Today is the day. You are finally going to do it. You are finally going to be a real street photographer. You’ve loaded up your grandad’s Leica, you finally bought that battery for that Canon AE-1 that has been sitting on your shelf for so long. You are going to drive into town and do some “street photography”.
You can picture it now, just like Vivian Maier before you and Cartier-Bresson before her. You are going to go out there and zone focus away. Metering? Who needs it!? Sunny 16 has your back! Or perhaps you are the new breed of street photographer. Your brand new A7RII just got here, or maybe the adapter for your Fuji X-E2 finally came in. You can’t use auto focus with that! That’s not what Cartier-Bresson would have wanted!
Maybe you finally found that Canon FD 50mm 1.2 at the right price. Maybe your trip to the local vintage camera store got a little out of hand and now you have three more 50mm’s to add to the seven you already have. Not to worry. You’re no stranger to slapping those lenses on an adapter and with focus magnification, focus peaking and if you are stylish enough to shoot Fuji, a digital split prism, you are all set.
You’re there, you made it. It’s sunny, a little cloudy. Perfect. You load your film. Portra today? Maybe Tri-x. You format your cards, make sure your lens caps are off and you’re off to shooting. Oh there is a farmers market today? Awesome! Oh, there’s the perfect shot. A lady with a pink parasol. Alright, think. F/2, ISO 100, 1/1600….and click. “What a great shot,” you’re thinking, you round the corner, check your camera….OUT OF FOCUS?! BUT I WAS SURE I GOT IT! (the guy shooting film still thinks he nailed it)
If you shoot any sort of manual focus camera, modern or vintage you know this struggle. But manual focusing isn’t always just crying about missing focus. There are many advantages to manual focusing. You can (usually) focus on anything in the frame, not just where your focus points are. Manual focus never hunts, never slows down in low-light (although you might). Manual focus never accidentally focuses on the wrong thing.
There is one huge disadvantage to manual focus though.
It’s hard as hell to manual focus!
A little background on me. I have been shooting for about six years, and I started doing more street photography within the last two. I shoot street usually with either a Fuji X-E2 with the Metabones “Speedbooster” or An A7II, both with a host of adapted manual focus glass (17mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 58mm, 135mm). In fact, I do not own a single autofocus lens for either of those cameras.
Suffice to say, I am no stranger to manual focus.
Then something changed. I was driving through town when I came across a farmers market. I decided to stop and grab one of my cameras and go shoot for a bit, but I soon realized there was a problem. I had just come from shooting a Lacrosse game and the only camera I had with me was my Nikon D600 (a catastrophe, I know). What was I going to do?! Could I just use auto focus and hope that Cartier-Bresson wasn’t watching from beyond?
I decided to go for it and what followed was the most stress free 45 minutes of street photography I have ever experienced.
Oh! There’s a lady with a dog! CLICK. Perfectly in focus.
Wow, a guy painting a picture on the sidewalk! CLICK. Tack sharp.
This continued on and on until the farmers market finally had to pack up and leave. I was a street photography god, I could shoot anything! I raced home, jammed my card into the reader and blew through the import. Every. Single. Shot. Was. Perfect. Tack sharp, every time.
I couldn’t believe it.
No no no, I could believe that everything was in focus.
What I couldn’t believe was that it didn’t matter. I didn’t care. Some of the shots were good. Some were better than good. But when I looked at them, I found that I didn’t like any of them.
I slowly started to realize why.
I didn’t take any of these pictures. The camera did.
Sure I framed them, but that’s it. I didn’t manually expose, I didn’t manually focus, I didn’t even choose where to focus. The camera did all of that by itself.
I felt no connection to the images. Yeah they were my pictures but they sure didn’t feel that way.
Don’t get me wrong, auto-focus is amazing. I could not shoot sports or editorial or any of the other stuff where getting the shot is all that matters, but in my opinion. Getting the shot is not all that matters in street photography.
The thing is, yes, manual focusing and manual exposing is hard as hell. That is the reason it’s amazing.
When I get “the shot” on my D600, I can sit back at my desk and say “that’s a great shot.”
When I get “the shot” on my Fuji, (manual lens, manual exposure) I can sit back at my desk and say “that’s MY great shot”
That’s why I do street photography. For me. I don’t get paid for it, I have never sold nor am trying to sell prints (although if you’re buying…). I do it because for me, it’s pure photography.
Why use a French press if you are just going to use Walmart brand coffee?
For me, auto focus is the Walmart coffee of street photography. Sure sometimes you just need to wake up, but when I do have time to bust out my press, I sure as hell am not going to put store brand pre-ground coffee in it.
Maybe I am just a pretentious artist, but for street photography, my dial is staying on manual.
About the Author
Matthew Boggs is a sports & street photographer based in Georgia and is Photo Editor at the KSU Sentinel. You can see more of his work on 500px, or say hi through Twitter. This article was also published here, and is shared with permission.