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Breaking the Rules – Street Photography with the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

We’d normally use ultra-wide lenses for two reasons: (1)  to capture something very big (i.e. landscapes, buildings, stars in the sky); or (2) to create a sense of space in a place where there is none (i.e. real estate photography). Portraits are generally a big no-no because its inherent visual perspective creates a sense of unease. But then again, a cinematographer like Masanobu Takayanagi can use it masterfully in Silver Linings Playbook to subtly bring out Bradley Cooper’s troubled mental state in front of Jennifer Lawrence.

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Ian Norman over at The Lonely Speck uses this Rokinon to great results for his astrophotography

I bought my Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 on a whim and while it was on sale. At $339 MSRP, it is one of the most affordable lenses in the Sony E Mount line up. But as neither a landscape or an astrophotographer, I had no real need for an ultra-wide. And I suspect for real-estate photographers, who incidentally have the highest average salaries out of all photographer types, they won’t be relying on this bargain basement lens with wild barrel distortions either.

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The Rokinon is also labeled as the Samyang. When mounted to the A7 series, it is absolutely humongous. Not the ideal street photography lens then, but fun to use nonetheless.

One day, over better qualified candidates like the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 and as if to defy the camera gods, I decided to bring this lens during my recent trip to China for Lunar New Years since Asia, in general, is great for street photography. So, I challenged myself to use a 14mm ultra-wide on the streets and this is what I’ve learned.

Just Look, and Shoot

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Each bamboo steamer basket is designed to be stackable and with perforated slots on the bottom, so when the steam rises through the column, it cooks everything all at once.

Much like American fairs we’ve visited in California , food and gimmicky games dominated our attention at the local county fair in Xiangyang (咸阳). There were steaming baskets of delicious buns or dumplings, candy-coated fruits on a stick, and painfully spiced hand-sliced noodles.

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Candy covered fruits are a common sight in the colder Northern China. Not so common in the warmer Southern China.

For much of the afternoon, I had set the Rokinon to between f/5.6 to f/8, pre-focused to 2 meters in front of me, and just snapped away. Firstly, since this was a wide angle lens, the depth-of-field will be enormously deep regardless of aperture. Second, because this was a manual focus lens with deep depth-of-field, I shot from the hip by guess-focusing my physical distance from the subject.

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This was a stall that just sold their home-made spices. They should be a sign that reads ” guaranteed to burn you twice.”

It is absolutely liberating to be able to just look and shoot, without worrying about critical focus. As bad as it sounds, I really dislike AF-ing with the center point and then recomposing as it’s an extra half-a-second that really takes away from the experience. Manual focus with an ultra-wide totally make sense then.

Composing with a 14mm Lens

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Remember those, toss-the-ring-on-a-bottle games at the fair ground? Well, this was another version. It’s, literally, toss the ring on the prize. Simple and genius. Oh, and that’s the legendary Mig-15 in the background.

I knew composition was always going to be the biggest issue with an ultra-wide lens. With its whopping 114° field-of-view, it’s almost double the Zeiss 35mm’s 63° field of view, a lens often touted as the ideal street photography lens.

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It’s strange how fair-ground games are so similar around the world. This is the common “get the ball into the bouncy bucket” scam. It’s right next to the, “throw the ball to knock down the three stacked bottles” scheme.

As you recall, street photographers prefer the 35-50mm range of lenses because it mimics what the eyes can see. Some photographers, like Henri Cartier Bresson, even preferred the 50mm over the 35mm because “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.”

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By far the best fair-ground game we saw. How often did you want to play with a digger when you were a kid? The lady in the pink jacket agrees.

So when it came to shooting with the 14mm, I knew its limitations and I really didn’t worry too much about the composition at the time of the shot. Although purists may object, I could always re-compose in Lightroom. Photography to me was more about capturing the moment rather than getting it right in-camera. I can correct for exposure, composition, and white-balance after-the-fact, but once the moment is gone, it’s gone forever.

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My sense of balance do not comprehend roller-skates. Rollerblades are second nature to me but roller-skates remind me of shuffling in a pair of slippers. And why are the brakes in the front? Face-plant much? Props to these ladies.

There was a sense of nostalgia at this country fair. It’s surprising to me at how people from opposite sides of the globe can be so similar. Kids liked to have fun. Adults liked to eat. And vendors liked to make money. Our social constructs that separate us as societies can melt away from a single photograph.

Cropping is the Name of the Game

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These are screen-caps from LightRoom. The photograph may been slightly rotated to compensate shots from the hip; hence the slightly misaligned photos.

So every photograph above had been cropped to one degree or another. We thought it’d be interesting to show you the original images after seeing the finished images, kind of like a behind-the-scenes look at our processes.

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I’ve been going through a 16:9 phase lately so all of the photos above were cropped to that aspect ratio.

Most of the cropping was done because the 14mm covers so much field-of view. Not everything is interesting and cropping bring an image back into focus. In my mind, if an area of the image gives the viewer no additional information, whether aesthetic or visual, it is superfluous.
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Other times, cropping is used to remove an unattractive or distracting element from the image. Proponents of cropping would argue that you can always shoot wide and crop tight, and not the other way around. You can’t shoot tight and then crop wide.

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One issue I kept running into, while cropping, was handling the barrel distortion and the perspective changes. As you can see the building to the left of the skaters, they seem like they are falling backwards because of the ultra-wide angle lens. In reality, in order to shoot buildings without that perspective change, you’ll need a tilt-shift lens.

But then again, there are issues with this shoot wide and crop tight method, as barrel distortions and certain perspective changes become more noticeable after cropping. This Rokinon 14mm had a particularly wavy or mustachioed barrel distortion profile that was not easily correctible in Lightroom.

Conclusions

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It was nice to see some traditions, like calligraphy, staying alive. This elderly man in the wheelchair brought brushes and welcomed whoever was willing to join him.

So at the end of the day, can you shoot street photography with an ultra-wide angle lens? Yes, absolutely. Not having to worry about focus or composure really lets you focus on what’s in front of you, allowing the photographer to look for interesting subject matter and waiting for the right moment.

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I decided to crop out the funny monkey shaped balloon in favor of focusing on the young girl and the elderly man writing calligraphy on the ground.

But should you shoot street photography with an ultra-wide angel lens? No, I’d say not if you can avoid it. It is a lot of work to recompose in Lightroom, especially having to deal with perspective changes and barrel distortions. An ultra-wide angel is also a very large lens, which may become obtrusive in a street photography scenario.

All in all though, the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 was a fun lens and a great bang for its buck. It definitely wasn’t designed for street photography, but if you just so happen to have one in your collection and like a little bit of a challenge, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it out on the streets.


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