How to Shoot Street Photography with Vintage Lenses

How to Shoot Street Photography with Vintage Lenses

Note: shooting street photography with vintage lenses means, in most cases, shooting street photography with manual focus. So for the purposes of this post, the two may be used interchangeably.

I had a question put to me on this Instagram post which asked the following:

“… how do you manually focus for street; what method do you use to guarantee pin sharp focus?”

It was a good question because it made me think about a couple of things. First was the process I use, and what it actually involves. Having shot with vintage lenses for so long, it’s not something I really have to spend too much mental energy on.

The second thing was that, although I’m okay with shooting street photography with manual focus, there are people who have never tried it before and want to but don’t know where to start.

Maybe you’re one of them. Or maybe you have tried it, didn’t do very well, and gave up.

So as well as responding on Instagram, I thought the question deserved a blog post, to help you learn how to shoot street photography in manual focus as well.

The short answer to the question really is just zone focus, but I want to give you more than that. So my 4-step guide to shooting street photography with vintage lenses is as follows:

  • shoot in Aperture priority mode
  • shoot at f8 or f11 for more depth of field
  • shoot at ISO 400 minimum for increased shutter speed
  • know where the sweet spot is on your focus ring

I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, by the way. It’s just how I do it most of the time.

Shoot in aperture priority mode

In most cases, using vintage lenses on digital cameras means shooting in Aperture priority mode. It certainly has done with all the vintage lenses I’ve owned.

So as you may have guessed, if you’re to try street photography with vintage lenses, you’ll likely need to know how to shoot in Aperture priority mode.

I’ve written other posts detailing how to do this. If you don’t know how to shoot in Aperture priority mode, it’s a good idea to learn – or at least get an idea of what it involves – before you continue with the rest of this article.

You can find a quick guide to shooting in Aperture priority mode in this post here, and a more comprehensive rundown of how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed work together here.

Check them out if you need to, and read on if you don’t.

Shoot at f8 or f11 for more depth of field

If you’re shooting fluid, moving street scenes without the help of auto-focus, you need to be giving yourself the best chance possible of getting your subject in focus.

The easiest way to do this is to have as much of your frame in focus as possible – speaking in terms of depth, that is.

Pictures of your coffee with a blurred background are great for showing what your vintage lens can do when you have the time to focus on an inanimate object, but trying to shoot street photography with such a shallow depth of field is just increasing the chances of your subject being out of focus.

This is why I shoot at either f8 or f11.

I find f5.6 to still give too shallow a depth of field, and f16 to limit my shutter speed just that bit too much.

f16 is also often the highest f-number on my vintage lenses, and shooting at the extremes – so either wide open or fully closed – will mean losing sharpness in your images.

Seriously, if you have an f1.8 lens and tend to shoot it wide open for the bokeh, try shooting at f2.8 and see if you get more sharpness in your subject. Because you probably will.

Whether I shoot at f8 or f11 depends mainly on which lens I use, as some seem to perform better at one or the other. The F.Zuiko 38mm feels good at f8, while the Konica Hexanon 50mm feels good at f11.

This may be a placebo, but that’s fine. It still makes me feel better when shooting, and that’s more important than it being real or not.

The only way to figure out whether your vintage lens works best for you at f8 or f11 is to go out and shoot with it. Which is no bad thing.

Shoot at ISO 400 minimum for increased shutter speed

While giving yourself more depth of field will help you get your subject in focus, shooting with a high shutter speed will increase your chances of freezing them in motion.

Again, when shooting fluid street scenes, there will most likely be moving parts that you want to keep sharp.

Technically speaking, the lower ISO you shoot with, the better image quality you’ll get from your camera. On a sunny day, it’s tempting to go for ISO 100 or 200. I mostly go for 400.

When I shoot vintage lens street photography, I believe going low with my ISO is not only unnecessary but can actually be detrimental to my chances of making good photographs.

Because I’m shooting at f8 or f11, ISO 100 or 200 are often too close to the limit of giving me a safe shutter speed, even on a bright day. By safe, I mean one that I can rely on to be quick enough to sharply capture motion.

