Updated: Sep 28
Stop worry. Start shooting.
I’m one of those people who has travelled through life while learning everything the hard way. At first this would seem a disadvantage but in fact the opposite has been true. When things come easily they are more easily forgotten, in my case anyway, but when I’ve struggled to learn something complicated and finally got a strangle-hold on the wretched thing, I tend not to easily forget it.
From this you can draw the conclusion that in my case, living with a limited intellect has been beneficial. I tend not to worry about things I don’t understand. I recommend this philosophy to everyone.
When it comes to taking good photographs, the less complicated the procedure the better, and you can raise that to the power of 10 with street photography. A complicated camera you don't understand will slow you down, make you think twice about every creative decision, cause you to miss fleeting opportunity because you lack the tertiary qualifications to set it up for spontaneous action. It will also cramp your arm. Just because Sebastiao Salgardo uses a Canon 1DX doesn’t mean you have to.
Complementing the wasteful and pointless anxiety many feel about learning photography, there’s no end of speculation among amateurs about which lens to use and which settings on the camera. These things are important only if you screw up.
So keep it simple. Stop all the idle chatter about apertures and shutter speeds, set the camera on P (Program), stick a short zoom lens on the damn thing and start making photographs.
Alright, I’ve probably upset someone with mention of zoom lenses, but here’s how I see this particular argument.
It’s popular these days, and I would go as far as to say fashionable, especially among Leica owners, many of whom claim a personal connection with Elliott Erwitt, to hit the streets with a prime lens that according to club rules can be no longer than 50mm and no shorter than 35. The theory is that you should ‘use your legs to zoom’, not your lens. This dopey idea presupposes that once you have a zoom lens on your camera, your legs won't work.
Most times I use a 24 to 70, on a Lumix GH4 micro four-thirds body. If I want to shoot at 50mm I choose that setting on the lens and move to a position that will make the most of that focal length. If I need a wider 24mm then I choose that and again position myself accordingly.
So where am I making a mistake? I’m not. And I’m getting more focal length choices than the poor man stuck with a ‘nifty 50’.
‘But prime lenses are sharper than a zoom’, they say.
Oh really? And you can see that can you? I doubt it.
Most photographs these days are viewed on the web, not as metre-wide prints. Web photographs are highly compressed and most are viewed on a phone or tablet. Nevertheless, while viewing these images on a minute screen, doyens of photographic clarity will claim they can identify which photographs were taken with a zoom and which with a prime.
DON’T OVERTHINK IT
I recommend the Program setting and a zoom lens because that combination will help beginners overcome what most of them find most difficult; finding good subject matter and quickly making a pleasing composition of it. The less beginners think about the camera, the better.
In any case, a camera will employ the same computations to arrive at the ‘correct’ exposure in P mode as it will in Av or Tv. Don't believe me?
Try it for yourself. Take a camera into good light, point it at a subject, set it on Av, dial in f8, and note the shutter speed the meter wants to use. Don't move the camera. Now switch to P at f8, then Tv at f8. I'll bet the 10 racehorses I don't own that you will get exactly the same exposure each time.
And it’s more than likely that even if you switch from centre-weighted to average metering, you will still get the same exposure. Photography moves in mysterious ways.
The point is, by working in Program you're losing no flexibility in exposure selection and will find the combination you need more quickly. If for some reason you find offensive the aperture or shutter speed the meter is offering you in the P-room, swizzle the dial and select a combination that makes you happy. The important thing is not knowing how to swizzle the dial. It’s knowing why the first exposure was inappropriate for the situation you were in and why your second choice will get a sharper picture.
In their inexhaustible wisdom the same doyens will tell you that choosing aperture priority is critical. It isn’t. They say this because aperture controls depth-of-field and ‘DOF’ is holy ground. More depth through a small aperture: less depth through a large aperture. Big deal.
But they neglect to mention, or simply don't know, that you can change aperture just as easily in P as you can in Av. This is so blazingly obvious that it makes me wonder why cameras have Av and Tv at all. P and Manual, that'll do me. And one day I'll explain why Manual mode is important.
As a beginner, it's more important for you to learn how to choose an exposure that will give you a sharp picture than to have infinite depth-of-field in a blurry photograph. Street photography is hand-held photography and even the beloved f8 will not guarantee you a sharp picture if the corresponding shutter speed is too slow for you to hand-hold.
Forget about depth-of-field for a while. Learn how to focus quickly and take sharp, well composed, interesting pictures. Those skills are far more important than fretting about DOF while the picture walks away.
The modern digital camera can do many things but there are only so many ways to lay a brick. And here's the first brick in the wall: if you want to be good at making memorable photographs, study the images of renowned photographers in the fields you’re interested in. I tend the admire people who produce beautiful work while being shot at, Don McCullin for example.
Who you admire is up to you, but you will improve only by studying until your eyes water the best pictures ever taken, and how the men and women who took them got to see the world in ways that have so far eluded your sensibilities.