50mm: Focal Length Series

So this is the challenge I have given myself: to head out on a series of Photomissions where I am only allowed to use one focal length per session. I will walk the same route each time; between Waterloo Station and Oxford Circus Underground, and shoot using only one prime lens along the route to see what I can catch, and report back the experience and challenges of shooting with that particular focal length. I'm hoping to cover 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm.

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This week it's the

50mm f1.4 prime.

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NOTE: I am shooting on a full frame camera. If you're shooting on a cropped sensor camera (APS-C sensor) then these comments will apply more to a 35mm prime.

The Great Grandaddy of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, was a proponent of this focal length, using it almost exclusively throughout his career. So I figured I would be in good hands with this one.

Starting off from the station I felt immediately at home with this focal length. I have heard people suggest that 50mm on a full frame camera is pretty close to the natural focal length of the human eye, and I could feel that straight away. I had this strange experience when I was looking around for shots to take; the moment I lifted the camera to my eye, the shot I had envisioned was right there in my viewfinder, with no intermediate calculation needing to take place.

It felt very natural.

When shooting with the 24mm, or even the 35mm, I found that I had to try and lock the focal length in my minds eye to predict the composition of each potential shot, but with the 50mm, "what you see is what you get."

I think this is why the 50mm is my favourite street focal length.

It's a great compromise between standing far off and compressing the background, and having to get in your subjects face, distorting them in the process. It gives you context by included background elements, but also separates your subjects nicely.

It really is a great allrounder.

In the world of primes, your legs are your zoom anyway, and I find the 50mm puts you in a comfortable place to shoot most of the action. It makes your viewer feel like a part of the scene, but doesn't mean you have to be shooting in people's personal space to do it.

There is this scene in the opening of "The Bang Bang Club", where one of 4 photojournalists covering the violent transition of power in '92 in South Africa, pulls out a long lens and begins shooting the action from a safe distance. The 3 other characters in the movie come hurtling past him right into the middle of the action with 50mm primes to get the shots. After things have calmed down they turn to their timid colleague and tell him to 'throw that lens away and get into the action with a 50mm, or else you can't call yourself a photojournalist.' Famous war photographer, Robert Capa, used to say, "If your photos aren't good enough, you aren't close enough."

There is a great deal to be said for the proximity of photographer to subject when it comes to street photography, and how this effects the viewers perception.

This lens will get you close without the compromises. I know some people take quotes like this and insist on shooting even wider (35mm) but I find that the trade off with distortion, and the fact that you effect the scene by getting too close, aren't worth it.

For me this lens is the one I use the most often. This is my street photography, go-to prime.

The Canon 50mm f1.4 was the first prime I bought and is my baby, both because of the quality, and the sentimentality as it marked my entrance into the world of serious photography. The 50mm prime is always the cheapest prime in any brand, and is often the first lens people buy for their DSLR's, aside from their kit lens. It is the gateway to a whole wide world of better photography, and the beginning of the deep, dark gear hole. The Canon 50mm f1.8 is only around £90 (R1000) and is so worth the price. If you can shell out a bit more for the f1.4 it is really worth your money.

If you want a way in, this is it. Go grab one and get shooting.

Here are some more of the shots I got:

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85mm: Focal Length Series

So this is the challenge I have given myself: to head out on a series of Photomissions where I am only allowed to use one focal length per session. I will walk the same route each time; between Waterloo Station and Oxford Circus Underground, and shoot using only one prime lens along the route to see what I can catch, and report back the experience and challenges of shooting with that particular focal length. I'm hoping to cover 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.

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This week it's the

85mm f1.8 prime.

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NOTE: I am shooting on a full frame camera. If you're shooting on a cropped sensor camera (APS-C sensor) then these comments will apply more to a 50mm prime.

This is one of my favourite lenses at the moment.

I use it a great deal in the portrait shoots I do and love the way it separates the subject from the background, with beautiful bokeh and compression. With this in mind I knew I would be looking for individual subjects, and that this lens would give me the ability to pull them out of their surroundings.

Walking out of Waterloo this time I had to immediately adjust my viewpoint. I had last shot this route on the 24mm and was now on the other end of the spectrum. I stopped in the station for a little while and looked around through the viewfinder so I could lock the focal length into my minds eye. No point in jamming the camera up to my eye every few seconds for shots I would never be able to get at this focal length. I needed to be walking around with that 85mm frame in my mind to know what was possible, and to react to the right things.

