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Fuji Mojo: Street photography for introverts

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This is a slight piece about a journey I have recently begun. I’ve taken my first steps towards becoming a more effective street photographer

As something of an introvert, I have to screw up my courage to point my camera at people I do not know. This is not because I have ever encountered hostility or negativity from potential subjects. It’s largely that I am used to keeping myself to myself when passing strangers on the street. By now, I suspect that unselfconscious and extroverted street photographers are laughing helplessly and already writing me off as a hopeless case.

Let me make it clear that I appreciate the endless variety of the street scene within the life of the city, the wonderful mix of people living out their lives on the pavements and the drama of human interaction around every corner. I know intellectually that this a wonderful photographic opportunity; I am glad it exists and I would like to take full advantage with my camera. My problem is an over-generous measure of reserve which, like a self-generating cloak of invisibility, has held me back from photography in the street.

Since I am far too inexperienced to have a style of street photography, just a few comments about what I have been doing so far.

Buskers and street musicians have been my point of entry to street photography. I understand that they are looking for attention and indeed happy to have it. Once I have put a coin in their caps I am actually relatively happy to take photographs, probably out of determination to get value for my money. They also have the advantage for me as subjects in that they are usually absorbed in their music and there is time to work the shot. They are not tempted to pose with a rictus grin which is the hallmark of poor street photography and over-cooperative subjects.

I am also starting to see markets of various kinds as good locations for street photography. Amidst the crowd, it is possible for candid shots of both stall-holders and their customers to be taken at fairly close range.

Cafés and coffee houses are also excellent locations, particularly when people are seated at pavement tables.

Notice however that I have come at last to mention of photographing people I meet and talk to on the street. This is because I have been up to now too reserved to start a conversation with a view to asking if I may take a photo. Since I have no problem in talking to people in other situations, I know there is no logic here. I’m just reporting on how things are with me.

I mostly use my Fuji X-T20 for street photography because of its diminutive size and friendly appearance. It also has the tilt screen for occasional unobtrusive snappery. The Fuji 56mm f/1.2 is my best friend for street photography being an excellent portrait lens which used wide open dissolves away backgrounds beautifully. This runs counter to the sagest advice from all those in-your-face “street togs” of internet fame. After all, an equivalent focal length of 85mm is ideal for portraits but considered less than perfect for quiet street photography. 

  Above: Mike Evans fuzzysnaps Eric Kim in H&M Oxford Street during the 2013 street photography course. Below: Some of Mike
Above: Mike Evans fuzzysnaps Eric Kim in H&M Oxford Street during the 2013 street photography course. Below: Some of Mike’s Leica Monochrom shots taken while out “street togging” with Eric

It certainly isn’t the classic street photographer’s 35mm lens, but I am very happy with it and since my confidence needs all the help it can get I shall continue to use it. For the beginner it establishes a certain measure of cordon sanitaire. It is the antithesis of the pushy street photographer’s favourite tool. In due course, I shall try out the 23mm f/1.4 to compare and contrast.

Chance also plays its part. In an email exchange with editor Mike Evans, I happened to mention that I had started to put together an article on my first foray into street photography (this being the result). He was supportive and revealed that he had been through a similar process himself, including attendance at a street photography course with Eric Kim in 2013. Mike’s series of articles and excellent portraits during this experience have been an inspiration for me to stick at it despite the sheer terror which sometimes engulfs me. It’s always encouraging to find someone else who has been in the same boat.

And so, although I started with candid shots I am now boldly, in my opinion, going up to people, engaging them in conversation and then asking if I may photograph them. My first attempt was in Chester city centre this week and I was amazed to find that, in an hour of wandering around, every one of my chosen subjects was happy to join in. Mike made the point in his 2013 series that eight out of ten people he approached in Oxford Circus were easily persuaded to have their photograph taken. It’s surprising, but perhaps it all boils down to personality and the way in which you approach strangers. 

Does this make me an accomplished street photographer? Absolutely not but I’m confident now that I will become a better one, now that I have shed my cloak of invisibility.

There is so much more to learn and lots more practise needed but I have made some pleasing progress. I look forward to another article in 2018 when I have more experience. Meanwhile, I hope I can ask for the understanding of more extroverted street photographers who are much further down the street than I. If our paths cross, may I buy you a coffee…..and also take your photograph? 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Nice photos, David. The 56mm (85mm in ‘real money’) is probably about right for a start. Anything larger might scare subjects. 35mm and 50mm are for later when you want to work in a bit of the environment. I don’t do much of what is called street photography. I don’t know whether is this down to shyness or just whether the genre does not appeal to me.

    I see that in a few cases you have made a connection with the subjects, which is good. Some might say that such photos are no longer street photos, but rather informal portraits. When HCB and others started to do this type of photography many years ago, people were less self-conscious about personal space and image use. Strictly speaking, anyone in a public space may be legally photographed. In some cultures people don’t want to be photographed at all and in others they are quite happy to be photographed for a small fee. There are, of course, some universal red lines nowadays, particularly as regards the photographing of children.

    Your photographs are fine and they avoid any element of voyeurism. I felt uncomfortable recently when I saw a photographer with a zoom lens effectively stalking a Chinese woman looking into the window of an expensive jewellery shop in Dublin, which attracts business from Chinese tourists, particularly those looking for high-end watches. I also felt the same way some years ago in my camera club in Dublin when, after someone had shown photographs of gypsy families living under a bridge in Romania, the conversation started to drift towards where they could be found and what payment or gifts might persuade them to have their photograph taken. The type of photographs shown were sometimes very much the type of cliches (eg people with wrinkly faces) often found in camera club circles and some featured children. When I see that type of thing, I don’t want to go anywhere near street photography, but every time I see some masterpiece by HCB or some other great photographer, I cannot help but think ‘I wish that I had taken that’.

    Keep up the good work.

    William

    • William,

      Good to have your thoughts on street photography which are much appreciated by a beginner. I deliberately avoided zoom lens stalking for the reasons you state. In my case also, if I had used a zoom, I would have been reinforcing my reserve and putting further distance between me and my subjects. I will take up your suggestion to mix in some 23mm (35mm full frame) work to show more environmental context.

      I want (an improved level) of street photography to be part of my armoury for use where appropriate and of course carry on doing landscape and wild life too. Action photography is also part of the plans for 2018…….

      Thanks again and best seasonal greetings!

      David

  2. Enjoyed your article and journey David. The 56 has provided a very interesting range of quality shots, involving close association with your subjects. All the best in continued evolution.

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