The Best Setting

The best camera setting is the one that gets you the shot

The above image was my featured photograph on Flickr’s Explore yesterday, resulting in thousand of views, hundred of favourites and one particular advice, sent through Flickr Mail to me from a member. The content was something I wish to address in my blog for a long time but can’t figure out where to start. So I would like to thank the Flickr’s member for this opportunity.

I would also like to clarify that there is no right or wrong way to achieve a result on the street, neither is there a system that will fit into every scenario. I don’t usually go into the technical specification of an image, I’m not interested in what setting was used to capture a photo, I’m only concerned with what was within the frame. But since this was the first time someone wrote to me about my camera setting, I thought I would share some of my thoughts.

Since the days when I started photographing with my iPhone, I didn’t have the chance to change the lens aperture on the phone camera. The only controls I had on the phone were shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation. When I moved over to the Sony a7S, a mirrorless camera, I bought a 35mm f2.8 prime lens with it. The reason I chose this lens was due to the focal length and its size, not how wide the aperture can go. You see, I don’t photograph anything on the street with the lens aperture wider than f8. The last thing I want was to spend a thousand bucks for blurry background, or some would call it bokeh. Don’t get me wrong; bokeh is beautiful, especially for portraiture, still life and things that don’t move. But for street photography, it’s just not my preference.

When I practised with my iPhone, I learnt to move my feet if I want to exclude a particular part of the scene within the frame. I positioned myself to reduce as many distractions as possible, if there were still too much unrelated going on in the scene, I wouldn’t even take the shot. 

In my kind of street photography, I’m always dealing with an uncontrollable scenario where your subject(s) wouldn’t stand still for you to get your focus right. With a shallow depth of field at the widest aperture, the chance of missing the focus point increase, especially when the subject is moving towards or away from you. However at f8, the middle-ground aperture, it will give you enough depth of field to prevent critical focusing mistake. This method is built for speed and efficiency, and the result is entirely predictable.

So on the technical side, once I set the aperture at f8 or f11, all I need to worry about is the shutter speed and ISO. The only time I would change the ISO is when there is a dramatic shift in the lighting condition. The reason why I don’t use the aperture priority on the camera is that I want to have the control in the highlight and shadow within the frame. 

What I’m trying to do here is to reduce the chance of missing the shot by eliminating unnecessary combination, worrying less about the setting and concentrate on what was present. The difference between capturing a great photograph, or missing entirely, depend solely on your reaction on the street. You don’t want to be fiddling with the camera setting too much while things are happening in front of you. Although photographers around the world commonly use this method, you still need to practise to master this combination. 

‘What You Put in the Frame Determines the Photo’ - Joel Meyerowitz

As for my featured photo on Explorer, it was the only one shot at that moment. The best I could do was to position myself in a way, so my subject was in front of the yellow wall, and I took the shot the moment she lifted up her brolly slightly. I reckon that’s what makes street photography so interesting, a little late in my reaction and I will miss this shot entirely, and we wouldn’t be here talking about it. So I will leave this quote by Ansel Adams for the sender to end this blog post.

‘A Good Photograph Is Knowing Where To Stand’ - Ansel Adams

There were a lot of time when a bad photo is the result of the poor positioning of the photographer. But in street photography, the difficulty is even higher. Through observation and anticipation, we can learn to get into a situation where we, as the photographer, have the advantage. My featured image isn’t perfect, so is the world around us. Imperfection can be a beauty at times.

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