A Journey In Street Photography And X Series Cameras

· 5.March.2017

What inspires someone to pick up a camera and start taking pictures of strangers? Creative desire? Journalistic duty? Divine inspiration? For me, it was boredom. Flashback to October 2014 – I’d just moved to London and found myself living in a room slightly bigger than a double bed (which also contained a double bed), separated from the few people I knew in the city by a river and the tremendous effort of a two-change bus journey. Being naturally lazy, this translated into a lot of free time – something of a mixed blessing.

Free time in London though? Surely it’s impossible to be bored in one of the most exciting cities in…blah. Trust me, if you’ve got the right mindset it’s possible to be bored anywhere, and having moved down from an area of abundant nature and rolling countryside, London just wasn’t doing it for me. Depressing city boys, monotonous travel, exorbitant costs – I felt liked I’d exposed a great lie, but wasn’t at all enthused by the revelation.

So, I got a camera. I got a camera to take pictures of a drainpipe that had some moss growing out of it, and also a wooden box full of coat hangers at the local market. This was not the most rational reaction to an abundance of free time – I’d burned through numerous hobbies before, including whittling, playing guitar and learning to code, and I definitely still can’t do any of those things even remotely well in spite of the two whole days of dedication I gave each one. In any case, the camera happened to be a Fujifilm X-M1 – a pretty little thing that felt a tad fragile, but had a well-reviewed kit lens and wasn’t an ugly lump of polycarbonate the size of my head. The kit lens produced some sharp shots of the aforementioned drainpipe and wooden box, and I even took a picture of some graffiti with a road sign at the edge of the frame (don’t worry, none of them are shown here – they will never be publicised!).

That graffiti photo stuck with me because it was terrible. Moments before I took it, I had deliberately and obviously lifted the camera away to avoid capturing a passing stranger in the frame. When I looked at the shot, there was a big empty space right where the man had been. That’s when the idea began to take shape; a different approach, people rather than things. But surely I couldn’t actually take photos of strangers on purpose? I turned to the internet, and soon came out with a vague understanding of street photography. I won’t get into the question of ethics here, suffice to say that society has a hypocritical view of right and wrong when it comes to candid photography – for some, what is acceptable in a poverty-stricken village in Africa or Asia becomes a breach of privacy when in Europe or North America (other continents are also available).

Armed now with camera and genre, all I needed was a sense of purpose. Disillusionment had been my muse so far, so I set out to document the grey despair of the city. I wanted to use street photography to show London in its worst light – to highlight the dull, grinding soullessness of the urban sprawl. By this time, I’d upgraded to the XF27mm f/2.8 lens, and was producing results which were passable, but lacked any sense of intrigue – they were flat, and could’ve been taken by anyone with anything. Without realising it, I’d fallen into a common street photography trap – forcing the concept. I was trying too hard to convey something with my photos, something that I thought would make a good concept for a project later down the line. This is anathema to honest art – it comes from an ex post facto vision of the final piece and how it will be received, and lacks emotional integrity.

Stuck in this rut, my initial enthusiasm faded and I focused more on gear and looking at other people’s work. The former ended with me attaching a vintage Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 lens to my camera, the latter gave me enough inspiration to get back out and use it. I cleared my mind of projects and themes, and just went out to shoot. The X-M1’s focus peaking made manual-focus lenses a breeze to use, and pretty soon I’d taken my first truly ‘good’ shot to date:

Now, I don’t want to toot my own horn about the photo itself – that’s a matter of opinion anyway. What’s more important is what the shot did to my mindset and sense of place. For the first time, I felt like there was more to where I was than I’d realised. A simple photo suddenly gave me a sense of understanding for the people, streets and buildings of London – a sense of belonging and appreciation that had been completely missing before.

Now comfortable in my surroundings, I found street photography started to come naturally. I focused on emotion – little moments of feeling among the hustle and bustle. I upgraded to the X-T1 and the XF35mm f/2 and I haven’t looked back since. This combo provides the perfect matchup of speed, solidity, reach and width. The 50mm-equivalent focal length forces you to get close, but rewards that closeness with frame-filling detail and isolation. Wide-angle street photography just feels too impersonal by comparison. With the f/2 lens – part of the ‘Fujicron’ trinity – I had enough low-light power to shoot on the underground and at night without resorting to high ISOs. One of the most pervasive myths about the Fujifilm X Series is that high-ISO performance is somehow magically incredible and problem-free; I can assure you this is not the case. Beyond ISO 1,000, things get smeary and lose a lot of fine detail. An uninformed observer might not notice but you will, especially if you take pictures of people, as hair is one of the first things to show softness. In any case, the 35mm f/2 is amazingly sharp even wide-open, so it becomes a non-issue with this and faster primes.

So what next? We’re now in the present day, and X-T2 and X-Pro2 reviews abound. My journey so far has been punctuated by gear upgrades, so why not carry on? Because there’s no good reason to. The X-T1, like its generational stablemates, is still an excellent camera that produces results nobody would be able to tell apart from those of its successor without several hours of brutal study. I’m happy with the work I’m producing with it too. This is not meant to sound like praise for my own photos – what’s more interesting is that I don’t shoot for approval now like I first set out to. I shoot naturally, without overthinking things, and this approach has completely transformed my photography and my relationship with the city I call home. Not a bad return from a couple of cameras and a handful of lenses.

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