We've all likely heard the familiar Robert Capa quote, "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Well, it's true. Go to Flickr or some photo sharing site and look over random street photos. The first thing you might notice is that some are really captivating and others are, well, flat and lifeless - boring even. Now, when you begin to examine the differences between the good and the bad photos you will see, among other things, that many of the "good" images are framed tightly - their subject is close to the photographer.
Am I saying that all good photography is up close? No. However, if you find that your photographs (especially your street photos) are lacking a little something - missing that spark, you might try moving in a little closer. You will be surprised how the same subject matter will translate differently when photographed closer. In my case, I also like to tilt the camera and get some funky angles and even frame off heads and faces to make my work more abstract. You don't need to do all this, I'm not advocating people copy my work. I'm just pointing out that far too many street photographers are shooting far too wide in my opinion.
I might also clarify that when I advocate for closer shots, I do mean moving in closer with the camera and not zooming. Long lenses are NOT for street photography, save them for bird watching. Long lenses isolate your subject matter too starkly and leave the photographs void of any background story. Many amateurs will hit the streets with zooms and feel safe because it allows them to stay back from their subjects. However, this M.O. will ultimately fail.
I'd rather see street photos that are too wide than those taken with long lenses. If you're feeling a little scared to move in close to your subject then just shoot from where you're comfortable. Just resist the urge to zoom. This is why I believe prime lenses are best for the streets, they force you to work with your legs and to move in rather than zoom in. For decades street photographers used Leica Ms and 28mm or 35mm fixed lenses (maybe 50mm if you're HCB). This may have felt restrictive to them at the time, but it was a hidden blessing. Keep that tradition alive and shoot with primes!
All of the images in this article were shot with a 28mm fixed prime on the Ricoh GR digital. I remember the first time I used the Ricoh GR. It was my first 28mm and I remember thinking, "My goodness I will never be able to get close enough with this camera." The 28 just seems SO WIDE and I felt SO FAR away from my subjects. But, it was this camera that taught me to get in really close and fire away. By the time I retired my Ricoh GR I was shooting within mere inches of my subjects faces.
New York City is a great playground for the street photographer. One of the best things about photographing here is that no one much cares what you're doing. There is no paranoia of being photographed here really. Certainly not like in other places, like Montreal, for example. So, if you're in New York or will be visiting, this is the ideal place to experiment with getting in close, really close. Grab a 28mm or 35mm prime, zone focus, and go in for the kill...or, um, the great photograph. Believe me, you will be amazed at how this one little change will revolutionize your photography.
Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian award-winning photographer and writer. He is the author of two full-length collections of street photography, The Human Fragment and Michael Sweet's Coney Island, both from Brooklyn Arts Press. Michael is a recipient of both the Prime Minister's Award and the Queen's Medal in Canada. Follow him on Twitter @28mmphotos or on his website.