Stars of the Seine

Sunday 22nd Jun, 2014

Single Lens Reflect: Paris / 50mm

I stared into my kit bag and it stared back at me. Lenses, lots of lenses – the eyes of any camera – all silently saying “pick me, pick me.” I closed the bag and had a cup of tea (it’s the English way of solving any dilemma). What should I take on a Paris weekender? What would I really need? What situations might I encounter? Would another cup of tea help?

Slowly the functional part of brain began to find its voice: “You’re not going on an assignment”. “You’ll be with friends who aren’t taking pictures”. “Why not go back to basics and strip things away?”. “How about another cup of tea……………….and maybe a biscuit?”

I walked back to the bag with a new resolve and whisked out the 50mm before the other lenses had time to notice and get all needy.

Now it’s not that I rarely use my 50mm. Far from it. It’s undoubtedly my favourite focal length and I use it extensively. What I hadn’t done for a long time was force myself to whittle down lens choice in the field to no choice at all. It’s always too easy to take a couple of different lenses along just to feel prepared for everything and anything (most of which never happens).

It’s worth noting at his point that if this trip had taken place last year I would have left the DSLR at home and gone with the fabulous Lumix LX7 compact. But here’s the thing – I sold the LX7 precisely because it had a zoom lens and I felt it lost the purity of using a set focal length on a pocketable compact. Of course I could’ve just acted like it was a fixed lens camera and left it on 35mm or 50mm, but come on, fighting temptation is not my strong suit (remember the tea and biscuit debacle).

So the fifty was in, plonked on camera, and stowed in the smallest bag I could find. To Paris!

Notre Dame is Behind You

Notre Dame is Behind You

It was a good while since I had adopted a ‘street’ photography approach. I truly believe it’s something best tackled with a single lens somewhere around the conventional standards between 35mm to 50mm. Single lens shooting is a mindset. For me it’s about consciously setting the brain to receive rather than seek and destroy. I often hear fellow photographers talk in terms of hunting down images or finding the shot within the clutter of life. Nothing wrong with that, but I find it at odds with the almost meditative practice of single lens work. By removing the endless possibilities available with lens choice you can achieve a distillation, a heightened sense of really seeing – there are no strange effects to visualise through the prism of a wide angle or telephoto; what you see is what you get.

The city was scorching. Ambling around was punctuated with cold beer and pidgin French. I set the camera and lens to its hyper-focal sweet spot then let my eye be taken wherever Paris chose. There was a simple satisfaction in letting it all happen without agenda or technical concerns. Plenty of times the camera came to my eye, the lens framing the shot as my own eye had seen it, feet unconsciously stepping and shuffling to ‘zoom’ me in or out as required. There were misses too. Aren’t there always? But that is as much part of the single lens approach as getting it right is – you’ve still experienced the event. Someone once described this to me as taking a ‘soul picture’ – I’m not going to argue over the existence of the soul, but the expression often reminds me why I photograph in the first place.

Mad Dogs & Englishmen

Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Another brave soul out in the fierce city heat.

It wasn’t long into the trip when a situation developed that fully brought home the creative power and discipline of using a single lens. We were by the Seine and taking in the various perches and positions the inhabitants took up along its banks. I began looking down, a bird’s eye view over sunbathers, anglers, walkers and talkers. A young, animated couple were sharing a lunch and swapping items back and forth. I was some distance away with no chance of reducing it. Admittedly, my initial gaze was too narrow – fixating on them – I thought there was no real shot there. Luckily my brain rallied and reminded my eyes that we were shooting with a fifty today – what picture does that make? Then I saw it! The large area of river that I would have to include in the composition, but had initially ignored, was full of stars. Ok not literally stars I grant you, but I instantly knew that the intense reflections of the sun would register as crisp starbursts with the 50mm. A slight underexposure was dialled in to turn the water blacker and create a night sky for my surreal stars.

Stars of the Seine

Stars of the Seine. Thinking like a 50mm revealed the potential in this limited situation. 

Single lens photography can feel like a purifying experience. You accept things as they are and consciously fit into the world rather than forcing it to fit you. I cannot think of many disciplines where an exponent reaches a level of excellence using several tools rather than one. Everyday we are being sold on an idea that the best tools and devices to use are those that have multiple capabilities, that ‘cover all the bases’ and therefore simplify our lives. But can true simplicity come from a desire to be prepared for every eventuality? I don’t know, but I’ll be taking more trips with a single lens to try and find out.