7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

I can’t remember the exact moment that I discovered the work of Saul Leiter. I think I remember seeing some link on the internet about the discovery of one of the earliest “pioneers” in color street photography. But upon hearing this, I didn’t dig into it too deeply.

About a year ago when I was in Marseille, I re-discovered Saul’s work through a good friend of mine, Yves Vernin. When I left Marseille back to America, he gave me a beautiful Saul Leiter book. When I flipped through the pages, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful colors, reflections, and abstractions of Leiter. It was unlike any street photography I had seen before. It was much more romantic, poetic, and full of expression.

I then started to research more on Saul Leiter and have not only appreciated his images, but his philosophy of life. At his late eighties, he is very down-to-earth, and has no interest in legacy or fame. He lived a simple life and even now with his sudden rise in fame, his ego hasn’t inflated one bit.

In anticipation for the DVD release of his film “In No Great Hurry” I wanted to write this article about lessons in street photography (and life) I have learned from Saul Leiter.

1. Compress your images

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I have never been a fan of using telephoto lenses in street photography. Generally I find them to be impersonal, and a bit sneaky when taking photos of strangers.

However my opinions have changed once I started seeing the work of Leiter. His images aren’ sneaky at all. They focus on shapes, lights, shadows, abstractions, and the colors of everyday life. Much of his street photography is shot with a relatively long lens– which compresses his scenes. I feel the compression of the scenes with the long lens creates a distinctive geometric look, which I very much enjoy.

In an interview with Time Leiter shares his experiences using a telephoto lens to compress his scenes:

Q: Many of your images have a compressed spatial perspective. Was the telephoto your preferred lens?

Leiter: I liked different lenses for different times. I am fond of the telephoto lens, as I am of the normal 50 mm lens. I had at one point a 150 mm lens and I was very fond it. I liked what it did. I experimented a lot. Sometimes I worked with a lens that I had when I might have preferred another lens. I think Picasso once said that he wanted to use green in a painting but since he didn’t have it he used red. Perfection is not something I admire. [Laughs]. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.

As you see in the transcript above, Leiter was a huge fan of experimentation and used different focal lengths to discover his visual language and imagery. At a time when using wide angle lenses were suitable for street photography– he went against the grain and used telephoto lenses to compress his images. And through this compression, he could simplify his images and create more distinct geometric shapes.

Takeaway point:

I am not encouraging everyone to go out and buy a 500mm lens for street photography– but I do encourage everyone to experiment with different focal lengths.

Personally I still prefer street photography with wider lenses (35mm, 28mm) but if you are going for a certain look and perspective– you need to use different focal lengths.

So if you are into compression and geometric shapes (Henri Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm most of his entire life) try using a longer lens. Discover your visual imagery through experimentation.

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