The growing popularity of street photography is probably best explained with one word: accessibility. Street photography is accessible both because of location (big surprise – there are lots of streets in the world. Go outside. There’s a street. Right there…) – and because you don’t have to be a full-time “professional” photographer with thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Just go out and shoot. Heck, the genre of street photography doesn’t even require you to be on a street. Just go and shoot. Simple, right?
Although I am a professional photographer (which has absolutely nothing to do with being paid, although I am), street photography is my most personal work – it is for me, as opposed to a client. I also have the benefit of living as an expatriate in Shanghai, China (for nine years now), and taking a camera with me just about everywhere, is part of my daily ritual. There are images happening all around us, all the time.
Even when I’m not carrying a camera, I look for good light, and notice small vignettes unfolding around me, and I frequently feel as though I’m making images with my eyes alone. I shoot on the subway. I shoot on the street. I shoot on escalators, and buses, and I frequently shoot while riding my electric scooter through the city. I pretty much shoot anywhere I can, with the exception of places like public restrooms, and into the windows of people’s homes, or area 51, or any other place is that is both a gross invasion of privacy and/or likely to get me landed in jail. I prefer to have a camera though – because I am a photographer, and preserving those images and vignettes is one of the things I love doing most. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have the time, or rather the loss of time as a resource that could be spent earning a living – to go on photo walks in the city all day, every day. I just bring a camera with me where I am going, and I shoot what interests me.
There are lots of different styles and types of street photographers – some people snipe from a distance with a long telephoto (which is generally sneered upon by purists). Others avoid taking pictures of strangers altogether due to the awkwardness, unless they are truly passing “props” in a scene. Some people like the adrenaline rush of getting right up in other peoples’ faces, or simply snapping pictures of strangers without hiding that fact. I don’t have a single “method” of shooting – but one of my many methods is specifically to try to get really, really close to people with a middle focal length (say, 35-50mm), and get portraits of subjects WITHOUT them being aware of being photographed. This can be for lots of reasons – and don’t get me wrong, eye-contact in a photograph can be a very powerful element. But it is an intentional decision to change something in that moment – to make the subject aware they are being photographed. I like to think of street photography as my way of documenting the world as it is happening around me – almost like an invisible observer.
On the street itself, I usually just shoot and walk. On my scooter, I shoot while carefully trying not to get myself killed. On the subway, I almost always shoot with a wireless phone app to trigger the shutter on my camera.
The “technique” is this: for much of my street shooting, I use either an Olympus OM-D E-M1 (review), or a Fujifilm X-T1 (review) with the iPhone wireless camera remote app. Both cameras have individual strengths and weaknesses in this area, but the net result for shooting is the same: there is no way to get as close, or “invisible” that I have found than using these cameras, with these apps. I will cover the technical use of these cameras and apps first, and then discuss their use (and the controversy of their use) at the end.
Using the Olympus/Fujifilm Remote Apps for Street Shooting
First: if you have ever used one of these two cameras, you have probably tinkered with the WIFI app respectively. Many reviews mention the app as a useful function for downloading or previewing images onto phones or tablets respectively, and many briefly dismiss them as a somewhat useful way to wirelessly trigger the camera’s shutter remotely for tripod or self-portrait use. When the E-M1 was released, however, this feature piqued my curiosity for completely different reasons; it would allow me to get truly up close and personal with my camera, especially in tight, enclosed spaces (like the subway), and take portraits with almost completely unnoticeable effects on the subject.
Sometimes, I hang the camera around my neck with a fairly short strap, and shoot whatever is directly in front of me by holding my phone just above the camera, and close to my body. Most people assume that I am simply a geeky tourist that is wandering the subway or city with a camera dangling from my neck. This, however, is not at all useful for capturing images in anything but a landscape orientation from about chest-level, which is definitely limiting. To compensate for that, I also sling the camera behind my shoulder, with the lens pointing away from my body around my shoulder blade. I can use the strap and my left arm to angle or move the camera slightly – but because of the way it is positioned, it naturally hangs in a ‘portrait’ orientation.
Standing in the subway of Shanghai, especially during rush hour, there is not much room to breathe, let alone lift a camera to your face to take a picture. But this is not why I shoot this way sometimes. I do it because I can have a relatively normal lens (35-50mm, full-frame equivalent) and get feet away from a person’s face or body to take a picture. My favorite lenses for this type of shooting include the Olympus 17mm f/1.8, Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, and Olympus 25mm f/1.8. If it is not as crowded, and I’m not naturally mashed against people like a sardine, I’ll often opt for the Olympus 45mm f/1.8, or the Fujifilm 56mm f/1.2. I know the subway’s lighting by now, and although it can vary somewhat depending on the train line, usually I can shoot at ISO 1250 on the Olympus, and still hit shutter speeds above 1/100th of a second, which is more than enough to get a sharp image on the Olympus even with the bouncing and movement of the train car (especially with the built-in OIS). On the Fujifilm, I stay set to AUTO ISO between 200-3200, with a minimum shutter speed of 1/250th of a second (again, this is typically using the 56mm f/1.2. I can either shoot wide open, or open the aperture up to 2.0 to keep shutter speeds reasonably high, while getting a little more depth of field.
