The Arrival of Spring: Street Photography in Madrid with the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens

March 12, 2015

Madrid is an amazing city, full of life and color all year round, but it gets even better when the cold temperatures of winter subside and the glorious spring sunshine takes their place. As the days become longer, the heartbeat of this unique city begins to pick up the pace and when the first heat wave of the year hits the streets, its effects are immediately felt all the way across town, like a shockwave. Coats are quickly replaced by t-shirts, scarves and gloves give way to tank tops and miniskirts, and all of a sudden it seems there’s no good reason to stay at home. In the blink of an eye, everything becomes more cheerful, more relaxed. In a way, more human.

The gardens in Plaza de España are very popular among locals and tourists alike, especially when the weather is nice.

Spring is my favorite season of the year and this time around, it has arrived earlier than usual. Over the past weekend, as temperatures soared past 20 degrees Celsius for the first time in 2015, everyone in Madrid celebrated by doing what we do best: going out, being loud, and having lots of fun — not to mention beer.

With that scenario in mind, I definitely felt this was as good a time as any to take out my new Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens for the first time and have some fun documenting the arrival of spring to the Spanish capital. It’s been a fantastic way to get acquainted with this new piece of glass and learn how it performs as a street lens.

Plaza del Callao is located in the very heart of the city, and is always bustling with life.

In the interest of transparency and since I will be making some technical comments about the lens in this piece, I’ve put together a Flickr album with full-resolution versions of all images in this article, for your pixel-peeping pleasure.

A city is made by its people

These days in Madrid you can find all sorts of people, which is one of the things I love most about it. On any given day, you need only walk for a few minutes to experience the rich diversity the city is famous for. From young beautiful hipsters to endearing elderly couples and just about every character you can think of in between, Madrid is a never-ending carousel of interesting people, and a perfect city for street photographers. I could go out everyday and I would never get tired of shooting.

Plaza de Ópera is one of the main meetup locations in the city center and as such, it’s always densely packed with all kinds of different people.

One of the great things about Madrid is that it has a way of changing you. When you’ve been here for a while, you tend to pick up a few character traits that are likely to stay with you for life. Things like talking to complete strangers in a bar may seem awkward to the foreigner but for us, it’s just standard operating procedure.

In fact, Madrid is one those rare places on Earth where you can go out all by yourself and still somehow end up having the time of your life. There’s never a shortage of helping hands when you need directions, or smiley faces when you want to have fun. If you see a crowded bar, don’t ask questions. Just go in, say hi to first person you see and act as though you belong because the truth is, you probably already do.

The locals

Madrid natives, like most big capitals in the world, cover a wide range of stereotypes, but they also have a very unique character that is easily identifiable. The Madrid citizen is someone who knows what she wants, and knows how to get it. She’ll be brutally honest with you, but she will also be there for you no matter what. This city strengthens the bonds between its people like no other, and it shows. It often takes no more than a couple minutes of casual conversation to find a kindred spirit in this amazing town, where everybody acts like they just can’t wait to meet you.

This selection of pictures provides a very small sample of the types of people you can expect to meet here on any given day, along with some brief commentary about the picture or the way it was taken.

They could be lifelong friends or they could have met for the very first time two minutes ago. In Madrid, you never know.

If you’re coming over, better get used to being called out on your bullshit on a regular basis. It’s all in good spirits, though.

Sometimes you just need to take a short break.

People in Madrid are not shy about being affectionate in public. I love it.

Bicycles have exploded in popularity over the past few years, and they’ve gone on to become a regular sight.

The fashion

Another striking thing about Madrid is how stylish and trendy many of its people are, particularly in certain neighborhoods like Malasaña or Chueca. All it takes is a brief walk around these places to witness an endless stream of beautiful people that are always up to speed with the latest fashion trends.

Calle Fuencarral is located right in the middle of one of the main shopping areas and as such, it’s often populated by beautiful trendy people like this girl.

For those in the know, no detail is too small.

Batman! (Batgirl?).

The great thing about spring is that it allows for some very interesting attire choices. For example, the younger girl in this picture was wearing a lovely oversized coat with a red fitted miniskirt and white sneakers. Unusual? Certainly. Gorgeous? You bet.

Others, however, opt for a more conservative style, and give it a twist by adding just a touch of color.

Long coats are all the rage this spring season, apparently.

Elegance on two wheels.

As the days get warmer, skirts have a way of getting shorter. Not that I’m complaining.

The elderly

Out of all the people in Madrid, the elderly are a special breed. Madrid’s senior citizens take every opportunity to go for a walk in their city — because it is their city —, and make themselves known to everyone around them. You will see them in Sol, or in Ópera, enjoying the warm weather on a bench while they chat about nothing in particular. You will see them in couples, gently taking care of each other as they casually — and slowly — stroll down the street, or by themselves, observing life around them with the wisdom that only comes with age. And of course, you will see them in the Metro, promptly scolding teenagers whenever they fail to give up their seat.

Madrid’s grandmas and grandpas are part of our collective hearts, and we all love them.

One step at a time.

This old lady could have just as easily been featured in the fashion section. Look at the boots, the sunglasses, the coat. Lovely.

