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Peter Levi

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Street Photography -- Close Vs. Distance

Posted: 03/26/2012 10:32 am

As a photographer you will eventually learn all of the great masters' wise words.

One nugget that has really stuck with me was by Robert Capa, who said, "If the shot ain't good enough, you're not close enough." In many situations that is a correct statement, but of course with modification.

The late Mr. Capa, one of my own photographic heroes, took his own words a wee bit too far and stepped on a landmine in 1954.

I'm very fond of what I like to call "street minimalism." In my interpretation that means open spaces in the image so it can "breathe." The geometry should rule the image and the presence of people should more or less just add life to it, like a pinch of salt in the soup so to speak. But still your eye has to go to the human element right away. So, even if he/she is a tiny little dot, you will still consider the person the main subject.

Here is an example of what I mean -- I shot this one last weekend here in Stockholm:

2012-03-22-slott.jpg

Then we have the opposite way of shooting. And here the wise words from Mr. Capa
come in handy. In many case, it's very difficult to get close to people without feeling like you are violating their privacy. Most often you want to tell a story with your image. You want to
portray their lives, their facial expressions, what they do and so on. And to do so accurately
you oftentimes need to capture them when they aren't aware of your presence, because we all know how it feels when somebody sticks a camera up in your face. Your expressions aren't quite what they normally would be. You stiffen up and you feel pretty uncomfortable.

To take candid photos I prefer to use a smaller, silent camera. A big camera intimidates easily, and the slamming mirror inside a DSLR reveals your presence faster than it takes to say "cheese."

My own tricks to come close on the streets are pretty simple. Either I ask permission with the
risk of being turned down, or people start to pose for you. In that case I politely fire off a few shots to later delete them as they just will look like you took a few shots of your friends.

Most often I just go close pretending not to see my subjects. I usually avoid eye contact and I keep looking at the distance as if I am interested in something completely else. I use a wide-angle lens because it creates a sense of closeness, a feeling that you are in the shot compared to when you use a tele-lens -- then you only get the feeling it is a surveillance shot done by undercover cops.

Anyway, so as I have my eyes at the distance I raise my camera, and I point it in the direction I'm looking, and in the viewfinder I compose the shot, and as I use a wide-angle my subject ends up on the side of the image leaving open space for other things to happen. And best of all, as I point the camera in another direction the person doesn't have to feel uncomfortable as they usually think that I'm shooting something else. When I'm done I still avoid eye contact as they probably would get suspicious if I did. But if I make eye contact, I usually just politely nod my head and fire off a friendly smile.

Many times I wish that people would be less suspicious. For me this is an art form, and my intentions are always good. I just want to capture life as it is, frame it with geometry to tempt the eye and then show it to the world. But as the world looks, I can't blame them.