Having a faster shutter speed is far more important than the difference in image quality between ISO 100, 200, and 400.

On top of the safety net of sticking at ISO 400, there are a few reasons I think going to ISO 100 and 200 is actually unnecessary for my vintage lens street photography.

The first is that… I’m using vintage lenses. If I cared that much about the image quality difference between ISO 100, 200 and 400, I probably wouldn’t be using lenses older than myself.

The second is that, in modern cameras, that difference in image quality between ISO 100 and ISO 400 is negligible anyway. I’m not shooting studio work for corporate clients. I’m not publishing my work in magazines. And when I shoot for my #leesixtyfive project, I’m putting a grainy filter over them anyway.

If you’re shooting street photography with vintage lenses, I recommend you go no lower than ISO 400.

Know where the sweet spot is on your focus ring

Shooting street photography with vintage lenses likely means not having the lightning fast auto-focus that your camera manufacturer probably likes to talk about.

You may be worried this will slow you down and cause you to miss shots; especially in ever-changing and unpredictable environments like the street.

However, you can mitigate this almost to the point of it not making a difference. Depending on how fast and reliable your auto-focus is, going with manual focus could actually help you get quicker and with a better success rate.

This can happen if you zone focus.

That means knowing what parts of your frame are in focus due to how you’ve set your camera and lens and then shooting when a subject enters it. This way you’re not having to rely on the auto-focus to figure it out for every shot.

The focus ring on your vintage lens will have a series of numbers on it. These are to indicate how deep a field of focus you have, which depends on your aperture, and what rough distance you’re focusing at right now.

You can use these numbers as a guide to your focus when you’re shooting, but constantly doing so will slow you down. The good news is, with practice, you can get a feel of where your focus ring just needs to be without thinking too much about it.

This can be thought of as the sweet spot.

When shooting at f8 or f11 – to have more depth of field, remember – I’ve found the sweet spot when shooting my street photography to be, in technical terms, a small turn back from infinity.

Shooting at infinity means having sharp backgrounds but out-of-focus faces in my street photography. Shooting too far from infinity means going too far the other way and having everything out of focus. That’s why the sweet spot is just that small turn back from infinity.

Exactly how much of a turn this is depends on your lens and how near or far your subjects really are. The only way to know and to get a feel for it, so you can find the sweet spot without thinking too much, is to practice until it comes naturally to you.

Head out with your camera, set your ISO according to the light available, set your aperture to f8 or f11, and see where that sweet spot is for the type of street photography you do.

Once you have it, you can effectively zone focus and be shooting faster and with more reliability than your auto-focus gives you.

Use in-camera manual focus aids

Although the goal is to instinctively know where your focus is when shooting street photography with vintage lenses, you’ll probably need some help while you’re getting to that stage, or if you shoot with a shallow depth of field.

Fortunately, most mirrorless cameras come with a couple of manual focus assist features.

Focus peaking was first introduced by Sony on their Alpha range, but it now seems ubiquitous across all brands. When turned on, it adds coloured highlights to whatever is in focus on your LCD screen or viewfinder, as you can see in the image above.

These highlights may seem off-putting. You may think they’ll get in the way of the photograph you’re trying to make. In my experience, this isn’t the case. I’ve gotten so used to them being there that I use them when I need to and am able to see past them when I don’t.

The other common manual focus aid is based on magnifying the section of your image that you need to focus on. Personally, shooting with a Sony, I don’t use this.

I find that when composing a photograph, especially when out in the street, the frame constantly switching between normal and magnified is hugely distracting. If you’re shooting inanimate objects, perhaps it would be less annoying. But for the photography I do, I keep it turned off and use focus peaking only.

Fujifilm have what sounds like a better magnification system on models like the X-T2 and others, where the magnified section appears next to the full image on the screen. I’ve never used it, but being able to always see the full frame seems a far better way of utilizing magnification. However, I’m not sure I’d use even that for street photography.

