Photoessay: London street mono, part I

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The first part of my street photography from London shows life at my favourite 28mm documentary perspective – one I find natural, long enough to be intimate without being too intrusive, but wide enough to take the context of one’s peripheral vision without overly drawing attention to the geometric distortion that happens with even wider lenses. Despite having flirtations with the longer perspective I also carry – in the past 85mm, and now down to 55 or even 40/43mm for medium format – I’ve seldom gone wider than 28mm, just because it’s so instinctive. Or perhaps it’s a product of having spent a year shooting little else, back in 2009.

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London in the summer can be wonderful. For the few days it’s sunny, at least; the skies are blue, light is directional and solid – but being a northerly latitude, never gets as harsh or directly overhead as in the tropics – and the hard shadows created are wonderful for subject isolation and creation of interesting geometries. I also particularly like the fact that it brings people out into the open; the sun makes people relaxed, languid and friendly – which is of course great for street photography. I set out to shoot my usual abstractions of man, but found myself coming across more intimate scenes where the individual took centre stage; no problem; one doesn’t have to be tied to a genre or idea; there is always the freedom to shoot whatever you want. Enjoy!

I of course shot these with a Ricoh GR, which for many reasons – image quality, ergonomics, size, stealth – is my street camera of choice. In an admittedly unfashionable belt holster, it’s a quick draw – and I’ve not actually found anything faster to go from pocket to image. MT

If you’d like to learn more about how to create great images in black and white, the latest Monochrome Masterclass workshop video might be of interest…

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Limited edition Ultraprints of these images and others are available from mingthein.gallery. For more street photography technique, have a look at the S1: Street Photography workshop video, and this post.

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Masterclass Venice (November 2014) now open for booking – click here to book or for more info

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Excellent work. I’m in London frequently with my GR and although I think it’s a fantastic camera I still have to get into the mode of seeing in this FOV. My subjects are usually not prominent enough or their background does nothing for the photo. Must try harder!

  2. These are wonderful shots. Really. And to my eye very cinematic. I once tried the 35mm very hard, simply because it seemed to be the kind of lens everybody was talking about. I couldn’t get along with it. Then I came across your blog and saw your shots with the Summicron. I sold my (far too BIG) 5D Mk II and 35L and went for the GRDIII and was happy (now with the GRDIV). To me, the 28mm represents the point of view of someone “passing by”, not too close, not too far away. Thanks for sharing these great shots.
    BTW, I am sure, you’ve already heart about the rumored Mamiya/Sony/Zeiss Medium Format digital rangefinder – What do you think about it? Cheers!

    • Thank you! I’ve never been able to get 35mm to work for me either, and frankly, looking at the images on the web, I think few people really can. But there’s the herd mentality for you: because somebody says it’s good, it must be! Always important to use what works for you. 🙂

      Rumours are rumours until they become reality…it isn’t worth wasting time or energy thinking about it.

      • I’ve gotta say Ming, the 28 vs 35 battle is now the hottest debate, at least in my head. A few years ago all my favourite wedding photographers had a 35 1.4 of some sort, so I was determined to buy one. Last year, I really wanted to jump for the 35 Art, but as it was extremely new I ended up going with the 28 1.8 instead. Now that I want a more compact camera than a Nikon DSLR i’m torn between 28 and 35 again, specifically the x100t/RX1 or the GR/Coolpix A. You’ve certainly made a strong case for the 28 camp, but the battle continues 😀

    • Assuming that the rumours are true and the Sony MF mirrorless is RX1 style, I have a feeling that it will have a 35mm equivalent lens and Ming will absolutely detest it 🙂

  3. spectacular shots in this set. nicely done.

  4. The tonality here is great. My own personal preference is for a little more contrast, but that’s just me. I spent a day chasing shadows during a taxi protest in London a few months back to make some B+Ws, but my mistake was to do this too early in the afternoon when the sun was too high in the sky to give nice long shadows 🙂

    http://alphawhiskey.slickpic.com/photoblog/post/TaxiTraffic

  5. Nice series. It has been over 20 years since I was in London, and I do miss it. For whatever reason, 28 has always been a hard focal length for me to work with over the years. When I picked up a GR last December, I told myself that I would use it to help train my eyes to better see at “28”. And while I certainly know of situations where a 28 would be the right choice, those situations are somewhat few and far between these days, and what I find myself seeing is usually calling for some isolation, and usually a longer focal length. I still love the GR, but wish they could market a model with a longer focal length, say between 60-90mm FOV. I know it is wishful thinking at best, so as somebody who is in it for the long haul, I continue to carry the GR, if only to help me top better see life at “28”, and try to be very happy when things click for me and the GR.