Strengths of the Olympus and Olympus Image Share iOS App:
- The wifi is a stronger signal, and produces far less lag in the app. This is especially true of the “over the shoulder” technique, which is barely useable on the Fujifilm because there is too much loss of signal and lag.
- Wide open, Olympus lenses still allow all of the benefits of gathering a lot of light while naturally producing more depth of field. You don’t really want a razor-thin depth of field when shooting in a bumpy, moving subway car, around people that are also constantly shifting space.
- The in-app focusing of the Olympus is FAST. Truly, as instantaneous as triggering the shutter.
- The Olympus app is superior in almost every way to Fujifilms. It rotates the entire app automatically in landscape or portrait mode based on your positioning of the phone/device. There is also a mirrored option for triggering the shutter with the app’s shutter release “button,” or by simply touching the focus point of choice and triggering a release instantly upon acquisition of focus. It is almost identical in this way to the touchscreen function of the E-M1’s rear LCD in this way. VERY useful.
- The Olympus app allows for continuous shooting, or single shot mode – again, mirroring the camera’s operation flawlessly.
- All major exposure parameters (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, etc.) are adjustable in the app, as are shooting modes.
- As always, the IBIS of the Olympus is incredible, and allows you to shoot at 1/60th of a second – which is generally enough to freeze very slight motion, but stable enough to produce a tack-sharp image from bumping around.
Weaknesses of the Olympus and Olympus Image Share iOS App:
- With Olympus, ISO is really limited to about 1600, which is enough for the speed, but not ideal for producing the cleanest images. By that point, in poor lighting (which is always the case with the subway!), you’ll get a lot more grain – and not always the pretty kind.
- There is no way to omit the sound of the shutter completely.
- The length of time to connect to the WiFi app is longer, and more annoying on the Olympus – although once connected, it is a very stable connection for the most part.
Strengths of the Fujifilm X-T1 and the Fujifilm Cam Remote iOS App:
- You can safely shoot at ISO 1600, 3200, and even 6400 in a pinch – and dynamic range, image quality, and noise are still very well controlled.
- The electronic shutter added in firmware update 3.0 allows you to shoot in absolute, complete silence – it literally makes no sound.
- The image quality of the X-T1 is, under these lighting conditions, a good notch above the Olympus.
Weaknesses of the Fujifilm X-T1 and the Fujifilm Cam Remote iOS App:
- The Wifi app does not rotate orientation modes at all – it is always displayed in the phone/tablet’s vertical orientation, with the image in landscape mode. It is incredibly annoying to try to shoot in the portrait orientation using the Fujifilm app – and for such a ubiquitous feature on all apps, it is inexcusable for Fujifilm not to correct this.
- The Wifi signal is weaker, probably because of the Wifi module’s placement on the rear of the camera. If the camera is in front of my dangling from the strap, it is a relatively strong signal (only inches away form the phone). But even here, it still sometimes lags and freezes as the signal catches up to the live display on the phone – which is an incredible feat (though, in the bad sense). Over the shoulder shooting? It honestly makes a big difference if you’re wearing a heavy coat, or just a regular shirt – but the signal drops and freezes very often.
- Focusing with the app takes longer, and feels far less responsive that the Olympus app.
- You can ONLY shoot in single-shot mode. No continuous. Not triggering of the shutter automatically when you tap the focus point on the screen. You must first tap to focus, then tap the shutter button on the app. Much, much slower. Many more missed shots.
- You need to shoot at higher shutter speeds to freeze action – and although most of the Fuji primes are a tad faster with f/1.4 or 1.2 than the Olympus primes are at f/1.8, you’ll have to shoot at higher ISO, and you’ll be reducing depth of field even more when shooting wide open, which is NOT really an advantage here. That being said, for pure final image quality, I’d rather be shooting at ISO 3200 on the Fuji to achieve fast enough shutter speeds at f/1.4 or f/1.8, than 1600 on the Olympus to achieve the same.
- The Achilles heel of using the electronic shutter for completely silent shooting is essentially “image wobble” – it is a frozen version of the phenomenon of using earlier versions of digital cameras to record video. Remember how video footage used to look like the world was made of Jell-o if you panned the camera too quickly? Same thing, only with a snapped frame. Really, really frustrating – and as nice as the feature is in a pinch to shoot wide-open during daylight, it is not a panacea for a lower native ISO of 100 or higher mechanical shutter speed of 1/8000.
The Likely “Controversy” of Remote App Shooting
The real purpose of this article is not simply to share a technique that I have found useful, but to provoke discussion and thought on use of the technique, from a philosophical standpoint. Personally, I am firmly of the philosophy that public life can, and should, be documented freely – by anyone. But there is a point at which the street photographer has to realize that the choice to either shoot “invisibly” or “with obvious interaction” has every bit as much of an impact on the final image as the choice of what field of view, or framing, or composing, or exposure, or anything else has on a final image. This also, in my own “reasonable” framework means I’m not going to follow someone down the street, paparazzi style, just because I can legally. It also means if I ever get someone that realizes I am photographing them, and clearly wants that photo gone – I will likely delete the photo (although I have never run into this particular scenario). It also means that sometimes I will take a picture of someone that will never know I did – and not have the ability to object.
