Getting close. Does it really make you a better street photographer?

This article was originally posted on Eric Kim Street Photography blog. I am the author of the article and I reproduce it on my website with Eric Kim’s authorization.

I am not an experienced street photographer. I started shooting street and candid pictures about a year ago, after several years of irregular experimentations with film and digital cameras. Everything you will read in this post is therefore the result of an ongoing reflection about something that I thought was true, but that I start to find overestimated, and potentially problematic for street photography in general.

Over the course of this past year, I have seen on many occasions people wishing to have the “balls” or the “guts” to go closer to the people they photograph in the street. Others would speak about how wide is the angle of their lens, how it forces themselves to move toward the people, to be part of the action. In several blog posts and articles, I read that dropping my zoom lens and going close would improve my photographs. So I did it. Some months after starting shooting street photographs, I got a 20mm lens for my Panasonic Lumix GF1 (40mm equivalent). I struggled a little bit at first trying to get used to zoom with my feet, but very quickly I started to love the lens and this sort of dance I had to perform to get in the right position on time for the shot. Today, I shoot exclusively with it and it would take something huge (like a Fuji X100 for Christmas :-) ) to make me stop using it. As soon as I had the 20mm, my pictures started to improve (at least in my opinion) and I was convinced that it was because I was going closer to the people, because I had grown bigger balls. I think now that I was wrong about that.

Recently, I watched an interview of the famous street photographer Jeff Mermelstein (here on my blog). At one point in the video, he says that he could have travelled the world to take pictures in more dangerous areas than downtown Manhattan (he cites Gaza for instance), but that he was not a risk taker, that he felt safe and comfortable in New York City where he takes most of his pictures. These 15 seconds in the interview made me realize several things that were probably already in the back of my mind. First, most of us do not need to be particularly brave when shooting candid pictures. As long as we are taking photographs of ordinary people, it is just a matter of putting aside our natural social reserve. Average Joe is not a dangerous person, and the worst that can happen to you is a one-minute argument that can be settled by simply deleting the picture of the moderately angry person. You would need to be brave if your subjects were criminals (as Bruce Gilden for his recent pictures of Russian gangsters), or if you were taking pictures in a war zone. In our relatively safe cities however, saying that we are brave for taking pictures of strangers seems to me as some form of high school bragging.

The second thing I realized is that most of the masters of street photography do not actually go that close to the people they photograph. Some do of course (Bruce Gilden is, I guess, the most known example) but a majority does not, or does not systematically, alternating between close-up pictures and larger scenes (Henry Cartier-Bresson for instance is an excellent example of that). While going again through the pictures of all these famous photographers, I noticed that they used their wide angle lens in many cases not to force themselves to go toward the people, but rather to embrace the context around the characters, to create a complete scene that tells a complete story. I even discovered that some of them used telephoto lenses (as Saul Leiter who regularly used a 150mm lens) and still made incredible street photographs. To take a good street photograph, the size of the lens does not seem to matter that much apparently, nor the distance to the people. So, what does actually matter?

An example of a street photograph taken with a telephoto lens - Taxi, New York, 1957 © Saul Leiter

Robert Capa once said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. This is probably the favorite citation of all the advocates of what I would call “close contact street photography”. If Capa says we have to go close, it must be true. However, Capa does not say that exactly. He says that we have to go close ENOUGH. I am not here to speak instead of Capa of course, but I like to remind you that he was before all a photojournalist. His job was to bring back pictures that would capture the essence of an event, whatever this event could have been. If you want to do that, you have to make sure you are taking the picture at an appropriate scale (the “close enough” of Capa). If you are too far from the event, you will include external elements that will diminish the strength and clarity of the information you are trying to convey. If Capa had taken his pictures of D-Day landing from a boat a mile a away from Omaha Beach, they would have never became the iconic documents we all know.

In street photography, we face a similar problem. We are trying to document events of the “everyday life” and we have to make sure we are capturing these events at the right scale, reducing as much as possible intrusive elements by zooming (with our lens or our feet) toward our main subject. Following the same principle, getting too close is not a good thing either because it would crop out elements that are essential to the full understanding of the captured event. Therefore, the distance at which you photograph people should not be a function of how brave you think you are. Actually, such an attitude might become very problematic for street photography in general, as it would reinforce existing prejudices against street photographers. Instead, the distance should be determined by the main subject of your picture and by how much useful and useless information you are including in the picture at a given distance. If your subject is the tattoo on the back of someone, then go very close. If it is a pick-up streetball game, take some distance. Whether you use your zoom, or your feet if you have a prime lens, does not really matter. What really matters is the scale at which you take the picture.

Example of the importance of using an appropriate scale in street photography. Pass your mouse over the image to see the full story.

More and more, it seems to me that my pictures were actually not improving because of the length of my lens or because I was able to go closer to the people. I am not more brave than a year ago. However, I am more confident in what I am doing. By spending more and more time in the streets, I have improved my ability to detect and to anticipate interesting situations and potential pictures, I have learned how to approach people without making them worried about my intentions, and above all I now have a better understanding of what elements should, or should not be included in the picture.There is still a lot of room for improvement in my work, but I am sure that it will have little to do with my gear and my balls.

4 Comments

  1. cris

    I wish to thank you for this extremely well written post, It’s been a while I was thinking about the same raising and overlooked popularity on getting close in the community. It seems to me everybody is reducing street photography merely to a competition on who is getting closer (which I think it helps but it’s not absolutely necessary).
    Anthems like ‘use short focal lenghts, get close, grow a pair’, how much wasted arrongance and for what poor results.
    People forgot composition and trade it for some sort of braveness, mistaking that for a good photo recipe and pretending to capturing the soul of the people or even claim to tell a story.
    Nothing could be more far from reality. More often it end up just on a really close portrait which has no much to tell actually.
    Garry Winogrand said photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the picture as judgment that the photograph is good; in this case the emotion is feeling brave I guess.
    I hope your contribution will get back people thinking more about composition and less on how to be some sort of paparazzi.
    And also thanks for mentioning Saul Leiter, a perfect example.

    • Thanks very much Cris for your kind words and for your contribution to the discussion on the subject. I hope too that this trend will disappear because it does not do any good to street photography.

  2. Thank you for a great article i shoot myself with 45mm lens, as i prefer to stay more hidden and catch true candid moments.

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  1. By Toronto Street Photography :: Are there rules in (street) photography? – Michael Fraser Photography 19 Jun ’12 at 10:29 am

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