The tourists

Most of the images for this article were taken in Sol and the surrounding districts and as such, plenty of tourists ended up making their way into many shots. If the locals give the truest expression of a city’s energy, it is only by looking at the tourists as well that you can get the complete picture. In this regard, Madrid never fails to impress.

Nothing like some artisanal ice-cream to replenish your strength.

“Just chillin’ with my Predator, Bro.”

Another lovely tourist that would have been right at home in the fashion section.

“Just pushing up the time”.

The good life

If there’s one thing about Madrid that’s embraced with unabated enthusiasm by locals and tourists alike, it’s the outdoor lifestyle we Spaniards are so fond of. When one of us has nothing to do he’s not to be found at home, he’s at the bar downstairs. To give you an idea, there’s a single street in Madrid with more bars than all of Norway,1 so I’d say there are probably enough of them to keep everyone happy — and out — for a while.

But there’s more to the Spanish way of life than bars. We also enjoy gardens, simple walks and pretty much any excuse to be out in the sun is always cause for celebration. We are, at our heart, a nation in perennial good spirits, and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Look at that impecable posture, that precise disposition of mind, body and spirit. The apparently careless elbow-over-the-bar gesture is a result of decades of experience, and it’s glorious. This man could order a beer without even opening his mouth. A simple nod to the bartender is all it would take, and I guarantee you he would be thirsty no more.


A few final words about the lens

The more I go out to shoot, the more the 35mm focal length grows on me. It’s perfect for street photography, which is by far my favorite photographic discipline at the moment. That’s probably why I was incredibly eager to own a lens in this focal length for my E-M10. The Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens is the proper 35mm-equivalent autofocus lens in Olympus’s fast prime lineup, and it’s absolutely fantastic.

The Olympus 17mm lens is far from new. Olympus released it towards the end of 2012 and gave it an all-metal body, as befitting all their premium lens offerings. Furthermore, autofocus is lightning fast and incredibly accurate, and the lens features Olympus’s clutch-focus mechanism, which allows for an easy transition between AF/MF just by pulling the focus ring towards the camera body.

The Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens is perfect for street photography.

There is something I didn’t like about the clutch-focus feature though, and it’s the fact that it doesn’t seem to work correctly with my E-M10. Olympus OM-D cameras have a menu option that enables focus peaking and magnification automatically whenever the zoom ring is rotated while the camera is in manual mode. This mode works very well with most lenses but for some reason, it doesn’t work with the Olympus 17mm.

When I pull the focus ring back the camera successfully enters manual mode, but the automatic focusing aids are not enabled. This is kind of frustrating, since it renders the entire clutch-focus feature pretty much useless.

The only workaround I’ve managed to find for this problem is to manually assign the peaking and magnification features to two of the available function buttons, in such a way that after entering manual focus mode by pulling the focus ring back, you press the desired button to activate or deactivate those features at will. I can live with that, but the fact that it basically uses up almost all of the customizable function buttons of the E-M10 (two out of three) makes it far from ideal.

Fortunately, Olympus appears to have corrected this issue in their newer lenses like the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro zoom lens, which apparently behaves correctly when pulling back the focus ring.

Other than that and on paper, the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 should have been the flagship lens for the Micro Four Thirds system and, if not the one everybody should want to buy first — the price alone would have made that difficult —, at least the one everybody would end up buying at some point. It really offers just about everything anyone could ask for in a wide angle lens: small and light, incredibly solid, minimal distortion, amazing ergonomics and flare resistance, barely any trace of chromatic aberration and excellent sharpness, even wide open. As a street photography lens, it’s the perfect match for my E-M10 and although I’ve only had it for a few days, not once did I feel it wasn’t able to keep up with what I wanted to do.

Unfortunately, as good as the lens is, some reviewers panned it when it was released for not being as clinically sharp as the admittedly wonderful Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, which kind of prevented it from achieving cult status. Reading those reviews was a bit of a letdown, and they’re probably the reason I’ve hesitated so much to buy this lens. I never should have paid any attention to them, because now I can say my fears were completely unfounded, and hopefully the images in this article will attest to that.

The Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens is sharp when it matters, and has a pleasing rendering.

The thing about clinical sharpness is that it always sounds like a good idea on paper, but when you’re taking actual photographs of actual people, it may produce unwanted results. There’s a reason top models have their pictures photoshopped with softening tools: human skin is often covered by small imperfections, which look all the more unflattering when captured by a super-sharp lens.

Having said that, it’s true that this Olympus lens is not as sharp as the Panasonic, which is not to say that it isn’t actually sharp. Unless comparing images from both lenses side by side, nobody would think the Olympus lens isn’t brilliantly sharp. And even when comparing them, I consider the rendering of the Olympus to be more pleasing for pictures of people. It has an organic tone to it that I believe is better suited for candid shots and street images in general, which is what I intend to use it for.

“Follow me, I know the way!”

Photography doesn’t exist for the sake of measuring pixels, it is a medium of expression and as such, its primary purpose is to convey emotions. As important as sharpness may seem, it’s always more important to consider it in relation to your subject matter.

The Olympus 17mm f/1.8 is an amazing lens for your Micro Four Thirds camera, and if you’re interested in street photography, I can’t recommend it enough.

  1. At least that used to be the case back in the 1980’s.