Regardless, whatever camera you have, you’re not alone when starting out shooting street photography with vintage lenses. Until you get instinctive with manual focus, your camera will be there to help you via focus peaking.

Accept that street photography with vintage lenses is hit and miss

At the top of this article, I mentioned the question posed on this Instagram post. To recap, the gist of it was this:

“… how do you manually focus for street; what method do you use to guarantee pin sharp focus?”

Despite all of the advice laid out above, it’s important to point out the real answer to the question. And that is… I don’t actually know how to guarantee pin sharp focus.

Not every shot I take has pin sharp focus.

If I publish a shot, be it on Instagram or on this website, it’s because I think it was a good shot. That doesn’t mean every shot I take works.

I have a habit of idly playing with the focus ring between shots, when I really shouldn’t. Sometimes a scene develops so quickly that I’m caught off guard after doing so and miss the shot.

One of the most important things a creative person can learn is what not to publish. And believe me when I say this: I’ve got more work unpublished than what I’ve put out.

If you’re starting out with vintage lens street photography, your percentage of pin sharp keepers might be low. But the more you practice, that higher that will become.

So practice the methods you’ve just read about and get out and shoot. Shoot until you’re up to speed with using manual focus. Then shoot more to improve your composition and eye. One day you’ll wake up and be surprised how far you’ve come.

And never forget these two things. That anybody doing this to a level you currently admire:

  • was not very good at it at some point in the past
  • is only showing the highlights of their work today

🙂

… p.s. if this has inspired you try using a vintage lens but you don’t know where to start, check out these reviews for inspiration and information

… p.p.s. if you’ve found this guide to shooting street photography with vintage lenses useful and think others will too, why not give it a share?

8 thoughts on “How to Shoot Street Photography with Vintage Lenses”

  1. Thank you for this article to start off street photography with a vintage lens. I just purchased a minolta 50mm f2 lens. Cause the quality of the lens was damn near close and sharp as a zeiss and a zeiss cost and arm and a leg, and ive thought to myself that im only doing street photography as a hobby and it’s not like im getting paid so maybe i shouldn’t need to invest in such as an expensive lens. Now if i were getting paid for street photography then it’ll be a different story. Lol. Thanks again for the awesome information. This will be my first time using a vintage lens and also first time using a manual lens.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading and I’m glad you found it useful Sam. Yeah, I really liked the results I got from the 35mm Minolta I have. Hope you enjoy using your 50mm. Let me know if you want to show some of your work on here when you have some shot. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Thanks man for this beautiful article, just love it, keep up the good work, have a good day 🙂

    Reply
  3. This is an incredible article on the reality of shooting manual focus !

    Do it because it’s fun and challenging at the same time.

    Too many people are caught up in the technical aspects of taking a shot and forget to compose well . I use a Minolta 58 mm 1.4 on my Fuji x camera with focus peaking and it works a treat.

    There is definitely character in an old lense that you cannot simply describe or replicate with modern lenses.

    Technically sharp and well focused won’t grab your audience if the frame has no subject or composition.

    I spend time constantly upgrading my skill , more often than upgrading gear.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the kind words Brandon. Always nice to hear from other vintage lens shooters. I like your last sentence and agree. The best money I’ve ever spent on photography was on some classes. Worth far more than any gear I’ve ever bought.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for this article, it was very helpful. I’ve been flirting with buying a vintage/manual focus lens for almost a year now. I’m actually probably going to get the Zonlai 22mm 1.8 if you’ve heard of it (not a vintage lens – but since I shoot with an APSC Sony there aren’t many options when it comes to small 35mm equivalent lenses). Thanks for the article, it was very helpful. And I was the one who posed the original question on Instagram! xD

    Reply
    • Hey Darcy. Thanks for asking the original question that led to this article. 😀

      I’d not heard of the Zonlai but have just had a look. If it ticks all your boxes then go for it. It being vintage or not is immaterial really.

      I look forward to seeing what you create with it. Could even get something published as a guest post on here at some point if you wanted.

      Reply

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