Stepping back for context: wider street portraits

My photography buddies often ask me if I get tired of shooting the same streets in Kuala Lumpur, and my answer has always been the same: no, because I do things differently each time. While the background and setting remain the same, we can choose to vary our choice of subjects and the way we approach them. I have been shooting portraits of strangers for a while now, and I see my style changing progressively. Some of the changes are subconscious as you cannot do the same thing all the time and expect different results.

For a while now, my most used lens on the street was the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 lens as it gave me medium telephoto coverage, a tight perspective for close up headshots and provided sufficient control over depth of field. It was a huge challenge to approach strangers and get so close for my shots, and I was happy that I pushed through this process and overcame self-doubt when talking to strangers on the street.

In contrast to that, I have been moving myself further away from the usual head and shoulder shots and decided to pursue a wider environmental style of portrait. Instead of 45mm F1.8, my most used lens now is the 25mm F1.8 on the streets.

The Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm F1.8, allows me the flexibility of either narrowing my composition if I choose to get closer to my subject or having a wide enough field of view to include more elements in the background. I like that the 50mm equivalent focal length is still wide enough to be useful, but not too wide to cause unnecessary perspective distortion that can make my human subjects look unnatural. I know that 35mm equivalent focal length (or wider) is a more popular choice for environmental portraits, but I still want to maintain realistic proportions in my subjects and not have the facial or body features stretched unrealistically.

The biggest challenge for me is to have my subjects in their original position and pose without being alerted by my presence or intention of shooting them. Sometimes, when someone notices you, especially if you have a camera pointed at them, they will look at you differently or change their posture. Being self aware is unavoidable when you know your photograph is going to be taken. I always try my best to preserve as much originality of the untouched scene as I possibly can. I have no issues with my human subjects looking into the camera, after all, even if I do not have a camera, they will still look at me because I am not invisible. Here’s the truth: photographers are not ninjas, and they should not pretend to be. You are perfectly visible no matter how hard you try to hide yourself. Just be yourself, and be respectful to the people around you. Don’t try to sneak shots, especially if you know there will be consequences. It’s better if consent is given. Unless you want angry looking faces in your street portraits, always be courteous, polite and friendly on the street.

The fun thing about shooting on the street is the countless possibilities for different outcomes. It all comes down to how you condition your own approach. After all, the best photographic opportunities happen unexpectedly. So yes, I go back to my usual streets again and again, and I always come home with shots that I am happy with.

Photo Credit: Matti Sulanto

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Comments

  1. Last year I swapped my Panasonic Leica Summilux f/1.4 for the Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.2 PRO. The Summilux may even be sharper. Or maybe it just looks like that because of the high contrast coating the Panasonics have. But there is something about the M.Zuiko that I loved from the first images I saw that were made with this lens. That photos from Cuba by Neil Buchan-Grant. I did not know what lens or camera he used, but it was love a first sight. And the images you made with it Robin confirmed my view. It is hard to explain what is so great about it. Most people don’t even see differences but for me this lens really shines, especially in difficult low light situations.

    Otherwise there are many alternative 25mm primes:
    Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8, Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 Asph., Panasonic Lumix G 25mm f/1.7 Asph., Voigtländer Nokton 25mm f/0.95, Kowa Prominar 25mm f/1.8 MFT, Meike 25mm f/0.95, SLR Magic 25mm T/0.95, Zhongyi Mitakon 25mm f/0.95, Veydra Mini Prime 25mm T 2.2, 7artisans 25mm f/1.8 MFT, Magic Hyper Prime 25mm f/0.95 and Hersmay 25mm f/1.8.

    I don’t think this list is complete. And there are many lenses that come close in focal length, like the 24mm from Samyang. Could also be that some of the lenses above are in fact the same but carry a different label.

    Why is it that we Micro Four Thirdians have so many 25mm lenses to choose from, where there is still only one 14mm?

  2. jason gold says:

    Many photographers shoot the same streets, over and over! It always is different. Time, weather,light, thoughts, feelings and motivation. I prefer the 50mm on 35mm film. I like the clarity, the non-distortion, the possibilities of fast lenses and less depth of field, or large apparent depth of field by stopping down, To me use of 35mm, the wider 28mm or worse the 21mm and wider are signs of a “lazy” photographer. A strange fact usually not known, 35mm was made to replace the 5×7″ plate cameras. The DEPTH of Field shown on lenses is for a 5×7″ print! Larger prints will show more and more less depth of field.

    Your pictures are outstanding, giving another dimension on this blog.
    Thank you Ming.

    • “..35mm was made to replace the 5×7″ plate cameras” Can you quote original source for this, please?

    • “35mm was made to replace the 5×7″ plate cameras.”

      If you mean the 35mm film format, I believe it was first used for motion pictures, and then widely adapted to stills with the development of Oskar Barnak in the 1920’s; the film ran horizontal and covered the area of two film frames, so instead of an 18×24 frame, we now had a 36×24.

      Larger format roll film (what we call medium format) was widely used from at least the mid 1880s – in cameras that shot 6×4.5, 6×6 and 6×9. These cameras were more likely to be considered ‘replacements’ for 5×7 plate cameras.

      “The DEPTH of Field shown on lenses is for a 5×7″ print! Larger prints will show more and more less depth of field.”

      Not sure I follow – for the same angle of view, 35mm lenses must be *much* shorter than their 5×7 equivalents, and would have *more* depth of field at a given aperture.

      However, it’s true that DOF scales are often still based on old calcuations not suitable for modern sensors or high resolution mediums. In this case, it is advised to stop down further than the scale indicates. Conversely, some of the ‘digital’ DOF scales are extremely conservative and overcompensate.

