After flipping through Sergio Larrain’s book Londres in a bookstore, and reading his wonderful letter to his nephew on how to be a photographer, I felt inspired and set out with the intention of documenting life on the street.
The Sony a7 III isn’t marketed or thought of as a street or a travel camera. Despite its small size when compared to DSLRs, it still isn’t as compact and discreet as I’d like. It doesn’t fit in a pocket, and its shutter has a loud clunk reminiscent of film cameras. What’s more, the camera’s full-frame sensor necessitates beefier lenses.
Years ago, I lugged around a Nikon D90 in a canvas manpurse strapped across my chest like Chewbacca. While the Sony a7 III isn’t small enough to fit in a pocket, even with a small and light lens like the Samyang 35mm f/2.8, its dimensions:features:image quality ratio seems to be just right. And it is light enough to keep tethered to my wrist all day while walking the streets or attached to my belt using the Peak Camera Clip.
Earlier in 2021, I had been entertaining the idea of purchasing a FujiFilm camera, one that looks and feels more the part of “street/travel/documentary photography” even if it came with a resolution and performance trade-off. The X-Pro3 and the X100V came to mind.
But, as that old chestnut goes, the best camera is the one you have on you. And by all accounts the Sony a7 III is an excellent camera. Despite it not being as small as I’d like, it feels good in my hand.
Sergio Larrain notes how important it is to find a camera that you like to use. “First and foremost,” he wrote to his nephew, “you have to have a camera that fits you well, one that you like, because it’s about feeling comfortable with what you have in your hands: the equipment is key to any profession, and it should have nothing more than the strictly necessary features.”
With the buzzy, heady feeling I got from seeing Larrain’s photos and reading his letter, I set off onto the streets of Bordeaux with my camera in hand. It was a trial by fire. I wanted to see if the camera really “fit me well,” if I could dial in my settings and processes, or if I needed to move on.
“It is not you,” I was prepared to say to my a7 III. “It is me.”
But my time on the streets of Bordeaux was a crash course in not just doing photography but in seeing. It forced me to really think about dialing in a system, a method of doing street/documentary/travel photography that would free up the mental bandwidth for the more important task of seeing and observing. This required me to simplify my settings and customize my buttons and dials to be intuitive before and during the shot.
By the end of my time in Bordeaux, I found that the Sony a7 III gave me little to complain about and that all my anxieties and reservations about the camera were rooted in me. The experience of trying to respect, understand, and use the camera as a tool drew us closer than ever.
What I learned
But it wasn’t all magic. I mentioned earlier that my time in Bordeaux with the Sony a7 III was a “crash course” and a “trial by fire.” This is true in the sense that there were times of frustration and failure. I failed to get the shots I envisioned on a number occasions. The reasons were because I wasn’t fast enough, courageous enough, or smart enough with my settings.
There were many times that I’d see a compelling scene, but I’d pause to examine it and to think about composition and settings. And before I could lift my camera to my eye, someone would walk away, the light would change, or the scene would otherwise disappear forever.
Other times, my hesitation was caused by fear and cowardice. I’d see a compelling scene, but I couldn’t muster the courage to walk up and snap a photo.
In both instances, as I walked away without having taken the picture I had seen, I’d berate myself for being slow or for being a coward. And the image of the lost photograph would haunt me the rest of the day.
On the other hand, while in my hotel room reviewing the day’s photos, I’d sometimes discover that I had failed to get the shot because I didn’t read the scene properly: the depth of field was too shallow, my focus was off, or my composition was crap.
But I went out again the next day, and again the next, each time trying to dial in my practice and my perception in order to right the wrongs of the day before.
I can’t say I’ve reached street photography nirvana, but I can say that I’ve learned a lot. The experience forced me to confront my limitations and question my processes.
The experience also helped me to customize my settings and formalize a few principles, which I outline below.
My street photography settings for the Sony a7 III
What I love about the Sony a7 III is that I can tether the camera to my right hand and, with just that hand, adjust all my settings. By customizing and memorizing the dials and buttons, I can quickly adjust my settings as I see the scene unfolding, even before brining the camera to my eye.
It is a marvel of technology that I can customize and simplify this overly complicated machine for my use.
I have saved the settings below to Memory Recall 1:
- Aperture priority. Front or back dial cycles through apertures.
- Auto ISO, prioritizing fast shutter over low ISO (ISO AUTO Min. SS = Fast or Faster). Override Auto ISO by rotating the back wheel.
- Always RAW + JPG.2
- Back button focus set to AF-ON button.
- Spot metering (center) lock set to AEL button.
- Silent Shooting: On. C1 button to toggle silent shooting on/off.
- Drive Mode: Single Shooting. C2 to change drive modes.
- DISP toggles the screen on and off, as needed.
- Focus Mode: Continuous AF
I have in Memory Recall 2:
- Same as above, but set to shutter priority. Front or back dial adjust shutter speeds.
Some notes and observations
I also had a Sony 50mm f/1.8 “nifty fifty,” which I used 99% of the time prior to this trip, and an aftermarket Samyang 35mm f/2.8.3 I never attached them to my camera while in Bordeaux because 1) I wanted to put the new Sony 40mm f/2.5 G through its paces and 2) the Sony 28mm f/2 was the widest lens I had.
The Sony 28mm f/2 is especially ideal indoors and for tight, enclosed spaces.
It is necessary to turn Silent Shooting: Off on the Sony a7 III if doing street photography at night.
Depending on the shutter speed, the new LED lights illuminating most urban environments at night create an irreparable banding on images. The problem is most noticeable when using the electronic shutter (Silent Shooting: On) and mostly disappears when using the mechanical shutter (Silent Shooting: Off).
If the mechanical shutter doesn’t fix the banding issue, adjust the shutter speed manually to 1/50 or 1/60 of a second (using shutter priority in my Memory Recall 2).
This isn’t uniquely a Sony issue.
Shooting from the hip
I tried to “shoot from the hip” on several occasions. Upon reviewing those images, I discovered that I had a success rate of about 5%. Either the composition was off or the subject was blurry due to hand motion.
The main takeaway here is to slow down, compose, focus, and shoot. I’ve found that this seemingly “slower” approach is still only a matter of seconds.
But the reason why I was “shooting from the hip” was not due to my saving time. It was due to my saving face — I simply didn’t have the courage to snap the photos, so I resorted to what I assumed to be a stealthy approach.
Unless doing so intentionally or for effect, one should never “shoot from the hip.” Always compose.
My street photography principles
- Walk the streets with the camera tethered to my wrist.
- Keep the camera powered on at all times.
- Keep the screen off most of the time to save battery life.
- Use the viewfinder. Use the screen only when you need to.
- Carry an extra battery.
- Shoot in aperture priority.
- Always reset to the smallest aperture after a shot.
- Memorize how many dial clicks the lens takes to reach f5.6 and f8.
- Always use Single Shooting Drive Mode, unless capturing fast subjects with Continuous.
- Don’t hesitate. Don’t ask permission.
- Don’t think, just feel.
- Keep silent shooting on, unless shooting in low light to minimize LED banding (if the mechanical shutter doesn’t reduce banding, shoot in shutter priority at 1/50s or 1/60s depending on LED frequency).
- Only review images at the end of the day, never on the street.
- Carry no more than one extra lens.
- Never “shoot from the hip.” Always compose.
- Remember that you will never be happy.
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