Since I started to take photography more seriously, I have been drawn to prime lenses. When I used one for the first time I realised that you have to work for each and every shot, to move with your feet, think about composition and try harder for every picture. I found that with a zoom my default was to become lazy, to frame a shot, see that it wasn’t working and think that maybe if I zoomed in a bit further all would work out. Invariable it never did. With a fixed focal length I was forced to think, and it was then that I really saw my photos improve.
I was always drawn to a 50mm for a number of reasons really, not least of which was the price. For £50 I bought my Canon 50mm plastic-fantastic with its fast 1.8 maximum aperture. I still have it and occasionally use it to this day. When I made the move away from bulky SLR’s towards rangefinders I had realised by this point that I was interested in portraiture and street photography, so with a budget for one lens I again opted for the classic 50mm. It’s not a choice that I regret; you can do anything with a 50, however I have since learnt of the power of the wide angle.
All my film street photography to date has been with my 50mm Voigtlander Nokton. A very fine lens, but somewhat limiting in tighter spaces for street photography. As I have used this lens exclusively for over a year now, I have begun to realise that the strength of a 50mm is its ability to compress a scene slightly and pick out details of geometries, patterns or shapes, sort of like a very short telephoto if you get close enough. I have always been drawn to the geometrical side of street photography, however I have come to realise that the photos that I really like, those that I find really impactful, are the ones which show people and their surroundings. To fill the frame with a person in street photography you must get closer with a wide angle, but in doing this you also get to show more of the environment. This is what I’m aiming for.
The challenging aspect for me is the fact that the wider the focal length, the closer you have to be and as anyone that has tried street photography will tell you, this can be an intimidating barrier. I’m starting to think that the challenge is worth it. Over Christmas I shot lots of digital family photos with my 28mm (equivalent) and tried to go for a street photography style. I tried to show multiple people in each scene and tried to capture special moments whilst allowing the wide angle lens to show the background, the mood and the atmosphere. I really liked some of the results, so much so that I started to think that a 28mm would be a perfect addition for my film street photography.
The flaw in this plan, however, is that I’m obviously very familiar with my family and have no problem getting up-close and shooting. With street or travel photography, however, I can’t imagine that I would have this confidence and get as close with strangers. Perhaps the middle ground of a 35mm would be a more suitable, albeit temporary choice? I can work on building confidence, getting closer and learning to shoot with a smile so I don’t piss people off from the start. Resting bitch face can be a real curse in street photography. Just watch any video of Martin Parr shooting on the streets and you will soon realise how he gets the shots he does.
So that is my plan for 2016. Invest in a 35mm lens and work with that for the time being, to keep shooting and keep building confidence. Who knows, maybe with another solid year of shooting I can graduate to a 28.