Saturday, February 28, 2015

Two Steps to Make the X100s the Best Street Camera

We previously discussed the benefits of shooting achromatic, and we've also discussed how to make the Fuji X100s into a high-ISO achromatic machine. This is a great first step into embracing the world of documentary street photography and getting your mind in synch with moments and gestalt. But we can do even better! {Better still, most of these tips can be used on many of the Fuji X-Series camera bodies.} 
A modern classic.
Street photography is about capturing moments, and moments for a photographer are about not only about being able to work fast, but also being unobtrusive. The Leica is still the gold standard for fast and unobtrusive work. After you've made your Fuji X100s into a Fuji Monochrom, there are two more steps to take to make the camera as Leica-like as possible. The first one is quick and easy. The last one takes some getting used to, and is optional.

"Features" are just "Problems" by another name

Modern digital cameras have some amazing electronics. One of the impressive things they do is autofocus. There are a variety of methods manufacturers use to make autofocus happen, but none of them work well in low light. The solution is to use an AF Assist light. The camera sends out a short beam of illumination so the autofocus can see the subject. The problem of course is that the camera sends out a short beam of illumination. This not only intrudes on your subject, but it also broadcasts that you're taking a picture—ruining the natural moment. 
Modern cameras also have done wonders with fill-flash. Nearly all digital cameras have a built-in flash which works remarkably well at supplementing the available light. Flash, however, is awful. It's incredibly intrusive, can temporarily blind the subject if they're looking toward it, and however good the fill-flash works, the lighting is always poor compared to what can be done with natural light. Although some street photographers have popularized it, it's a great disservice to the entire community and makes the public perceive photographers as invasive paparazzi. Don't use it. Flash should be reserved solely for posed work, and should be done off-camera with a strobe. (Although we touch upon the use of strobes on occasion, I highly recommend looking at David Hobby's site.)
Finally there's the issue of noise. Sound is feedback, and it's important. Knowing when the camera is operating and how fast it's working is key information when making images. Like a mechanical slot machine, the clunk of the mirror in a DSLR lets you know when the image is recorded. Even the soft click of the Leica is a reassurance that light's been captured. These are the cues to which the brain adapts to time the physical actions required to capture the moment you see. But the Fuji X100s, with its leaf shutter, is possibly the most silent camera made. Understanding the value of anachronistic sound, Fuji provides audio feedback that sounds like a camera of old to let you know when certain things are happening. 
As useful as this audio feedback may be, however, it interferes with our goal of a silent camera because if you can hear it, so can others. It needs to go. And fear not—the Fujis provide the visual feedback of blacking out the electronic viewfinder when an image is recorded, much as a DSLR's mirror would obstruct the view. Similarly, the framelines in the rangefinder will blink off when the shutter is tripped.

Problems: Solved

As great as these "features" may be for specific use cases, Fuji understands the bundle of problems they make and allows them all to be turned off in one fell swoop. Simply hold down the "Display/Back" button and it will activate "Silent Mode," which deactivates the AF Illumination, the flash, and mutes all sounds. (You can also set this under the Tools-1 menu.)
If, for whatever reason, you need some of these functions to remain on, you can also selectively turn the others off. The AF Illuminator can be toggled in Settings Menu 4. Sounds are under Tools-2. The fastest way to deal with the flash is on the Q menu.

Get in the [Focus] Zone

Finally, embrace zone focusing. Leica shooters quickly learn that although focusing a rangefinder can be precise, it isn't fast. Speed is our goal, and however fast autofocus is, it still takes time to select an AF point, line things up, activate autofocus, reposition the frame . . . . Many a shot is lost when trying to autofocus.
While most digital cameras offer manual focus, it's still awfully bad. The ground glass screens of film cameras were surprisingly easy and fast to focus, and digital cameras have a long way to go to catch up. Trying to manually focus a digital camera still takes an array of assistive devices, like Focus Peaking. These "solutions" are bad because your attention is taken away from the image and put onto the technical function. 

Manual focus is just a click away.
The manual focus option is still quite useful, however, if you use it for zone focusing. Zone focusing is easy: for a given aperture setting, a certain depth will be in focus. This "depth of field" will vary depending upon focal length, but if you're shooting on the street, you likely will be using a 50mm on down. The wider the lens, the greater the depth of field at a given aperture. 
You can figure out the depth of field for a Fuji lens quite easily. When you switch the Fuji to MF, a blue ribbon will appear in all of the display modes, showing feet or meters (depending on your settings). As you rotate the focus ring, a white bar will move across the ribbon. That's your depth of field. Adjust the aperture, and the white bar will change size. Everything between the minimum distance to the maximum distance shown on the scale will be in focus in your picture. The red line indicates the distance of precise focus.
Putting this knowledge into practice is simple: on a decently sunny street, set your lens to f/16, and adjust the focus ring to 7 feet. Everything from 5 to 10 feet will be in focus. This means that so long as your subject is no closer than 5 feet and no further than 10 feet, you don't have to worry about focusing at all. Which means you don't have to worry about anything but timing and framing your image. Welcome to rangefinder heaven!
With just these two tweaks, you can make an already great street camera into one that easily qualifies in the "best" category.