I recently returned from a week-long trip to Paris, referenced in my preceding post. Now I'm back in Philly, sorting through photos and recollections; reconciling what I thought the experience would be like with the actual experience. Here's what I've come up with so far.
Traveling light is a good idea.
Paris is a very accessible city from a street shooting perspective. Between the Metro, the RER trains, and rental bikes, it's remarkably easy to get to anywhere you want to go without a car. That said, you're still going to do a lot of walking and whatever equipment you plan to use will add weight and take up space. I carried only a Nikon FM3A with a 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor and 28mm f/2.8 Voightlander lens. My digital kit, which my son used more than I did, was a Nikon V1 with 18.5mm, 10-30mm, and 30-110mm lenses. He seldom carried all three at once. Although we were invariably tired by the end of each day, it wasn't because of lugging ridiculous amounts of equipment.
Most other tourists followed a similar ethic. As you might expect, smartphone and even iPad cameras were the most popular choice by far, followed by compact digicams and Canon Rebels and Nikon D3000 and D5000-series DSLRs with kit zooms. Only rarely did I see someone carrying a full-frame DSLR, tripod or large tele-zoom, and the people who did so were almost always guys in their twenties.
Aside from the weight issue, a smallish, touristy camera gives potential subjects the impression that you are a harmless tourist (which you may very well be) rather than a Pro Photographer with Suspicious Motives.
You've got to be fast.
Paris is a very populous, popular, and busy city. Tourist sites, of which there are many, draw huge crowds, create long lines, and cause congestion. Cars, buses, bikes, and motorcycles zip about in all directions. Parisians are often in a hurry and will dash past you or in front of you if they think you're slowing them down. (Keep in mind that I say this as someone who is a pretty brisk walker himself.) What this means for street photographers is that although there are plenty of people on the streets, a large percentage of them are in constant motion. Even when you try to photograph something or someone stationary, someone else will step into the scene. The only way to counteract this frenetic appearance and disappearance of perfect moments is to be quick and decisive. You need to be able to raise your camera to your eye and achieve a well-focused, well-exposed photo in no more than a second.
Just as I was framing this shot with the manequin in the foreground, I saw the woman in the background getting ready to take her seat. This lucky shot is the result of not just grabbing a shot and moving on.
It helps to slow down.
Does this contradict the paragraph above? Not necessarily. Even though you need to be ready to snap a photo in an instant, you also need to relax and open your awareness to what's going on around you. Is that group of teenagers about to explode in laughter as one pulls a prank on another? Is the woman hanging onto her lover's arm about to lean over and kiss him? Is that custom Harley-Davidson chopper about to be mounted by a petite young Frenchwoman in chic leathers? If so, draw your bow (frame the composition, either mentally or actually) and when the moment comes, shoot.
Automation can be too slow.
I mentioned in the second paragraph above that I was using a Nikon FM3A. This was not purely because of some sentimental attachment to film (although this was admittedly a factor); it was because this camera has so little automation. It will take pictures even if the battery is dead. If the shutter is cocked it will fire, period. I can set the aperture, shutter speed and focus and know that they won't change unless I manually do so myself. The camera will not hunt for focus or decide to change the ISO setting. Provided I've set everything correctly, I can press the shutter button without worrying that the camera itself will screw up the shot.
Contrast this with an automated camera such as the Nikon V1, where you have to remember not to keep it on too long for fear of draining the battery, turn it on before shooting, zoom or not zoom, check the shooting mode dial to make sure it didn't accidently move to some other mode, zero the exposure compensation, turn off the camera after shooting, and on and on. Can you still get great shots with a camera like this? Absolutely. Can you rely on it not to screw up when you least expect it? Not so much.
Go wide and get close.
Simply put, a moderately wide-angle lens lets you get close enough to your subject that you don't have to be as concerned with people stepping in front of you. It also makes it easier to pretend you're shooting something more interesting behind them, which in a city like Paris is more likely than not.
It's not all about photography.
As much as I enjoyed exploring Paris with camera in hand, I got even more enjoyment from doing so with my son, meeting people from other countries and backgrounds, practicing French, eating delicious meals and trying new foods. My goal was to have this sense of wonder and enjoyment reflected in my photographs rather than the other way around. I hope I achieved it.