Choosing a Street Photography Lens – Thoughts on Technology and Art
Street photography is an intriguing niche that places a different set of demands on camera lenses and bodies due to physical movement and the uncontrolled nature of both light and objects of focus. I have been thinking a lot recently about the what criteria to use when upgrading my SLR lenses used for street photography. An annual string of announcements since 2013 for high-end camera equipment has been sending bolts of excitement through the photography community. Not only are the envelopes of image quality being stretched further but the ability to utilize it in more diverse and flexible ways is expanding. There really are a lot of choices out there when picking systems and lenses. One can easily be sucked into the pixel and sharpness comparison wars spread across internet blogs. More often than not arguments are made and judgements passed on new equipment based on airtight technical measuring tests like DXO marks . Technical marks are of course one of the most important tests to look at when selecting camera equipment – no argument here – but they ought not to be the entire basis for the decision. When you choose a street photography lens this consideration takes on an added gravitas.
A few important aspects these tests do not measure are stealth ability, stylistic aptitude (like the degree and quality of micro-contrast or cinematic atmosphere) and even practicality (bulk and weight). Sometimes the technical charts get it right on all accounts – the DXO lens ratings have Zeiss in 6 of the top 10 lenses which most professionals would agree set the benchmark for lens quality. The Otus lens series makes up the bulk of Zeiss “stars” and provide a good example with which we can learn about the criteria we should be using to choose lenses for street photography. In defining the best criteria to use in selecting a street photography lens I hope to expand beyond straight-up technical parameters and incorporate style, artistic and practical considerations. I certainly don’t expect a single choice to come out of it but rather a set of choices from which artistic preferences and deployment style will ultimately determine the right choice to make.
Making Choices Based on Performance Measures
Epson introduced the first mirrorless camera – the RD1 digital rangefinder – in March of 2004 with a 6 megapixel APS-C sensor and the ability to take Leica M-mount lenses. The RD1 was modeled after traditional rangefinder style cameras and came with with an eye-pleasing 1:1 optical viewfinder all packaged in a small body that weighed less than an SLR. In 2016 Sony alone offers four versions of mirrorless cameras with the newest and greatest being the A7R II. Why not offer just one model that gets progressively better with each new iteration would appear to be a preferable solution for the consumer. That Sony chose not to shows that for them marketing obfuscation takes precedent over consumer clarity. That alone is a big reason to arm yourself with a wealth of pre-purchase knowledge and then conduct a thoughtful analysis of your choices. The Sony mirrorless system has a lot going for it with a fine range of lenses that can be adapted to it.
On the lens front Zeiss has been the one pushing the envelope forward. Starting in 2013 Zeiss launched a series of lenses called OTUS for Nikon and Canon SLR’s that more than any lens in history strives for absolute perfection. The Otus family of lenses promise to deliver high resolution and outstanding definition regardless of the situation the photographer faces. In realizing this goal the size and weight each lens has also pushed new boundaries. As perfect as each lens is -1.48 1.4/55 and 1.4/85 – they do offer up a question mark if stealth, weight and timing are important.
Medium format was not about to be left behind though. Hasselblad is ready to launch the X1D which beautifully packages cutting edge medium-format photography into a more portable and compact body. The minimalist and refined contemporary X1D body comes with its own set of dedicated lenses made by NITTOH in Suwa Japan. Nittoh was founded to develop and manufacture high-grade optical lenses and its opto-technology was even used on the JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) asteroid spacecraft called Hayabusa. This a compelling package for those who want a singular system and style albeit it would be one of the most expensive decisions one could make as the body and lenses will approach USD$14000. Still, it comes at about half the price and weight of the flagship model H6D.
Considering Artistic Style – Stepping Beyond Technical Charts I
A good case for expanding lens selection criteria beyond tech specs can be made by the Ricoh GR camera. It only scores an 80 on the DXO chart and yet it has a rare ability to impart extraordinary micro-character to images. This is an attribute that few cameras and lens systems approach. It is also small, lightweight and fun to use. It’s ease of portability makes it a great choice for street photography. If one were to go by tech specs alone then the DXO score of 80 would most likely be cause to pass it over. The reasons to get this camera comes down to the combination of stealth ability and special image character that go along with decent tech specs. Stealth ability is not registered in the technical charts but if it were the Nikon D810 would be worse off relative to a Ricoh GR. The ability to capture a fleeting moment of the human condition on the street without disturbing it is a natural consideration for a street photographer. This is an artistic choice for shooting that needs to be measured and considered when selecting a street photography lens. Ultimately the value of this type of photograph is what it expresses to the viewer, compositional structure and technical merits like sharpness and tone while important are secondary. The choice of lens to deploy ought to account for this.
Different Demands: Studio Photography and Street Photography
In the studio the photographer can set the stage for near complete control of all the elements that will ultimately effect the outcome. Light can be “set up” and controlled perfectly for the camera by way of softboxes, umbrellas and spot lighting. A Sekonic lightmeter will not only tell you the correct reading but – in the higher end models like the Sekonic L-478DR-E – it can work seamlessly through synchronization to the flash lighting of the Elinchrom D-LITE RX series. Animated subjects can be “directed” . When you control all the elements in a shoot, as one can in studio photography, then you are effectively creating a story whereas with street photography you are documenting unrepeatable moments in time.
