You’re probably thinking, “enough with the travel pics, Cain!” If you follow this site I’m guessing you'd prefer to be reading my typically dry, overly technical, and excessively wordy text. Don’t you worry; it’s on its way but first thing’s first. Bear with me and there will be plenty of yammering on monitor calibration and the like in the very near future.
Mexico City - pop. 20.1 million
These images were acquired October 2013, mostly in the La Merced market neighborhood in central Mexico City, an explosion of people, wares, color, texture, and chaos. It’s said that anything that can be bought or sold can be found in La Merced and upon spending some time photographing there, this seems to be the grim reality. It's a place that's both equally inviting and menacing, filled with warm and friendly people as well as those looking for an easy mark. It's one of the places where Mexico City's occasionally shocking economic disparities are perhaps most evident. So in other words, endlessly fascinating subject matter for the street photographer.
I don't earn my living as a photographer so I consider myself a non-professional though it's something I've been doing for most of my life. Since the advent of digital SLR's, I've tried countless cameras and brands and have been always been frustrated with the size and obtrusiveness of the equipment. Street photography is my thing and while asking someone to pose can yield wonderful results, candid shots where the subject is completely unaware they are being photographed are really what it's all about.
In my search for the perfect street photography camera, a few years ago I got my hands on a Leica M9 digital rangefinder.
At the time, it seemed like it couldn't get any better. It was small, light, and because it's a rangefinder, the focus extremely accurate. A true joy to shoot with. Not to mention the best part, Leica M mount lenses, which to my knowledge can't be easily adapted to Canon or Nikon SLR bodies. The sensor in the camera is also a very unique one, the Kodak KAF-18500 CCD, which yields such a rich and smooth tonality quite unlike anything comparable in CMOS. This camera was and is awesome but besides being prohibitively expensive at $7000, it still has one small problem as far as the street photographer is concerned - you have to put it on front of your face to shoot. In my experience, usually the second this happens the moment is broken. Once spotted, your subject may be indifferent to you or may rightfully react with anger upon being photographed without permission. Whatever the outcome, that tiny moment in time is now frozen with a reaction to the photography instead of being an observation. If your objective is to be invisible, you need a camera that is small, light, and can be operated out of the direct line of sight.
When you think of high quality stills cameras, Sony is probably not the first brand that comes to mind. However that should change. Enter their line of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras - MILC. I've also heard this make referred to as EVIL - electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens. I guess you can call them Milk's or Evil's, or maybe just mirrorless. At any rate, Sony has been producing this style of camera for awhile now with their Alpha NEX line, the NEX-7 is the model I've been shooting with this year.
For a few reasons I'll outline shortly, the NEX-7 camera has proven to be perfect for the kind of photography I do. The size, form factor, operation, and resolution are just right. At 24.3 MP, pixel dimensions at highest quality Raw are 6000x4000, ample resolution for reframing in processing. The NEX models come at a variety of price points but all they have one thing in common, APS-C size sensors which is a bit of a drag. Having the smaller imager helps with focus but it just can't create as much of that lovely optical separation you get with a Full Frame. However we're no longer stuck with small sensors on mirrorless cameras as Sony recently announced "the world's lightest interchangeable lens, full frame camera" with the forthcoming Alpha A7, 24.3 MP and the A7R, 36.4 MP and with no optical low-pass filter. At 36.4 MP, pixel dimensions for the A7R are 7360x4912, an absolutely incredible amount of resolution. Additionally, its HDMI video output will be both clean of overlays and uncompressed. An interesting feature but with such a small form factor, not the best suited camera for video in my opinion.
What's great about these Sony cameras for the street photographer is two-fold - because there's no optical reflex viewfinder, the cameras are substantially smaller and lighter. And also because of this lack of optical viewing, tilt-able LCD's are used instead which allow one to literally shoot from the hip, keeping the camera low, out of sight, and out of mind.
In searching for a more cost effective alternative to Leica products I was also drawn to Voigtlander's line of Leica (M) mount lenses, which can easily be adapted to Sony's E mount with an adapter from Novoflex.
These lenses come in a good range of focal lengths at various fast apertures, the 50mm Nokton f/1.1 being the maximum. They're sharp, resolve beautifully, and allow for the experience of shooting with small, manual focus lenses at approximately 1/5 the cost of equivalent Leica glass. Using the Peaking Filter in the Sony cameras, it's very easy to evaluate and adjust focus on the LCD screen, in fact it's quite similar to working with cinema lenses. All of the photography I've released on this site in the past year was captured with the 21mm f/1.8, 28mm f/2, 40mm f/1.4, and 75mm f/1.8. The 40mm in particular has proven to be a great "walking around" lens, especially at night, with it's fast aperture and short height.
So here are a few selects from my La Merced shoot done with the aforementioned equipment. More can be found here >>>
From a digital imaging perspective, the NEX-7 is quite good and the A7R will be even better. Low noise floor, adequate dynamic range, smooth tonality, and colors that are very "Sony". When I'm pushing these images around in Lightroom, I'm very much reminded of the F35. Sony color science is almost instantly recognizable to the trained eye and if this is what you're used to working with for motion picture cameras, the Sony stills will feel very familiar.
Speaking of Lightroom, version 5 is awesome. The controls are so intuitive and responsive, it's a shame it can't be used to process video as it would be excellent for quickly generating one light color corrections. I really wish our digital post processing toolset was more unified instead of having to learn something completely new with each software. We really need a simple, universal image processing software that you can put any kind of file into, and get any kind of file out of. Still, video, image sequences, whatever. What I like most about Lightroom is that it's based on actual photographic nomenclature - "color temperature, exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks". Exposure values are actually calculated based on f stops, with 1.0 equaling 1 stop, instead of being completely arbitrary. Color temperature is based on degrees kelvin and all other values calculated on a simple -100 to 100 scale. It would be wonderful if video and stills could meet somewhere halfway between where they are now, which is unfortunately in two virtually separate worlds.