September 18, 2011

Struttin’, Scootin’ and Splashin’

A trip to the Kansas State Fair

50mm 50mm
One of the things that comes out of having a passion for photography is that it motivates me to do things I would otherwise have no interest in. The desire to take photos is overwhelming enough to make me want to drive three hours to Hutchinson, KS to visit the State Fair.

This was a kind of new experience for me. I have never driven so far out of my way for the specific purpose of making photos before. My original plan was to go over the weekend, but checking the forecast warned me that the weekend might be overcast and rainy (which it turned out to be). Not only bad photography weather, but weather likely to drive away the crowds. So I packed up my equipment and drove off.

My standard kit these days is based around traveling light. I bring my Sony a850 with my Minolta 35mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.4 as my two primary lenses. I also bring along a Minolta 20mm f/2.8 RS wide-angle lens and my 135mm f/2.8 lens for portraits. I rarely use them, but I like having the option with me. They’re both small and light and even my small ThinTank Retrospective 10 bag has room for all four.

When I arrived in the afternoon, I decided to leave my bag in the car. Since the weather has cooled off recently, I thought I’d experiment with using a two-lens kit with my jacket as my bag. I stuck the 50/1.4 on the Sony and slid the 35/1.4 in the inside pocket of my jacket. I always want to travel light and to be as unobtrusive as possible, so I usually don’t carry my bag when I’m doing street photography.

I’m also at the point right now where I am kind of waffling between my 35mm and 50mm lenses for street photography. Each lens has it’s own characteristics and using each encourages a different kind of shooting. The 50mm focal length is the classic ‘normal’ field-of-view beloved by compositional masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. The 50mm field-of-view keeps the relative proportions between objects at different distances very similar to what the human eye normally sees without distortion. For me, It also gives a strong compositional ‘box’ to place elements of the image in. The 50mm encourages careful, deliberate shooting.

The 35mm lens on the other hand gives a wider-than-normal field-of-view, but not too wide that it adds much distortion. The 35mm lens encourages me to get closer to my subject, and as such it’s more of a quick, shoot-from-the-hip lens. With the 35mm lens, I want to set it to a hyper-focal setting and shoot quickly without worrying about focusing.

For how I use these lenses, generally speaking, the 35mm tends adds context to the subject while the 50mm tends to isolate the subject from its context a bit more. The 35mm is a good all around lens, but there’s something about the more balanced, formal look of the 50mm that keeps me coming back to it.

However, bringing both lenses with me led me to violate one of my rules: only walk around with one lens at a time. Having options sounds nice, but having options only makes you think “what if I had that other lens on my camera right now,” which is an incredibly distracting thought when shooting. I find it is much more rewarding when you only have one lens. This way you’re only visualizing your composition with that one lens in mind. With one lens you’re much better at approximating what the composition will be, and how far you need to be from your subject before even bringing the camera to your eye.

I think I can blame part of this indecisiveness on being out of practice. I haven’t been getting out and shooting as much as I should, and just like any other skill, if you don’t practice you get rusty. I took hundreds of frames at the fair. Most of them are terrible. I also forgot the main lesson I learned recently shooting film: slow down. When you only have 36, 24 or even 12 exposures per roll of film you learn to take your time looking for the right moment, and making sure the composition is spot on before pressing the shutter. It’s true that when you’re shooting street you have to be quick, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for sloppiness.

I think driving three hours away and knowing that I only had one day to shoot caused a bit of panic. I felt like I had to grab every shot I could, and to make sure I used both lenses. Just in case.

That being said, I still got some good pictures from the fair, and I’m very grateful I decided to go in the middle of the week. The weather since Wednesday has been cold and overcast. And I’ve learned my lesson. Take your time, and stick with one lens. Learn it and work with it.

Below are my favorite images from the trip with the focal length labeled.

50mm 50mm
50mm 50mm
50mm 50mm
50mm 50mm
35mm 35mm
35mm 35mm
35mm 35mm
35mm 35mm
50mm 50mm
50mm 50mm
50mm 50mm

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