Improvisational Nature of Street Photography
Street photography is an entirely different animal to studio photography with the major difference revolving around the issue of control. Light, angle and subject matter are ever changing elements one needs to weigh – no more so than when dealing with changing weather or moving objects. The difference between the studio and street is similar to that those found between filmmaking and live theatre – albeit more pronounced because theatre operates with a predetermined and rehearsed script whereas street photography is more spontaneously determined outside of a set time of day or geographic location.
Considering Physical Needs – Stepping Beyond Technical Charts II
A secondary issue, of lesser but still significant importance is that of equipment size, weight, focusing method and stealth. Portraits in the studio are “set up” whereas those in the streets “happen” by being present in the moment. Having your camera weight supported by a tripod eliminates matters of size and weight from comparative considerations. In constrast it does matter a lot for street photography as was illustrated in the case made above for the Ricoh GR. Deploying the Zeiss Otus on a Nikon D800 would certainly make for exceptional images – if they could be captured. Many of the photos shown on this page were taken on a crowded street with me standing in the middle as people streamed by either side. The camera used was a Nikon D7000 with a F/1.8 35 mm lens which made for a small enough “package” to keep it hidden as I stood watching for moments to unfold before me. As a foreigner in a mostly Japanese area I already stood out enough so a less noticeable camera/lens system small enough to allow a quick yet precise draw and shoot was of practical importance. Naturally I had employed black tape over the colors and labels on the camera so as not to attract attention. The point is that a D810 with manual focus Otus lenses would have been very difficult to deploy in this situation for practical (size, weight, speed) and stealth reasons.
Choosing the right Lens Family to Fit One’s Artistic Style
Zeiss Otus lenses would be the first choice if perfection was the goal for images. The image quality and sharpness of resolution rendered by an Otus lens deployed on a Nikon D810 currently has no match in the SLR range as both a glance at the DXO review chart will reveal. They are remarkably adaptable to a wide variety of lighting situations with the lens speed and flare protection provided by improved lens coatings. If you can get away with a sort of pre-set up so that speed of focusing and stealth are not a requirement then this is an extraordinary choice to make. With Zeiss lenses you are also buying into a lens family that ensures images carry the same cinematic style with phenomenal micro contrast and natural color rendering no matter the focal length. As great as these lenses are the price is equally spectacular ($4000 +) however the sticker shock is lessened when one considers that these lenses may never need to be replaced in the future because better may just not come. Recommend: Otus F1.4/28 F1.4/55 F1.4/85
Zeiss Milvus family of lenses display many of the exceptional qualities of the Otus lens at a far more accessible price point. There are currently 6 focal lengths lenses on offer including two Macro lenses. The reason to consider a Milvus lens over an older Planar or Distragon is the weather sealing, improved coatings that protect against flare and consistent color rendition across the whole family of lenses. Zeiss is creating families of lenses that allow the photographer to carry a singular style across the entire range of focal lengths. In practice this translates to precise focusing, even optical performance across the frame and consistent color rendition. Lenses are made in Canon and Nikon mounts which can also be used on Sony A7 cameras with an adapter. Recommend: Milvus F1.4/28 F1.4/50 F1.4/85
Sigma Art series lenses are targeted at those who focus on fine photography and although not the first brand to come to mind they are to be taken very seriously. Sigma, along with Zeiss are one of the few independent lens makers that remain in business. Their f/1.4 Art primes come in 3 focal lengths – 24mm + 35mm + 50mm – and each features a highly-complex design. Low-dispersion glass elements are present to prevent chromatic aberrations while two aspheres correct coma and distortion as well as helping to reduce the size and weight of the lens. Unlike the manual-only Zeiss lens families, the Sigma Art series has an autofocus option that uses a sonic-type motor to offer real-time manual override. The price of the Art series is approximately half of the Zeiss Milvus and 1/4 of the Otus with one caveat. One of reasons are why you pay less for Sigma than for Nikon, Canon or Zeiss lens is the existence of possible future camera incompatibility. It may be cheaper today but if you have to replace the lens in the future it may no longer be the better deal. Recommend: F1.4/50 DG
Nikon family of lenses offer more choice and variations than perhaps any other. They also operate in autofocus for those who prefer not to add that to the task list of street photography. Exceptional for Nikon is stacked at 85 mm focal length with either of the F1.4/85 G or F1.8/85 G a very fine choice. Given that the F1.4 is almost 3 times the price with negligible quality differences it would be wisest to go with the F1.8 unless the extra lens speed was critical. Choices become murkier for wider focal lengths as the performance standards of the Nikon 50, 35 and 28 mm lens are surpassed by Sigma at similar if not cheaper price points – no more so than at 50 mm. This problem is amplified if it is important to you as a photographer to carry the same image rendering styles across different focal lengths. While Zeiss is dealing with this seriously the same cannot be said with Nikon given the inconsistency in quality across their range of lenses. Recommend: Nikkor F1.4/50 G (maybe) AFS Nikkor F1.4/85 G AFS Nikkor F1.8/85 G (better deal)