Street Photography – the Missing Link Revealed (with Fuji's 16mm 1.4)

January 04, 2021  •  3 Comments

Street Vendor, Scarborough Beach Market, Western Australia, Christmas 2020.  Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

I’m probably as bewildered as readers, to the fact that I am writing another blog so soon after my recent submission.  It was only a few weeks ago I penned how the Fuji XF90mm F2 lens helped to cement my place into the Fuji system, and how that lens and the wonderful 16-55 were all I use and all I need for the foreseeable future.  I was finally done and dusted and ready to head off into the future prepared for any photographic challenges that may come my way.

However, all changed about 3 weeks ago - I spied an add on ‘fleabay’ for a mint Fuji 16mm 1.4.  I have always read only wonderful things about this lens, and 24mm happens to be my favourite field of view.  When I look at the images shot on my 16-55 zoom, over 50% of them are always taken at the wide end.  Unfortunately, the 1.4 lens is very expensive in Australia and is currently selling for around 1,500 AUD.  For this reason, I had never seriously considered buying it.  The add I saw on ‘Fleabay’ had ‘offers’, so I put in a ridiculous offer of just over 800AUD (600USD).  The guy must have wanted an early Christmas present because he accepted.

Holding Destiny in my hand

Bubble Girl, Yagan Square Wonderland, Perth CBD, WA, Christmas 2020.  Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

After many sleepless nights waiting for the Postie to arrive, I finally held an absolute mint 16mm 1.4 in my grimy mitts.  It was so much lighter than the 16-55 and I was blown away by how close I could focus.  I did the brick wall thing and followed my hapless wife around photographing her eyes (eyes are the best thing to tell if a lens is sharp).  I could care less about the edges, because I NEVER shoot landscapes or scenery – only people.  The centre was tack sharp at 1.4 and that is all that I cared (I only ever shoot wide open).  I shot one small event before everything closed for Christmas, and I was pleased with the images from my new acquisition.  Little did I know what this lens was truly capable of producing!

The annual trip

Two-Up gambling, Western Australia, 2020.   Fuji X-H1, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

With all the craziness this year with COVID 19, this is the first end of year holidays in 11 years, that my wife and I have not travelled overseas.  Being a school teacher I get 6 weeks paid leave at the end of each year.  I always go to Asia for an extended trip, and she normally spends time with her folks in Vietnam.  I normally duck off to Cambodia, or Thailand, Taiwan, Myanmar or somewhere, to pursue my passion for street photography.  I was not looking forward to this trip at all.  We were stuck in Australia and were going to have about ten days in an Air B/B in the city of Perth (we live in country WA). 

I’m not sounding ungrateful, because we are doing a whole lot better than a lot of folk around the world.  However, I didn’t know how I was going to approach my photography, because street photography is very hard in Australia.  Over the years I’ve been grabbed by security, yelled at, abused, chased, I had a lunatic try to grab my gear and smash it and I’ve even had the police called on me.  Believe me – street photography in Australia is not for the faint hearted!  I had actually given up on street photography here, and I have not pursued it for a long time.  There is so much suspicion here toward a guy ‘festooned’ in cameras, and wandering around the streets.  Add in the fact that there may be children present, and man you will have hell to pay.  That is why I shoot events here at home, and travel each year to Asia, because street photography there is so wonderful.

The magical 16mm 1.4

The 'Class Clown',  Scarborough Beach Market, Western Australia, Christmas 2020.   Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

I can report that all of the positive stuff I have read about the 1.4 lens is accurate.  When we got to Perth and I started shooting on the streets (more on that shortly), I was blown away by the results.  The thing is that my 16-55 is equally as sharp wide open, but of course that is only 2.8.  The 1.4 gives two extra stops of light, and if you are shooting in the evenings like I do, or dark places, that is invaluable.  The other thing I discovered, is that if I put a person’s face near the edge of the frame, the 16-55 distorts the shape of their head (@ 16mm).  The 1.4 lens does not (maybe only slightly but not noticeably).  I am free now to place my subjects in the frame where necessary.  The 16mm seems to have an unusual way of rendering the images – quite unique really.  Even though it is sharp wide open in the centre, it is not the same kind of razor sharpness I get from the 16-55 or the 90mm F2.  However, it does not detract from the image, and pictures taken on this lens have a beautiful, dreamy, 3d quality to them.

I was able to get in real close, and have my subject fill the frame, but at the same time get a lot of the background out of focus.  This is impossible on my zoom lens.  I think Bruce Gilden would feel quite at home with this lens!

