It takes practice to paint a realistic picture. It takes practice to play a guitar. It takes practice to capture the decisive moment with a camera. And just like with painting or guitar playing, while you can use almost any brush or guitar, it helps to have a good-quality sable brush for oil painting, an electric guitar for rock- n-roll, and a viewfinder camera for street photography.
I began street photography in the 1970s using an 8×10-inch Agfa-Ansco large-format camera. I would set my Majestic tripod up on a sidewalk in downtown Los Angeles and take formal photos of the street. Occasionally, I would ask someone to stop and allow me to make a portrait of them, other times I just photographed the ebb and flow of the city.
In 1981, at the suggestion of photographer David Scheinbaum, I decided to see what could be done using a hand held 35mm camera. At the time, I was using a Nikon F with a Photomic meter. It did not take long to realize the limitations inherent in using a single lens reflex camera (SLR) for hand-held street photography. These include mirror shake; losing sight of your sub- ject with each exposure, if only for an instant; they are loud due to mirror slap; and the singular fact that an SLR camera is big, bulky and threatening to the photographic subject.
In 1982, I purchased a Leica M3. Leica invented the 35mm camera. The early models were viewfinder cameras with a rangefinder focusing system. The range-finder system juxtaposes a second, shadow image of the subject in the viewfinder. When the subject is in focus the shadow image disappears. As a result, Leica M cameras are usually referred to as rangefinder rather than viewfinder cameras, but they are still within the viewfinder family.
When using a viewfinder camera you look directly through a ‘window’ in order to compose the image, not through the lens, as with an SLR. The window is sometimes located directly above the lens but quite often it is found above and to the left of the lens.
The advantage of using a viewfinder over an SLR in- cludes no mirror shake, allowing handheld exposures at slower shutter speeds (I am able to photograph hand-held at speeds as slow as 1⁄4 second); small and inconspicuous (read: non-threatening to the subject); lightweight; and quiet. But most important, because you are looking directly through the viewfinder and there is no reflex mirror to obscure your view for even an instant, you never lose sight of your subject. This is critical for capturing the decisive moment. If only for this last reason and no other, the viewfinder system is, in my experience, the best for street photography.
None of this means that the viewfinder is a camera for all reasons. Like any tool it has its limitations. One of the major limitations of the viewfinder is that it is not able to accept lenses much longer than 135mm in a 35mm format as the barrel of the lens would obstruct the viewfinder window. If you were photographing Alaskan Brown Bears I would recommend using a Nikon D3 with a 600mm prime lens. Otherwise, you might end up as a brown bag lunch.
With the advent of digital photography, there have been several attempts to create a viable viewfinder camera. These include the Epson RD-1 and the Leica M8 and M9; the M9 being to viewfinder photography what the Leica M7 still is to film. Most recently, Fuji has introduced a promising viewfinder camera in an attempt to fill the niche, the Fuji X100.
When I first heard about this camera, I hoped that I had found a digital replacement for my Leica M3 and M7 film cameras. Then reports from users began to creep in, especially reviews I read on the web. Most of these extolled the virtues of the super sharp, crisp Fuji lens while lamenting how slow the camera was in practice. I decided to find out for myself. As it happens, I visit Cuba twice a year for humanitarian purposes and while there I usually find time to photograph. What better way to test a street camera than to take it with me on my next visit?
The X100 is compact, lightweight, quiet and unobtrusive, all-important attributes for a street camera. Unfortunately, the image buffer is small, around eight frames using RAW; the write time between exposures is slow; and there is a slight delay when the shutter is released. It also has more features and functions than just about any camera I have ever used. Many of these come configured as defaults.
I found that when I reconfigured the X100 to turn off all the bells and whistles it worked more efficiently and by the end of my trip I was racking up a higher percentage of fine images than in the first few weeks. If you are interested in using this camera to capture the decisive moment then the following are the settings and controls I recommend using.
First, only use the optical viewfinder. It may be tempting to use the enhanced electronic viewfinder (digital viewfinder) in low light but it will slow you down. Yes, it may take some practice, I told you that at the beginning of this article, but try to get used to watching your subject in realtime through the optical viewfinder.
Within the optical viewfinder only enable the shutter speed, aperture and ISO, along with the exposure mode and exposure compensation. Anything else will simply interfere with your visual connection to your subject. You do not need any other distractions in the viewfinder window.
Turn off ISO Auto Control and set the Fn Button for ISO Sensitivity. The ability to change ISO at random is one of the most important innovations of digital photography. To be able to do it on the fly, using the Fn Button, is a blessing for streetphotographers.
Finally, digital cameras live off battery power. And while everything should be done to save on battery usage it is important not to do so at the expense of speed, focus or capture. For this reason, turn off the OVF Power Save Mode and enable Quick Start Mode.
Capturing the decisive moment and having it in-focus is what matters most to a street photographer. For that reason, my method is to preset my aperture for the depth-of-field I need, within the limitations of the ambient lighting conditions. I then rely entirely upon the accuracy of the Aperture Priority mode and the exposure compensation dial. This is the reason I like to have exposure compensation appear in the viewfinder window, so I can keep track of any exposure changes without having to look at the dial.
When using this camera I like to keep my thumb on the exposure compensation dial. When framing an image I move my thumb from the exposure compensation dial and place it on the easily accessible AE/ AFL lock button on the back of the camera. Pressing and holding the AE/AFL button locks in the focus on the selected subject.
At the same time, my right index finger is always on the on/off switch. Usually I would leave the camera on all the time and carry a pocket full of batteries. However, the X100 powers off after five minutes and it takes longer to turn it back on when this happens, why I do not know. I found that it was better to shut it off completely and then turn it back on when the action begins to happen.
At the same time, my left thumb and index finger hold the f/stop dial surrounding the lens, ready to increase or decrease depth-of-field as needed.
While not making apologies for this camera, I found that once I had configured it according to the guidelines above and became accustomed to using it, the delays in exposure enabled me to better anticipate the decisive moment.
It does not take much to become a good street photographer. All you need is to practice and use the right camera for the job.