    –Ken

    • Tibor Kadar says:

      I always have the Nikon Coolpix A AND the Nikon 1 V1 with 30-110 lens on me. I used to have another V1 with the 10 mm lens (28 mm equivalent), but I fell in love with the A sensor. This is the smallest system I know of with the fastest AF for street (V1 I mean). Noiseless also. Take these and you never miss a shot.

      • Hi Tibor,

        Thank you for the recommendation. It is not so much as not having the right equipment so I do not miss a shot, as working on re-training my eye to see life through a 28mm lens (or equivalent FOV). I used to shoot quite a lot with a 35mm lens when I shot film, but my subject interests over the years have drawn me to longer and longer focal lengths. I suspect that a trip to a dense urban city would speed up my re-training quite quickly. I suspect that 28 may never be my favorite focal length, but I still need to understand its perspective as something more than just a lens that is wider than 35.

        –Ken

    • surprised they havent manufactured a tele converter for it… fuji’s got both wide and tele for their fixed compact

  6. Rene François Desamore says:

    I feel so hopeless when I see your perfect pictures that I see no point to try to achieve something except by luck (it happens sometimes). I would love to see one of your photo before and after photoshop to see what part is pure genius and what part is technology.

    • Rene, some of Ming’s training videos offer pretty much what you said — a before and after (and during) for Photoshop processing. There are also other subjects you might find handy. (I assure you I’m not on commission!.)

    • Very little is PS, as my workshop students will tell you. You can’t fix what isn’t there, both in tonality and composition. All PS does is alter the presentation. A lot is tight curation, though.

  7. Nice set. I use a 28 a lot for the same reasons. Are you using an optical viewfinder on your GR?

  8. Ming, what do you do if someone objects to having their picture taken?

    • Smile, apologize and move on. But usually they don’t notice me, or just assume I’m another crazy Asian tourist. I don’t disabuse them of those notions.

  9. great great collection of photo!!! fantastic use of light and shadow!!

  10. These excellent B&W street photographs brings the London WS back in memory. This series is deer to me Ming. I recall image no. 8, you titled *Putting In Coffins* as far as I remember. Awesome! Reminds me too about subject isolation using natural frames.
    Having acquired the little GR wonder lately should get me out of the bush and start daring capturing people up close. Even my EM1 I found too brutal to stick up peoples nose 🙂

  11. Surely it’s you getting accustomed to the focal length – did you notice most of the set is vertical? 🙂 Btw. it seems to correspond to 42mm lens’ horisontal fov, and the conversion rate is not linear. Each lens in a set of 24, 35 and 50 mm lenses would have roughly the same horisontal fov as the next one’s vertical fov. Appealing to someone with an engineering education.

    • Err…no, because I’ve shot with 28 and 28-e as one of my main FOVs for a very long time already. The choice of vertical is a) because the subject is vertically shaped, and b) it lets me get more foreground to background distance in, for better context or dynamics. I can just use the space in the frame better in a vertical shot.

      • Sure – I was referring to the peripheral vision / “human field of view” idea. Vertically it’s surely narrower than 28mm fov. So the benefits of this focal length have to be experience and lack of distortion rather than similarity to human vision. I guess the thought got lost in my message.

  12. Awe inspiring Ming! Stunning work! Really like this set.

  13. Reblogged this on The Purple Album and commented:
    Loved these. They made me miss London, and at the same time see it differently.

  14. These are really amazing. It makes me miss London.

  15. Scott Robinson says:

    Great to see shots in locations where I took a number of pictures in May.

  16. Nice and intimate set Ming! You DO have guts to take pictures close to the subjects!
    BTW, wasn’t street photography kind of illegal nowadays in London?

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  1. […] post is the conclusion of part one. The abstraction of man in monochrome continues; my own peculiar brand of anthropological […]

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