Fuck Focus? Experiements in Street Photography

One of my favourite peices of writing about photography is Craig Mod’s “Seeing Prime” where in reference to the imperfectly glorious photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson, he writes “Fuck focus.” Both Craig Mod and Henri Cartier-Bresson are creatives I respect, and I take that as an inspiration. Still, I want to have things in focus if possible — and this piece is about some techniques I’ve adopted in training myself as a photographer. Manually focus, and indeed, fucking focus off in favour of a well timed shot if necessary, is one of them.

I’m no expert but I’m enjoying experimenting with street photography. It’s really the deep end of photography — constantly changing light environments, subjects moving in and out of them, low light, the likelihood of pissing people off and the possibility of being verbally accosted…

Learning to See

Street photography is a great education in seeing. It’s easy to get a shot but it’s hard to get an interesting one. There are subjects everywhere but uncommon situations are rare. Just doing it, getting out there with a camera, makes it all the more possible.

Sure, I’ve taken a lot of online advice on street photography into account, but I’m also learning to overcome these challenges with some ideas of my own.

Monochrome

Most street photography ends up in monochrome for whatever reason — maybe it’s just a thing — but the reason I’ve set my camera to shoot black and white isn’t because that’s how I want the end result to look.

I find the most interesting compositions make good use of light and I want to be able to see in those terms when making the shot. I shoot in raw so that means only the preview is saved in monochrome and I can still edit a full colour photo.

Manual Focus

Another thing I’m doing is using manual focus. Automatic focus seriously slowly down taking a photo, delaying it by a second or more. Usually I shoot the same subject a few time, so using manual focus will mean that the second and further shots will be instant.

UPDATE — About a week after publishing this piece I discovered the AF/AE button on the back of my GX7, and that it can be set to auto focus while in manual mode. I no longer use manual focus that much as I can use this button to focus one time, and shoot instantly until I need to refocus. The results I’m getting are much better than manual focus alone, for obvious reasons. I feel it’s a perfect middle ground for me. Read on.

Focusing manually helps me take more deliberate control, such as isolating the bar inside and the escelator in the reflection, rather than the window.

I need this because when outside photographing unstable subjects and changing light, I want to be able to choose an exact moment. This is mostly for street photography, but I’m using the technique permanently to try to get used to it.

A shot missed, almost, because of waiting for autofocus. There’s no telling if I would have made it manually, but I like my chances, especially with practice.

I haven’t found this to be a disadvantage yet. Automatic focus sometimes chooses the wrong subject sometimes really stuffing up a good photo. The time it takes to train autofocus to the correct target is comparable to the time it takes to manually focus. Although I still turn the ring the wrong way firstly, I’m hoping to make it second nature.

Eiko at the Caboolture markets .A good shot stuffed by autofocus. Well, it’s my fault, but this is one reason I’m learning to shoot faster with manual focus.

I just bought a fast prime lens and shot everything for a week at f1.4. But using smaller apertures (4+), especially in the daytime, is helping get more in focus with a larger depth of field. This is a preferred style of street shooting for many. You can let in more light with a narrower depth of field, but it means little except your subject will be in focus — sometimes defeating the supposed point of street photography — the urban vistas that subjects move in.

If photos do end up in monochrome (which I prefer, probably because I’m emulating the greats) higher ISOs can also be used because colour noise is less of an annoyance in monochrome. Using a higher ISO means I can also use a wider aperture (4+), allowing for wider depth of field, and still have a decent shutter speed to shoot by hand with. I know, it took me years to get my head around this.

I’m still working out my preferred balance of aperture, ISO and shutter speed in different situations and light. It’s nice to have some blur to show the movement on the street, so going slower with a lower ISO but smaller aperture works. Basically I want to be able to shoot with my hands without that causing blur, with a result without a crazy amout of high ISO grain and not out of focus due to the lowest possible aperture.

Pissing People Off

Does anyone like being photographed by a random person? I doubt it.

Avoiding embarassing confrontations leads to a lot of less interesting shots. I could have waited for someone to come up and smile or whatever, but it’s so much easier to shoot people in the back.

Although I am generally a polite person, luckily I’m not the shy type. Pointing a camera in someone’s direction is something that gets easier, and the more casually it’s done the less conspicuous it is. The GX1 works well for this type of photography because it looks like a point and shoot, and I try to make it look like that’s what I’m doing with it.

This takes some preparation, perhaps setting up the focus in another direction, locking exposure in another, then going for the shot.

Better Photos

For a long time I’ve been taking photos without due care and editing them later. Basically I’m trying to be less reliant on post processing, which means taking better photos. I think taking the photo with more intention will empower my photography in general.

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