Other changes

'Crazy' Italian Chef, Burns Beach Markets, Western Australia, Christmas 2020.  Fuji X-H1, Fuji XF 50mm F2 @ F2.

I had to re-think my kit.  Now that I had left the 16-55 at home, there was too big a focal length gap between the 16mm and my 90mm F2 (that’s 24mm-135mm).  The zoom and the 90mm are the only two lenses I have used for several years now.  I needed something more medium tele to carry on my second body – something a bit closer to 24mm - not long tele like my 90mm is.  Fortunately, the camera store in Perth had a ‘Boxing Day Sale’ and I picked up the lovely little 50mm F2 lens, for a very reasonable price.  The 24mm focal length and the equivalent 75mm, seem to cover all my needs for street.  My kit is quite light and the pictures from the 50mm lens are also very sharp and beautiful. 

All was not well

'Dr Flex' Street DJ, Scarborough Beach Market, Western Australia, Christmas 2020.  Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

The 50mm F2 lens performed very well on the second X-H1, and the autofocus was fast enough.  Just that small lens on the H1, is a great combination and a real joy to use.  After lugging two heavy lenses around for a few years, this was a breath of fresh air.  The big problem I had – and it was quite a shock – was the slow autofocus on the older 1.4 lens.  I shoot a lot of events with people moving – the autofocus on the X-H1, could not keep up with the focus needs of the older lens.  I tried every adjustment, I even tried ‘back button focus’, but I was missing many shots.  I was very disappointed and was not sure how to handle the problem.  Fortunately, Fuji is running a sale at the moment on the X-T3, and the camera store also had their ‘Boxing Day Sale’.  I picked up a new X-T3 for $600 off the normal price.  Still - I was very cranky that I had to spend more money and sad that my wonderful X-H1 could not ‘cut the mustard’ in the autofocus department.

Fuji’s X-T3

Fairy Floss Lady, Yagan Square Wonderland, Perth CBD, WA, Christmas 2020.  Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

This blog is not about the X-T3, so I don’t want to say too much.  However, with the version 4 firmware, it does focus much faster than the older X-H1.  I can track and focus now properly with my 16mm 1.4, and I’m not missing any shots.  I’m very disappointed I have to use the T3 now – and only one of my X-H1’s.  I really don’t like the X-T3 (I’m used to the handling on the bigger H’1 bodies), and I’m having trouble getting the look that I’m used on Capture One.  It obviously has a different sensor, and all of the ‘styles’ and ‘presets’ that I have developed, don’t like this new sensor.  Anyway – that is only a matter of time and I will have that sorted.  I just wanted to say though that I’m purely only using the X-T3 for the autofocus – in every other way I love my X-H1’s much better.

Antidote to the ‘street’ problem in Australia

Shy Girl,  Yagan Square Wonderland, Perth CBD, WA, Christmas 2020.  Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

I can honestly say that what I’m about to share with you is truly unique.  I kind of stumbled upon it out of desperation.  I have read literally dozens of articles over the years on how to tackle street photography.  Some say to ask permission, some say to act discreet and take a small camera, some say to never make eye contact etc.  However, I venture to say that what I will tell you is truly unique – I have never read this before or heard of anybody doing what I discovered.  Having already outlined above, the troubles of shooting ‘street’ in a Western culture, I decided to do something a bit different, when I packed for this trip.  I shoot events and shows and sports in my hometown here in Western Australia.  In order to shoot these events, I have a media pass.  It is on a lanyard that hangs around my neck.  In big bold letters it says ‘MEDIA’, then in fine print it has a list of the various ‘bodies’ that it supports.  I stuffed this in my bag when we left for Perth. 

Hey Presto – the secret sauce to street photography!

Street contortionist, NYE celebrations, Perth CBD, Western Australia, 2020.  Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

Oh my goodness!  The difference when I started shooting street with my media pass around my neck was unbelievable.  I took over 2,500 images from the 9 days we were away.  I was never once harassed, there were no angry faces, no looks of suspicion - It was like shooting in a different world and on a different planet at a different time, with a different set of rules!  I stuffed my camera into people’s faces, parents ‘wheeled’ out their kids to get a picture.  I photographed shop keepers, street markets, NY Eve’s celebrations, the homeless, kids in gangs and politicians.  I was only twice asked what I was doing with the images.  I just told the truth – I am freelance and getting images for a book on street life in Perth, WA.  Once people heard that – they were happy. 

What made the difference?

Street DJ, Scarborough Beach Market, Western Australia, Christmas 2020.  Fuji X-H1, FX 50mm F2 @F2.

