you're finished and paging through the results. But after an hour or so with the Sigma you might want a break. Maybe you'll grab that Fuji X100V you've tossed in the bag and use it in a much looser and more playful way and those images might be nice adjuncts to the ones you did with the other two systems.
The camera bags follow me around but I never shoot with them over my shoulder. They are there only to bring along the camera inventory and hold gear that you might want to experiment with.
When I work on projects like this I dissuade clients from diving into "shot lists." I think lists are very counter productive. You'll end up concentrating on some person's idea of what they'd like to see instead of the reality of the actual location or the actual process you are photographing. I also want to spend as much time as I can on a location. I'm obviously not shooting all the time but spend more time looking, walking around to see other angles, looking for ways that shifting sun affects the look of a previous shot now.
At the end of a good day of shooting I will have used two or three different types of cameras and a mix of lenses (but mostly in the 20-100mm range...) to get looks that work. I end up sweaty, dirty, and tired. But happy tired. My cameras are dusty, the camera bag most likely needs vacuuming and if you are invited to stick around for a cold beer or a glass of wine you generally do so to join in the feeling of community knowing you will see some of these people again and you'd like them to consider you a friend, not a mercenary.
When I finish a five day job that utilizes an array of cameras a big part of the satisfaction for me is to pull everything into Lightroom afterwards and really look at what kinds of differences the different lenses or lenses and cameras made in the photographs that I liked the best. Sometimes a weird camera will surprise you because the images are unexpected and good in a way you never "pre-imagined." Like ripping the wrapping off a Christmas present only to find something completely different and even better than what you may have anticipated.
But I also use the cameras in a totally different way. My example of a third approach is working with a design firm to photograph the content for an annual report. Most of them that I have worked on recently really orbit around the CEO shot as their anchor. It's the shot or series of shots that you absolutely have to nail if you want to succeed in the business. In these situations everything is tightly controlled and pre-planned. You have probably sat through meetings with the ad agency and also their counterparts in Marcom at the client side. You've walked with the art director and the client support people to scout every possible location and many times you'll be asked to set up three or four complete locations, figure out the compositions, light them and have them all ready concurrently so your executive (around which everything revolves) can walk into the first scenario, get photographed there, move to the next scenario at the location, get photographed and more from there to ........ you get the picture. I always hope I got the pictures.
In this situation you are being hired for two things. The first is knowing how to put the CEO at ease and how to direct him or her into their best expressions and poses. The second things is your knowledge and expertise at choosing exactly the right equipment and using it without fail. There is no experimenting with different cameras and lenses. You are focused on performing right at the edge. Each of your locations must be set and locked down. You're attitude must be conducive to getting the responses you want and need.
I would never go in and be subservient to a client. My approach is the antithesis of that which use on the street and not at all like the approach for something like the wine shoot. I want to be in charge. I want to carefully schedule and when the CEO walks in I want them to consider me as proficient at providing the right approach to portraiture as they are to their business. We work as equals to the extent that this is possible. And it almost always is.
The cameras are set on tripods. The lenses have been carefully selected to provide just the right composition between the subject and the extent of the background. The lighting is stylized as the agency, the Marcom people and I have pre-planned. All that remains is guiding the principal to his correct spot at the location and then directing him or her in such a way that you pull from them, actively, the look and countenance you'd like them to express in the resulting photographs.
If there are camera bags they are stuck in the corner. The interaction is direct and firm. Positive but controlled. And, generally you are using the very best camera and lenses you can afford and using them in such a way as to leverage their best potential. So different than street photography in which the moment and the gesture outweighs the technical perfection every time.
But how do you photograph?
I hope this goes some of the way to explaining why I have multiple cameras and multiple formats. Each way of working can be best served by specializing the equipment. By working in a manner that supports the venue and the life of the location. And provides the best service to your direct intention. Whether that is pure enjoyment or serious work. There is no single camera or systems that handles everything best. There just isn't. You can either have multiple systems for different uses or you can photograph with one camera and stick to narrow boundaries. That's just the way it is...
If we're also shooting video then that's a whole different kettle of fish.