I headed out and began looking for interesting people doing interesting things. It's something I am learning a lot at the moment: I would rather take a bad photo of an interesting subject, than take a slick photo of a boring subject. Learning to find those moments, or create them, and then capture them is really more than half the photographers job. We all focus so much on gear and techniques, but too few of us work on creating or finding great subjects which compel. We also have to come to terms with the fact that some days you'll find those subjects, and some you won't, and the only way to 'up' your chances is with perseverance, or "Tenacity!!", as my Grandfather would yell when giving his secret to life and success.

With street photography, you have to invest time. Be patient. Stay out as long as you can.

The other great thing about this lens is it allowed me stand off at a distance more often, and grab unguarded moments without being detected and altering the scene. I know that sounds voyeuristic, but it really is the nature of street photography. The moment someone notices you they will 'pose' or 'run', and you will have lost the opportunity to catch a real moment with a real human being. It's the constant battle of the reportage photographer: how to capture human beings without changing them. I know the arguments about shooting wider and being closer, but this longer focal length does have the payoff of anonymity, and right now that suits my non-confrontational style of photography well.

This Canon 85mm f1.8 is a fantastic lens. I only bought it recently and could kick myself for not buying it sooner. It's super sharp, with beautiful Bokeh. As a portrait lens it really is one of the best affordable primes and will give you professional results every time. Well worth a look.

Here are some more of the shots I got:

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24mm: Focal Length Series

So this is the challenge I have given myself: to head out on a series of Photomissions where I am only allowed to use one focal length per session. I will walk the same route each time; between Waterloo Station and Oxford Circus Underground, and shoot using only one prime lens along the route to see what I can catch, and report back the experience and challenges of shooting with that particular focal length. I'm hoping to cover 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.

Google+Maps.jpg

This week it's the

24mm f2.8 prime.

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NOTE: I am shooting on a full frame camera. If you're shooting on a cropped sensor camera (APS-C sensor) then these comments will apply more to a 15mm prime.

24mm was always going to be the difficult one. Usually when you shoot with this width you have a strong idea of the vista you want to capture, so it's not really suited to run-and-gun street photography. 

That said I did learn some things.

I set off from Waterloo about 7pm again to try and catch some 'golden hour' light. The moment I stepped out of the station I started shooting buildings because of the extra width. The problem I experieced immediately was the distortion I got with the lens. I had to be very careful about framing because, obviously, with a lens this wide I was getting the most distortion closest to the edges of my frame (barrel distortion) so it meant I was going to have to frame my subjects closer to the clean center and ignore the rule of thirds for the day. 

I haven't corrected the distortion in the images below so you can a feel for what I'm talking about.

You do get super wide prime lens which correct for this distortion, like the Canon 14mm rectilinear, but they are very expensive. You can also correct in post, but I find that the more you pull the image around, the more detail you lose.

After sticking to shooting buildings and wide scenes I decided to mix it up a bit so at one point I set myself the challenge of shooting a person with this focal length. To be surreptitious about it I found myself having to shoot from the hip. I almost bumped into the subject to get close enough without simply walking up and sticking the camera right in his face. You'll see below that he was busy dancing so didn't really notice me, but I was less than two paces away from him when I took the shot, so this obviously isn't a great lens for people unless you are looking for something more stylised and you are able to get right in your subjects face. Don't forget they will distort like crazy too so watch the shape, although you can get some pretty cool effects shooting portraits at this focal length, like this one  I shot a while ago.

The 24mm f2.8 I was using is another of the 'cheap plastic' primes from Canon. It performed ok. I'm not sure if I'm being harsh on it because I was grumpy about being stuck with such a wide focal length, but I found there wasn't as much latitude in the light and shade during the edit, and I really had to work at the sharpness of some of the images. It's still worth it as an inexpensive lens, but if you are a fellow pixel-peeper there are annoying little traits that may bug you.

I used to shoot a lot more landscapes than I do currently and I felt myself out-of-practice with this width. Nowadays I shoot mostly in the high rise confines of a city, or up close and personal with portraits and products. My 24mm doesn't come out of the bag much, but this little exercise made me want to get out into open space again and rekindle an old love for wide angle photography. 

Here are some of the shots:

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