Thinking it through, now that I have had time to reflect, I think I may have the answer to why my media pass made such a difference.  Unfortunately, here in Australia, we are one of the most regulated, taxed, controlled and sanctioned nations on planet earth.  If you park your car in the wrong spot, you’ll get a fine, if you put up a shed on your land without a permit, you’ll get a fine.  If you sell food without a permit – you’ll get a fine, if you turn up your music loud in your house – you’ll get a fine.  I think because everything is so regulated and we need permission or a permit to do anything, people are just used to having everything done officially.  I guess when they see a middle-aged man, wandering around the streets, festooned in cameras – he is not official, he is a nobody – therefore, viewed with suspicion.  When that same man wears a media pass, he is now suddenly official.  Being ‘official’ removes the suspicion, and now that person can be trusted.

This may not work for everybody!

Whistle Girl, Scarborough Beach Market, Western Australia, Christmas 2020.  Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

For me at least, I am so happy that I have opened up an avenue to pursue ‘street’ again in my own culture.  This is really exciting, because it means that I can now travel to events in other places and I can photograph parades or other exciting cultural events.  It takes the urgency out of waiting for COVID to lift, so I can get back to Asia to pursue ‘street’.  I do hope that I have shared a secret here that may help other photographers like me.  However, it may not work for other people.  The rules of your country may be different, or you may not have access to a media pass.  You may be too scared to try this in case it fails.  Whatever the reason, I do hope that people can look beyond their fears of street photography, because there is a fantastic world awaiting that will reward the bold with memorable images.

Pursue what works for you

The 'onlooker'.  Yagan Square Wonderland, Perth CBD, WA, Christmas 2020.  Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.

Even the brave and mighty David, could not fight Goliath in Saul’s armour.  We each have a different personality and different things will work for some folk, but not for others.  Choose what works for you, and go out there and create fascinating images.  I guess if nothing else, what I want folk to take from this is don’t give up.  If things are not easy, or if there are changes happening that are out of your control - adapt.  I couldn’t travel this year as normal, so I was forced to modify my techniques to the situation that I was handed.  In the end it did not matter, because I have some really memorable and fascinating images that I can use and share with the people that I photographed.  Yes, I often take people’s contacts and I will send them a free copy of their photograph.  They were lovely enough to let me photograph them, the least I can do is pay it forward.  I wish everybody a great 2021, and get out there and get those images happening!

Little Girl chasing bubbles. NYE celebrations, Perth CBD, Western Australia, 2020.  Fuji X-T3, FX 16mm 1.4 @1.4.







Well, every time I see a review on the 16/1.4 I end up 'needing'. Your images sold it well!

As for street photography, to be honest I think what you experience in Australia is probably typical to any developed area. If you point your camera at enough strangers the percentages dictate you are going to get all of the responses you list (I have). One time I took a picture of a striking young lady on Bourbon St in New Orleans (due to festive/tourist atmosphere Bourbon St is generally a cakewalk for 'people' photography). Well turns out she was 'working', went ballistic, and the next thing i know a burly dude claiming to be her 'husband' had a tight grip on my wrist.

I'm glad you've found a nice 'gadget' to facilitate your street photography. Unfortunately here in the US being 'media' is not necessarily a helpful thing. I've accepted that there is an element of danger and thrill seeking to street photography. I love the outlet and creative path it provides me, but I can see why folks find it annoying at the very least. I just try to be ready with honest and flexible responses to folks who confront me, and be willing to accept the various consequences I may face.
Kenneth Nederskov Petersen(non-registered)
Funny - the Media pass. I had the idea yesterday about making some kind of pass in a key ganger for Street Photography in Copenhagen for the coming summer to see og it would make it any Easier. I have been official photographer for some event with a yellow vest / official clothing, which made it so much Easier.
Hi, great article. I also use the X-H1, the 16mm 1.4 and I also just bought an X-T3 (for the autofocus too). I did have success with the X-H1 AF-C and the 16mm using the following settings:

IBIS: Continuous
Drive: CH
ISO: 1600
Face Detect: ON
Zone/Wide Tracking
Multi or spot metering

It's been a while since I was shooting street photography (2020 was a bummer and early 2021 feels like it will be the same) but these settings worked for me. Although the X-T3 focuses much quicker and is definitely sharper at lower ISO. I'm just waiting on the XF 70-300 to be released but I could be tempted to buy the 50mm f2 too.

Would be interested in knowing what changes you have to make to C1 for the X-T3 vs X-H1.

Great work and a Happy/healthy New Year.
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