Street Portraits: Rainy Austin, Homeless Youth, and the Sony Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 lens (Sony a7R III)

First, let me say that I looked at my images of these precious young souls tonight and I cried. Second, let me say that I’m falling in love all over again with the Sony Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 lens. And third? Well, I don’t know which to talk about first.

So I’ll just ramble starting…now.

“Honey—it’s pouring down rain!”,

my wife said. “I know, babe—perfect time to do some street shooting!” That’s how this shoot began a couple of weeks back. I have been sitting on about 30 keepers since that day along with an accompanying GoPro POV video, itching to do something with them. So for now, I’ll just show off part of what turned out to be a banner (rainy) day; kind of a “stars aligned” street shooting day if I must say so.

If I’m not mistaken, the Sony Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 was the first lens I purchased for my then–new Sony a7R II camera several years back (these were shot on the newer a7R III). Soon after purchasing it I went to a Jason Lanier “Real Wedding Workshop”, and while shooting a bride-groom in the rain down in a slick muddy creek bed, I slipped, fell backwards, and smacked the crap out of my back/head/body, as this lens slapped down on the limestone. The B+W 72mm filter on this bad boy saved me from a very expensive lens repair job. In fact, it dinged the edge of that filter so hard that I haven’t been able to wrench it off since. So there it stays.

Way back then, I will never forget the feeling of watching Jason Lanier and other veteran photographers wielding their Sony cameras in the pouring rain. Shooting with these expensive cameras and not babying them at all. When I charged out into the driving rain on this day, that’s the mood I was in. “Life is short”, I said to myself, “I’m going to slosh around and push myself—and my gear.”

After working the corner of Austin’s iconic 6th and Congress intersection for a while, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Sure enough, walking towards me from a distance were these two young men who I had run into twice in the previous couple of weeks. Walking, soaked to the bone, in the pouring rain, they approached.

That’s when the magic started.

It’s fun to get to know characters out in our local streets, not only because of the emotional connection that results, but also because familiar people begin to feel comfortable around us and our cameras. So, as my guys approached me and recognized me, these reactions ensued.

During encounters like this it is important to strike a balance between conversation and shooting. These first images aren’t posed, and the interplay is such a contrast of emotions.

Work the scene.

Experience has helped me learn how to take maximum advantage of encounter with subjects on the street. In this case, I worked the scene by shooting low, switching directions, playing with light, and being mindful of my backgrounds.

I shoot tons of images, machine-gun style. This way I’m more likely to capture that moment in time when it looks like you are staring into another person’s soul. Eye-autofocus technology is a god-send for me, as I shoot wide open. While editing in Adobe Lightroom, I am ruthless about which images I keep.

That’s me.

See those dudes above? That’s me on the left—low, discouraged, somber, suffering. Oh, and the guy on the right? That’s me too—creative, smiling, engaging, optimistic. They are a mirror of each other and mirrors of me. You see the whole gamut of human emotions on the streets. One day you might observe a pensive businessman, suffering for whatever reason, walking past some homeless guy who is happy as a lark. Another day you might come across some cops busting a drunk, agitated fellow while a disinterested woman is yakking on her cell phone—oblivious to her surroundings.

While I am shooting portraits on the streets I become the observer watching a magic show. And then I come home, process the images, and get mesmerized. The freak show is staring at me now in two dimensions, and it looks a little too close for comfort.

Yes, the longer I shoot street portraiture, the more I am convinced: We are all one.

Rendering Reality.

My goodness. Just look how the Sony Zeiss Distagon rendered here. Bitingly sharp up close, with such a painterly out-of-focus rendering. I am so glad I went with this setup on this rainy April afternoon. Ever since I sold my Leica Q, I have missed the street art I created with it over the span of three years. I have been lusting after the Q2, hoping a winning lottery ticket might fall down from the sky. Little did I know that the process of shedding off some redundant camera gear would remind me of the photo-glass treasures I already have in my closet.

Lenses are works of art that create works of art.

Years back when I chose to build out a Sony mirrorless system, I think I made the right choice. That said, I am definitely in the critic-camp that believes Sony leans too far on the computational-camera side, and not far enough on the user experience side. I can get caught up at times feeling like I’m fighting with my highly technical camera rather than harmonizing with it. That sucks. But, the more I practice, the more I am able to produce pleasing results with the combination of my Sony a7R III and any number of engineered or adapted lenses.

I wish I could meet and thank whoever designed this particular lens. Just tell them that I so appreciate what a fine instrument it is. How it has helped me tunnel through visual experiences out in the streets of Austin, San Antonio, New York, San Francisco, and other great cities.

And lastly, a word about homeless youth.

Austin is struggling with its homeless population. Your city may be struggling too. People are frustrated. People are suffering. Recently I was alarmed at some recent statistics on youth homelessness here in Austin. My wife and I were in Portland last summer, and the homeless youth culture there is heartbreaking.

But there is hope.

Would you believe that there are organizations out there committed to bringing a complete end to youth homelessness? Not a reduction, but an end. The roots of modern-day homelessness run deep. Solutions are multi-faceted. Perhaps the growing awareness of extreme societal contrast will bring about a whole new consciousness where each of us plays our own little role in the solution.

If you are a photographer reading this, I invite you to join me on the streets of Austin someday. I’ll help facilitate encounters like the one in this story. Approach, photograph, encourage, love, hug, compensate, and move along. Repeat. It’s quite an experience.

Blessings,
Joe


Joe Van Wyk
Austin, Texas
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