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Why Henri Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm Lens

It's distortion, fool.

Sat 26 July 2014

There are a number of wrong theories about why Henri Cartier-Bresson preferred a 50mm lens. Maybe other lenses were too expensive?1 Maybe streets were less crowded in the past?2

I spent a while trying to figure this out. The web is abound with photographers justifying a use of a 35mm or 50mm lens, but I couldn't find a solid reason why Bresson preferred 50mm until I came across this interview in the New York Times:

Q. Why the 50-millimeter lens?

A. It corresponds to a certain vision and at the same time has enough depth of focus, a thing you don’t have in longer lenses. I worked with a 90. It cuts much of the foreground if you take a landscape, but if people are running at you, there is no depth of focus. The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see. But very often it is used by people who want to shout. Because you have a distortion, you have somebody in the foreground and it gives an effect. But I don’t like effects. There is something aggressive, and I don’t like that. Because when you shout, it is usually because you are short of arguments.

Along with technical qualities of a 50mm lens Bresson didn't like distortion, he didn't like to "shout."

Remember that Henri Cartier-Bresson started and ended his life as a painter. The kind of distortion with even a 35mm Leica lens would be very difficult to achieve and rather ugly in a painting. The 50mm lens is the widest lens that allows you to take pictures that look like paintings without distortion.

I think that's why Bresson preferred the 50mm. Of course you can just read the New York Times interview yourself or make up your own ideas on why he preferred it.

I'll leave you with one more link: a compelling argument that today the Leica is designed for 35mm lenses. I've started shooting a 35mm lens alongside my 50mm lens, it helps me get a lot of shots I wouldn't otherwise take, but having grown up on 50mm I'm not a fan of the distortion.

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  1. "That's why he only shot with one lens his whole career: it's all he could afford, and he came from a very wealthy family!

  2. "Sure Henri cartier-Bresson shot with a 50mm lens but I don’t recommend the focal length. Why? A friend recently made a point that interested me. Henri cartier-Bresson was shooting in the mid 20th century, where streets weren’t as narrow or crowded as nowadays. Therefore a 50mm would have probably served him pretty well. However nowadays if you live in the city, things are always jam packed. I would state that the 35mm is equivalent today to the 50mm hcb used in his time." 



The Difficulty of Street Portraits in Beijing

Signal and noise on the streets and on the internet.

Fri 25 July 2014

I don't like photographing in Beijing. China is more difficult than other countries for me: people follow me with their eyes as I walk around the street, are hesitant to have their picture taken, rarely respond to smiles, and there is a lack of public beauty1.

Things like this make me afraid. At the surface Beijing doesn't feel inviting. But it is inviting, it just takes a bit of work to break the surface. Of seven recent times I've asked someone directly if I can take their picture in Beijing these have been the responses:

  1. Five people said yes
  2. One person laughed and said no, covering her face in embarassment
  3. One person loudly screamed "no photo" (in Mandarin) over and over again until I walked down the street out of sight.

That third type of interaction is scarring. Negative interactions feel worse, and heavier, than positive interactions. This happens digitally as well: A bunch of people can tell me how much they love my photography but one douche on Facebook can leave a nasty comment and all I can think about is the negative comment2.

This kid was cool with me taking his picture. Sitting on a red couch in the street eating ice cream is a honeypot for photographers.

This woman actually said I could take her picture then never looked at the camera.

This kid also was fine with me taking his picture but got back to his video game as soon as I pulled the camera up.

In Beijing, just as online, it's hard to ignore the negatives. What I'm doing now is just going out with the camera out for a bit every day, asking politely if I can take a picture or smiling and holding the camera up, and trying to ignore any negative responses.

The positive responses are totally worth it. I get a picture to remember them. The negative responses aren't ever recorded as images — and I'll forget them in time. This is also why I delete negative emails and comments immediately but keep the positive emails around. It isn't worth keeping a record of nastiness when I can focus on the positives.

This man explained to me what his badge means — volunteer police officer — and was happy to pose for a picture

This guy was talking to himself and passersby making him easy to approach.

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  1. Buildings are gray and there is almost no graffiti. A lot like Washington, DC. A local friend tells me that buildings are only designed to last for 20 years. I don't know if that's true — certainly some of the hutong buildings have been around for over 500 years — but there is something about the Beijing aeshetic I can't put my finger on and I find lacking in beauty. 

  2. I don't know why we overweight negative feedback. Producing content for the web is mostly a labor of love — there isn't much money. Many bloggers talk about how much negative feedback they get and how painful it is. There is a reason this blog doesn't have comments, if people really want to give feedback they can e-mail me. 


Kid on a Red Couch

Fri 25 July 2014

Beijing, China.

I was walking with a friend and saw this kid on a red couch in the middle of the sidewalk eating ice cream. About 20 feet later I stopped my friend and said "I really want to take a picture of that kid". She said "Well just go take a picture of the kid!". So we walked back, asked him, and he said yes.

One of my first shots from a 35mm lens. ISO 1000, f/2, 1/1000 sec.

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Touring a hutong in Beijing

Alley Neighborhood in Beijing

Thu 24 July 2014

Hutongs are alley neighorborhoods in Beijing. Some of the buildings are over 500 years old. My local friend David gave me a tour of the Hutongs on streets 4-6 near the DongSi metro in Beijing today. This was my first time working with a local translator and guide. We didn't get a ton of portraits — I'm still hesitant to ask people for pictures — but I'm very happy with the pictures we did get.

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