Lenses

Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Biogon Lens

Wide, fast and prime. No, this is not a description of how I like my meat or my women. These are the characteristics of the proper lens choice for subway work.

Why fast?  The subway is dark!  Lenses that cannot open up wider than f/3.5 will have limited use (unless shooting very high iso).  So go for something that can go to f2 or faster!

Why wide? The subway is cramped! I have tried working with a fast 50mm but it’s no dice, there just isn’t enough space to move and position yourself. This may work for shooting in the subway station as there is a long corridor, but typically not for the subway train car. I have also shot with a 135mm on a train car and while there can be good results, the zoom of the lens is too limiting to take advantage of all of the different available situations you will find yourself in.

I have a sweet tooth for sweet spots. And the sweet spot (in my humble and sugary opinion) are for prime lenses between 21 and 35mm focal lengths.  This really gives you the range between classic portrait lenses on the long end and super-wide lenses on the short end.  A good 35mm lens is really nice to have (even beyond subway shooting).  But for portraits on the subway, I consider it perfect.  On the wide end, 21mm is wide enough to capture a lot of information.  One further point about going wider than 40mm or 50mm is that you can’t shoot from the hip (if you don’t understand why, that will be explained soon my curious friends).

Why prime?  In a word – simplicity. Zooms offer you too many options.  We need to be focusing on things besides the camera!  We need to look at the lighting and the composition!  Then when all of those things align, the camera just becomes a part of us.  The more options/settings/extraneous nonsense you have to worry about the less you can connect with your camera.  And connecting with your picture maker, is an important thing.

There are lots of kinds of equipment that you can get intimate with (and they don’t all have to be in the “adult” category). Camera equipment has such wonderful history and can be such great mechanical pieces of art that intimacy feels natural only after spending a few weeks of shooting. This is why staying with one body and one prime lens is so great. The satisfaction you get from that connection between man and a properly wielded tool is something to behold!  The sound of that clunky springy shutter, the solid metal feel of the body, the dim, dusty viewfinder and simple spot meter… I wouldn’t trade it for the world (to say the least one of those crappy plastic digital cameras).

So go on, work with one camera and one lens (preferably fast, wide and prime).  You guys are a match made in heaven!

Safe Shooting!

J

Disclaimer:
While I think that the rules I talk about in the above post have their strengths, they should not always be followed 100%!  Feel free to break all of my rules!

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Its amazing the things we can learn from kids.  We are so used to the notion that we have to be teaching them but in many ways they should be teaching us!  Intimidation is not in most kid’s vocabularies and that is to their benefit.  Because children are constantly taking on new tasks and learning completely new skills, they are used to going out of their comfort zone.  After being shot out of a womb everything is outside of your comfort zone, it’s a wonder babies don’t cry even more.

The other great thing that kids are constantly doing is working on the basics.  The fundamentals of whatever it is you are doing need to be second nature before any serious work can be done.  Even dyed in the wool professionals could use a basics refresher course every now and again (I think it would be a great exercise for a CEO to become a factory worker for a day).

One of my first photos with my Nikon FM and 50mm F2 lens.

This is why old film cameras are wonderful, not to mention cheap, photography tools.  They are very basic – aperture value, shutter speed, and metering the light are all that you need to worry about.  Once you have those three basic things  down packed – you can play with the more interesting things – composition, lighting, juxtaposition etc.  Cutting away all of the options of digital slr’s and point ‘n shoots really helps narrow your focus.  This is why I recommend basic film camera as a first street photography camera.

Oh and did I mention they are inexpensive???

Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, Zorki, Leica… the list of old camera options goes on and on…  Where to begin?

Well, if this is to be your first film camera, then I recommend shooting with an SLR that comes with a working light meter.  That second point is not trivial.  If a camera is automatic in any way and the meter doesn’t work, then the automatic modes will not work (and automatic exposure-only cameras won’t work period).  Also, for convenience’s sake, a working meter in the camera is very nice to have.  External light metering can be annoying… so trust me, the first thing you should check on any used camera is that the light meter works and is accurate.

So why choose an SLR?  SLR’s were made rugged and durable.  They typically are not that finicky or complex.  This is why they last a long time.  The other nice thing about them is that they have interchangeable lenses.  And brothers and sisters, lemme tell yah, there are some excellent used lenses on the market that are not that expensive!

The 50mm lens design is the standard for any camera company.  Millions of these pieces of glass were produced and I would go out on a limb to say that most photos were taken on a 50mm lens.  Because of the volume in production, the prices are low and the quality is high.

So here is my proposal for you – get a used SLR camera from the 70’s with a 50mm lens.  Budget conscious?  No worries! Any tight belted chap can afford this setup!  This combo can be had for around $150 or even less!

Some popular options:

  • Pentax K1000
  • Nikon FM, FE or F (my personal recommendation due to the lenses available)
  • Canon AE-1

Another option to go for would be a rangefinder design.  The reason I don’t recommend this as a first film camera is that the prices will typically be greater unless you go for very early designs.  If you go for very early designs, then a light meter will not be available to you.  Many people prefer rangefinders and I love them too, but for your first film camera, a good SLR cannot be beat.

If you are interested in a good discussion about the benefits of an SLR over a rangefinder then take a look at this youtube video

Any endeavor is overwhelming when you first set sail.  I certainly was intimidated by my first digital slr and again by my first film camera.  But after shooting many frames in both, it became so natural to pick up either, put them to my eye, adjust the settings and click.  Just keep shooting.  And everything will fall into place.

Happy shooting friends!

J