The LEICA M Photographer: Photographing with Leica’s Legendary Rangefinder Cameras (2015)
Chapter 7. On the Road
The High Art of Street Photography
Why did you buy a Leica M? And did you come across the images of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Alex Webb accidentally or deliberately?
You will have noticed by now that I often refer to photographers who are members of the Magnum agency. This is because there is no other agency in the world that concentrates so single-mindedly on photos of real-world experiences, and not only in war zones and disaster areas. Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Alex Webb have photographed their fair share of wars and disasters while they and others, such as Thomas Hoepker, Constantine Manos, and René Burri, to name just a few, have been instrumental in putting the art of street photography on the map. Many Magnum photographers still shoot their street photos using cameras decorated with a red dot.
What is street photography? Although the term seems to infer an unsystematic approach to taking pictures, good street photography always has a strong underlying concept.
Here too, you need to work out in advance what you want to achieve. If, like Elliott Erwitt, you want to photograph dogs, you are better off at the beach or in a park than you are in a café where dogs aren’t allowed. If you want to follow in Alex Webb’s footsteps and create a book about Istanbul or some other city, you need to know as much background as possible about the culture and the lay of the land at your chosen location. You will also need to plan more than one trip.
Many of the photos in my German Angst series are typical street shots; so let’s take a look at how I go about planning such a project.
In this case, I began by looking for subjects that fit in with the notions of German hesitancy and fastidiousness that are the heart of the project. I wanted to create images without inherent prejudice that allow viewers to form their own opinions. I researched upcoming events that I hoped would provide stimulating material, thus giving myself a timeline and a specific target. The events I selected included the Karneval (Mardi Gras) celebrations in Cologne, anti-nuclear demonstrations and the defusing of a wartime bomb. I shot on foot, from my car, and from the train, capturing portraits and images of landscapes and spaces, some with and some without people as their main subject. In all the towns I visited I shot from above and below, sometimes using deliberate blur or under- and overexposure. Some of the situations I planned simply didn’t materialize, but I also captured many images that I hadn’t reckoned on at all. My research and my targeted approach furnished me with the luck I needed. On some days, I captured 10 really good pictures; on others I ended up with none.
Keep in mind that street photography requires concentration. You won’t usually be able to shoot meaningful images on a Sunday stroll, although you should always have your Leica with you.
How to Approach People
Planning a shoot also helps you to overcome the reluctance most people feel when asking strangers for permission to take photos. Have you ever missed a photo opportunity because you didn’t dare ask? Don’t worry; you aren’t alone.
Whether you are working on your own a predetermined plan or on an assignment given to you by someone else, having a specific aim in mind will make it much easier to approach people and explain what you are doing and why.
It is also easier to photograph strangers if you spend time with them first and build a rapport. Imagine you are shooting at a fishing port. You could simply approach the first fisherman you see and ask if you can go ahead and take some pictures, or you could spend some time looking around with your camera on prominent display and wait to see if someone speaks to you or reacts to your presence. It doesn’t really matter how you create a situation, the important thing is to take the plunge.
In street photography it is important to react quickly, so you need to have your camera ready at all times with aperture and shutter speed set and the lens focused to infinity. You can also use the depth-of-field scale on your lens to pre-focus. Use a moderate wide-angle lens, stop down to f/8 (or even smaller), and focus on your chosen area while making sure the distance setting you select lies between the two f/8 markings on the lens, and you can now shoot within your own predetermined range without having to refocus at all.
Photo Exercise #7
Take your camera and just one lens; a 28mm, 35mm, or 50mm. Using only this lens, look for a small, manageable location such as a farmer’s market, a fishing harbor, or a popular plaza, and create a story in just five strong images.
The Hamburg Harley Days
The Hamburg Harley Days is a major event that divides opinion in the city like no other. For some it is simply too loud and brash, while others see it as a fun time that is good for local business. While I admit it does get really loud at times, I like the color and variety the bikers bring to town.
The main event takes place on an unattractive industrial plot where markets are held. The photo opportunities there are fairly limited. The real action happens on Hamburg’s famous Reeperbahn red-light drag, an area that is full of bars, clubs, theaters, restaurants, and brothels. Reeperbahn is a four-lane street with a large square on the south side where the bikers gather to see and be seen, race their bikes, and indulge in the obligatory burnouts. This is the place to be if you want to document the true nature of the event. For this story, I used two main shooting techniques: the “flash with underexposed background” technique I described in the previous chapter and a panning technique. For close-up shots, the first technique worked well, however, my flash wasn’t powerful enough to illuminate long-distance scenes of the bikers riding by. For those shots, I wanted to convey the speed involved without generating too much blur and confusion. The best way to suppress busy backgrounds in situations like this is to pan the camera during the exposure. I pre-focused on a suitable point on the street, framed the bikes in the viewfinder, and shot using shutter speeds between 1/30 second and 1/60 second while following the movement with the camera. These two very different photographic styles complement each other perfectly.
All the photos reproduced here were captured using my M8 with 28mm and 35mm lenses.
Check out the passenger’s footrests
This woman’s bandanna leaves no doubts about her allegiances
A rear view has a charm all its own
The shining chrome of the bikes in the background adds depth to this already appealing image
The bikes aren’t the only things on display
Acrobatics on wheels are part of the show