      And while this is Ming’s blog, Robin Wong was the photographer and author, so he should get the credit 😉

      • Terry B says:

        Craig, as I understand the situation, hence why I asked for the original source of the comment. As do most who collect cameras and have an historical interest in all facets of photography, I also read up on the subject; taking a lot of what is published on the internet is a dangerous game as it can be poorly researched.

        Barnack’s wasn’t the first stills camera to use 35mm film, albeit it seems to have simply set the standard for the now universal 36x24mm format.

        http://corsopolaris.net/supercameras/early/early_135.html

        • Great link Terry.
          Originally there were more image ratios used with 35mm film. Early Nikons for example were often 24 X 30. It was not before the introduction of slide projection that 24 X 36mm frames became the standard.
          Most annoying is that “35mm” nowadays actually has nothing to do with the FF sensor size. It is the width of a film format. But most of the other names of image formats are stupid as well. 6 X 6 is 56 X 56mm for example, not 6 X 6cm. 6 X 7 is on average 56 X 70mm (68-72mm), with has an image ratio of 4 X 5 and not 6 X 7. And let’s not start out the names of the sizes of digital sensors in relation to their real measures.

          Sorry Robin, this has little relation to your, as always, lovely pictures.
          (But did you know that 25mm in MFT is just like 50mm FF is actually not neutral? If you want a lens that has no tele and no wide angle effect at all ((like f.e. 80mm on a Rolleiflex TLR)) you need a 21,6mm lens. So the 25mm is still a shy telephoto lens.

          • Robin Wong says:

            Hi Kruit,
            To me, the 25mm just feels right. It may not be the natural or neutral field of view but it works for me. Strangely I prefer my composition to have that bit more tightness, and this is just personal bias. I am sure 35mm works best for most people.

        • Yes, there were definitely earlier cameras using 135 film – I just mentioned Barnack’s Leica as a catalyst for the development of the rangefinders and SLRs that followed (all using the 36x24mm frame). I honestly prefer the squarer ratios of medium and large format, especially for verticals.

          Funny to think that ‘full frame’ cameras were considered miniature format back in the day.

          I was more curious about the jump from focal lengths to ’35mm was a replacement for 5×7 sheets’

          • Terry B says:

            “I was more curious about the jump from focal lengths to ’35mm was a replacement for 5×7 sheets’” Me, too.

  3. I was never a fan of the 50mm-e lens, at least not on 3:2 ratio cameras. I always found it a bit tight and restrictive. So I ended up using a 28-40mm equivalent as my go-to for quite a few years (Ricoh GR, Fuji 23mm 1.4, the wonderful 38mm 2.8 on the Klasse S film camera.

    But when I traded in some gear for the EM5 II, I ended up with the 25mm 1.8. Somehow, with the 4:3 aspect ratio, the field of view seemed more natural. And I find while it can take a bit more time to line up the shot, the resulting compositions are often much stronger than those taken with a wider (or longer) lens.

    I find the 17/45 combo great for people and indoors, but when I’m walking about my city’s streets and neighborhoods, I miss the 25. It’s the perfect focal length for ‘across the street’ shots, or capturing vignettes, environmental portraits, and anything else that benefits from a natural perspective.

    Your shots here demonstrate that very well – they’re quite excellent and I think they reflect your growth and confidence in this genre very well.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Craig! I have always worked with both the 25mm and 45mm, using more 45mm because of my on-going portraits of strangers series. The 25mm were used for environmental portraits, and I do prefer the 25mm over 17mm over the exact same reasons: it just looks more natural somehow. Maybe the Four Thirds aspect ratio plays a huge part in this, I have never given that a thought! I shall definitely need to explore this further.

  4. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I like to include the context, Robin – otherwise it tends to end up as portraiture, instead of street photography.

    • Terry B says:

      Jean Pierre, an interesting observation. I’m not a street photographer, but I do take pictures of, or in, streets. By this, I mean people are incidental and not the subject. I have noticed that there is more of a tendency in street photography to take pics of people but where the subjects happily pose for the photographer. I’m less taken, usually, with this format, than where the subject(s) are just going about their business and the photographer grabs, what we’d describe decades ago, as a candid shot.

      • Robin Wong says:

        Hey Terry, I have no particular preference or bias when it comes to either completely natural, candid shots or a posed and possibly to some extent, staged street shots. I believe photography should not be too restrictive and I love seeing variety when it comes to creativity and getting different outcomes. Some scenario work better being completely untouched, but some can benefit from a little bit of direction. Of course, each photographer may have his own approach or say but I would like to see more possibilities being explored.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Dear Jean, the original intention was just to shoot close up portraits, not necessarily street photography, but portraits of strangers. Of course, I also shoot environmental portraits (for variety to fit into a series of images). Nonetheless, I find myself shooting more and more environmental shots these days.

  5. Bill Royer says:

    This thought piece attracted my attention because I’m thinking strongly of returning to my earlier preference of a ‘fast 50’ for everyday, single lens use. Because I’ve moved from mostly Nikon to mostly Olympus OM D M1-2, I’m debating between the f1.8 and the f1.2. Have read a ton of reviews on each, and handled each in a camera store. Still mulling. Therefore, I’d like to ask what was your thinking that led to using the f1.8 is situation.
    Thanks,
    Bill

    • Robin Wong says:

      The Olympus 25mm F1.8 is much smaller, hence for street shooting in particular, I like the lightweight and compactness of the lens better than the F1.2 version. Also, I tend to have preference for more depth of field in my shots (seeing everything in focus) hence the larger aperture does not necessarily bring me additional advantage. I shoot my streets in broad daylight and the advantage of F1.2 is clearly not needed.

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