Observing life with and without the camera

 

With almost 550,000 followers on Instagram, Jörg Nicht is a photographer who stands out. He started his account @jn on the fast-growing online photography platform in 2010 using a smartphone. Today he shows the diversity of city life through the lens of a LUMIX GX8 or LUMIX GX80. In the following article Jörg talks about his passion for street photography and the role his camera plays.

Taking photos in public places has a long tradition, and one that is closely intertwined with the invention of handy, compact cameras. Streets and squares are an ever-changing melting pot of locals and chance visitors, and that is why it’s so exciting to take photos there. But I also encounter scenes that repeat themselves over and over again, and run into some people practically every day at the same cross-roads or in my neighborhood. I make a motif out of these scenes as well. Which brings me to the basic question I’m trying to answer: what do I regard as interesting and important when I’m taking photos?

LUMIX GX80 with Leica 12mm f/1.4 shot at ISO 200 1/6 sec f/4.5
 

A good street photo should speak for itself. It should awaken the viewer’s curiosity and raise questions. Naturally, all this assumes that the photographer observed the scene accurately, and pressed the shutter button at just the right moment. Many of my photos were taken in situations where I spent a long time beforehand simply observing the scene. Which routes do people take? Which direction does the light come from? How do people react to the camera? It’s only after a lengthy period of observation that you can identify the typical patterns and structures of life at a particular location.

On a recent visit to Prague, I was fascinated by a theatre building erected in the 1980s. It’s a glass-tiled cube resting on a somewhat smaller cement base. Surrounded on three sides by the complex of buildings, the square in the middle makes the people look small without totally overwhelming them. The simple façade of this otherwise bombastic building is an interesting contrast to the old National Theatre occupying the fourth side of the square. It was a pretty cold day with few people prepared to hang around any longer than necessary. And the passers-by indicated they didn’t really want their pictures taken. I decided to give up for the day and return the next morning.

LUMIX GX8 with Leica 15mm f/1.7 shot at ISO 200 1/13 sec f/14
 

This time I approached from the opposite side. In front of the building was a tram stop with vehicles arriving every couple of minutes. Some of the tramcars were old Tatra units dating back to the 1960s. The idea for the shot came to me while I was gazing at this scene: a blurred image of the tram against the backdrop of the façade, with people waiting at the stop. The only thing I had to do was set a long exposure time and wait until a Tatra tram came along. In this photo, the otherwise dominating building seems to take a step back, acting as a tapestry in front of which human life is playing out. The tram suggests that Prague is the location, but not the Prague we normally associate with the Old Town Square or the Charles Bridge.

In public places like streets and squares, life seems chaotic much of the time. People cross the street in seemingly aimless ways, and we have no idea who will come around the corner next. Nevertheless, life does follow certain rules. People behave in regular patterns: getting up at the same time, preferring certain things to eat and wearing particular types of clothing. I exploit these behavioral patterns when taking photos. If I want a shot of a person running, I only need to wait for a tram to arrive. By positioning myself at a certain location and waiting for the expected behavior, I am planning that seemingly chance moment. I cannot influence exactly how a situation pans out of course, but I can be prepared for it.

The first Panasonic camera I owned was a LUMIX GH4. Before that I had spent some time practicing street photography with a smartphone camera. The LUMIX GH4 was superior in quality to any smartphone, but it was also more conspicuous. I currently use a LUMIX GX8 and a LUMIX GX80 for street photography, and I’ve recently started working with a LUMIX GH5. Each camera influences my work to some extent, and this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with technical parameters such as megapixels and sensor sizes. It has more to do with the size of the camera, where the viewfinder is located and how intuitive the controls are. While it’s true that a good camera is no guarantee of a good photo, a camera that meets our own personal needs can sharpen our perceptions!

LUMIX GX8 with Leica 25mm f/1.4 shot at ISO 200 1/200 sec f/5.0
 

Jörg Nicht is a passionate photographer. Self-taught, he began taking photos when he was 12 and bought his first reflex camera at 16. Since then, Jörg has worked with various forms of photographic expression. His Instagram account @jn, shows the diversity of city life.

[instagram] @jn