Standing Back

Most die hard street photographers would argue vehemently against the use of telephoto lenses when working on the street (most would argue that anything over 80mm contravenes their ‘code’). I think they would say it was disingenuous and sneaky. I can see their point, however sneaking around with a wide-angle lens tucked under your coat isn’t exactly out in the open either. The fact is there are only a certain number of ways to catch your subject unawares and this is one of them. So I was set the task of using a long-lens (in my case 82.5mm-315mm efl) to make photographs of people at a distance. I was to note the practical and technical advantages and disadvantages to using this type of lens for this kind of work. I have also made note of my comfort level and other thoughts running through my head whilst taking this small set.

Flower girls

Flower girls – ISO800 f/6.3 1/250 315mm

Pouring with rain, these two women had clearly decided it wouldn’t stop them from finding a bargain although one looks distinctly less interested than the other. As you can see I have the ISO at 800 and stopped down as far as I can to gain shutter speed. It was pretty dark and very wet. I think the rain comes out well in the image having been compressed by the telephoto lens and set against the dark background of the UPS vehicle.

Wet walk

Wet walk – ISO400 f/6.3 1/320 315mm

Taken again at my maximum focal length I though this man had spotted me and for a moment had a pang of slight anxiety. The question was, why? See below for my feelings on this.

Breakfast Afloat - ISO800 f/6.3 1/200 315mm

Breakfast Afloat – ISO800 f/6.3 1/200 315mm

I particularly like this image as I feel it represents what should be possible with the long lens. Without intruding I am able to capture a completely genuine shot of the couple enjoying their morning on the water. As the lens flattens the image out the viewer also gets to guess that it is relatively early morning with the dew still on the cobwebs. It distinctly tells us that they are on a boat in a canal. As with all the previous shots the ability to get ‘more’ in the frame gives the viewer much more information about the circumstance. As such, I don’t feel the need to fill the frame with just them. If I had then some of the story would have been lost.

I had some issues (both technical and emotional) with photographing with a telephoto lens. I didn’t enjoy having to work at a high ISO to obtain the shutter speeds needed to stop camera shake. Things (cars, branches, unwanted people) did get in the way of my view. I hadn’t really done it before (I much prefer my small zoom lens for this sort of work) and found the lens cumbersome when trying to stay out of sight. And here’s the thing, I did feel like I was trying to stay hidden from my quarry. I also felt like I was snooping and waiting for a tap on the shoulder asking what I was up to (indeed on a separate occasion whilst photographing my children in a playground I was asked what I was doing. Guess which lens I was using? Would I have been asked the same with a smaller more ‘friendly’ lens?). There is a certain negativity attached to photographing people covertly with a telephoto lens which obviously harks back in part to police surveillance, secret service type stuff from the movies and TV. However, it’s not only films that perpetuate this but also the real world where the flavour of the moment stars are ‘papped’ doing something interesting (or nothing at all, the topless shots of Kate Middleton being a point in case) in order to sell to the press and media outlets. Indeed, the British Press is currently being hauled over the coals as part the Leveson Enquiry. Although, of course, this is concerned with phone tapping it feeds in to what is perceived as the grubby world of investigative (and just plain invasive) journalism. So, this is what is subconsciously in the back of my mind when I lift my 300mm lens to my eye (I suspect).

Susan Sontag refers to the camera as a gun, “Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” (Susan Sontag – On Photography, 1977). So on this premise I am pointing a howitzer at these people.

I would never say never to using my telephoto for shooting people but it would not be my weapon of choice.

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3 thoughts on “Standing Back

  1. Paul, this is a really interesting assignment and your photographs still tell the story on urban life. I think many street photographers get a bit hung up on long vs short lens. Whatever we do (for I shoot street) we are observing and recording other peoples lives so be it close or from a distant as long as we do it well, capture the moment, and show some empathy to our subjects it really does not matter how we get the result.

    Nice Work :-)

    • Thanks Richard. I think your word ’empathy’ is important in this case. However, I still suspect a lot of people associate long lens with unscrupulous journos!

  2. Pingback: Assignment Two – People and Place – Research | BA Blog

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