I don’t know know (although I presume it is likely) that there will be objection to the use of this technique as a “special” violation of privacy. But in my mind, the question is, either the photographer has the obligation to show every stranger that is in their picture the final image for approval and security that it does not violate their privacy, or they don’t. It’s a shaky middle ground to say “I didn’t hide the fact that I was taking a picture” – because you can still certainly do so without someone having a fair chance to notice or object. Even your selection of gear (a small, discreet Fujifilm X100T, for example) vs. a Nikon D4s and 24-70 f/2.8G is usually made on the basis of portability, size, and discretion in street photography (I don’t know any street photogs, incidentally, who shoot with the Nikon kit mentioned for street work).
The Compositional Choice of Subject Interaction & Awareness
With regards to people and street photography, the image and the moment in time is altered by interaction with the photographer. Simply put, people behave differently when they know they are being photographed. I’m not just talking about people who start yelling at you, or give you a mean look when they realize you are taking their picture – because I’ve actually found this to be rare, and easily diffused with a simple smile, and even better – a look at the beautiful picture you just took of them with a business card so they can contact you for a copy. I mean that, in my experience, people become self-conscious because of the interaction with a camera – and this changes the moment. I’ll give three pictures here as examples.
This first picture is an obvious example – but a good one, nonetheless. I was clearly not bothering to hide the fact that I was taking this picture – the whole point was to document what was an obvious “show” going on with other photographers taking pictures of a perfect stranger. Is she being photographed in a natural way? Absolutely not. Is she changing her demeanor and the moment because of her awareness of others taking her picture? Absolutely. You see this quite a lot with foreigners in Shanghai, actually – especially during holiday weeks. One Chinese person wants to get a picture of a “foreigner”, and before long, everyone is bringing out their DSLRs for a mini photo shoot. Mind you, this was not a photo shoot, these were two tourists, being photographed by an increasing swarm of photographers. But this – that pose – which is even an ideal one, given that she (ahem) seems OK with the attention, is not what I want to capture. I want a real moment. Poses and direction are for my clients, not my street photography. The “real moment” here became documenting the frenetic crazy of photographers trying to get a picture of the foreigner who loved the attention, and that scene as a part of the life here.
This image, by contrast, was taken with the Fujifilm Cam Remote App, the Fujifilm X-T1, and 56mm f/1.2 lens, from about minimum focusing distance (roughly 1 meter). There is NO WAY this image could have been captured at this moment by holding the camera to my eye, or even by doing a waist-level LCD swivel. I was right next to him. And for me, this image captures a real story of this particular man, in a real moment (that is long since gone forever). And I love the image, because he has a powerful face, and it makes me wonder above all else, “What is the story of this man? What is he thinking of? What are his fears? What are his dreams?” For me, it is a celebration of the absolute, unmistakable individuality we all bear – I am surrounded by people that I do not notice or think twice of every day (24 million people, to be exact. In very close proximity). Living in a highly populated city has somewhat of a dehumanizing effect on most of us; we take the presence of others for granted, and seek refuge in our phones or any corner of space we can to block out other people and interaction. Taking the photo, and looking at it now, it makes me stop, and consider this particular man, this individual, who crossed my path once – two entirely unique and individual lives, that now have some small connection. But others may see this and ask, “Isn’t this a bit… exploitative? Doesn’t this violate his privacy? Shouln’t he have a right to know you are taking his picture?” I don’t think so, but I’m sure there are others that do. The reality is, I was that close to him. I am that close to other strangers (actually, closer during rush hour) every day. Arguably, that physical proximity is a far more invasive to privacy and personal space… but it is a reality of getting around such a large city.
Finally – this image is somewhat of a balance between the two. Did the man on the left know I was taking his picture when I held the camera up to my face? Absolutely. Did he have time to react or make a face, or look away? No, although he did look a little peeved. But is the image stronger because of that emotion from tough-ish looking escalator repair guy? Yes, I believe so! And honestly, for this image, I took a shot before from waist level, without getting any attention and realized, I didn’t like the image when I quickly previewed it. So, I held the camera up to my face, and waited for him to look, but it was an intentional choice to have a moment of interaction with the subject, or to bring his awareness into the image that had a dramatic impact. Sometimes, I prefer this. Other times, I do not. Sometimes, this awareness makes an image stronger. Other times, it does not. Sometimes, the moment as it is stands alone, and the image is about inviting the viewer to peer into that moment. Other times, the presence of the photographer changes that moment, and invites the viewer to stand in the shoes of the photographer and that brief, but beautifully eternal, moment of connection.
Here are some additional images that are captured using the iOS Camera Remote App technique, both on the Olympus E-M1 and Fujifilm X-T1: