Street Photography Tutorial #5: Shooting From The Hip

If youíve been following along with my street work, youíve probably noticed I do most of my shooting from waist height and there are a couple very good reasons why. In a previous tutorial we talked about visualizing the shot, if you havenít read it, you should give it a quick read before we continue as most of the stuff Iím going to go over this time is dependant being able to ďseeĒ what your camera sees without looking through the viewfinder. Shooting from the hip isnít exactly a new concept; photographers have been doing it since before street photography was even considered a genre. If youíre not familiar with the term, itís exactly what it sounds like, taking a picture without raising your camera to your eye, its use stemming from the hand gun technique of the same name.

The main reason many street photographers use this method is to maintain a low profile and keep people from reacting to a camera being around, trying to preserve the natural moments in life of people immersed in their environment. Iím definitely of the school that thinks street photography is best done as candid as possible; otherwise itís just an unnatural pose that happens to be on the street.

Most hip shooting is done with a wide angle lens, anything 35mm or wider will work, but wider is better if youíre just starting out. The reason being, the wider the lens, the more forgiving itís going to be with framing as you learn to guesstimate whatís going to be in the shot. You can always crop down a shot if you capture too much, but you canít invent parts of an image you didnít capture in the first place. Wider lenses also have the benefit of greater depth of field at equivalent f-stops compared to longer lenses. Why does this matter? Well, when shooting from the hip, your focal length is going to determine the height and width of the imaginary frame lines your mind projects on the world, but what about depth? Youíre not looking through the viewfinder, so any focus adjustment is going to be done blind, youíll have to rely on your distance scales or a pre-set focus distance to ensure your subject is in focus. The greater your depth of field, the less precise your focus estimate have to be. In fact, if your lens is wide enough you can take advantage of the hyperfocal distance to ensure almost everything you care about is going to be in focus.

I prefer wides because I like to capture as much of the scenery around my subjects as possible, close up head shots are nice and all, but street photography is about telling a story, capturing people reacting to the things around them not removing them background. There are however some issues with wide angle lenses youíll have to get used to. Thereís a reason why using fast lenses capable of shallow depth of field is so appealing, it makes it very easy to compose your shot as any unwanted elements in front or behind your subject can just be blurred out to oblivion. This gives you a lot more flexibility when it comes to positioning yourself and your subject. With wide angle lenses and potentially infinite depth of field you have to be much more aware of everything in the shot. Iíve had many great potentially great photos ruined by elements intruding on the composition that I canít just wish away. You have to be able to consider foreground, background and your subject all at once and how theyíre going to relate to each other in the photo, and you have to do all this in seconds most times as you canít just ask everything on the street to stop while you think about it. Itís not really a hard skill to learn, it just takes practiceÖ lots and lots of practice.

Also, many photographers, especially when their first getting into street photography, can feel very shy or self-conscious taking pictures of strangers in public. The wider the lens, the closer youíre going to have to get to people if you want them to fill a decent portion of the frame. My most used street lens is my 15mm which can take a full body shot at less than 6 feet away from someone; itís great for getting up close and personal in crowds, but itís taken me years to build up the confidence to shoot that close. You might want to go with something a bit longer while you build up your courage.

Another problem with wide angle lenses is how much they exaggerate the distortion of straight lines if you donít keep your camera level; and this leads directly to my second reason to shoot from the hip. Keeping a level horizon is rule one for most types of photography, a small flash shoe bubble level like I talked about last post will help. Itís fairly easy to correct an uneven horizon in post processing if you leave some space around your subjects but itís always better to get it right in camera. Much harder to correct for later, however, is vertical perspective distortion which occurs if your camera is pointing higher or lower than level. It can be tricky keeping your camera parallel with the ground shooting from the hip, even with a bubble level, but this is where shooting from the hip really shines.

Letís assume you want to take a full body picture of someone roughly the same height as you and have them fill the whole frame. First letís look at a longer lens, say an 85mm, standard portrait length. You raise the camera to your eye and frame the shot, now if you keep the camera level the frame is centered on their head, thereís lots of space above the head and half their body is out of frame. To get their whole body in the frame you have to angle the camera down a bit; since youíre using an long lens, youíre a fair distance away and only have to lower the angle of the shot a few degrees. Such a small angle wonít introduce much vertical perspective distortion.

But what happens with a wide angle lens, like most of us street photographers prefer? You have to get much closer in order to fill the frame with your subject, so instead of having to tilt the camera down just a little bit, you could be looking at lowering your aim as much as 30 degrees off level. With that much of an angle youíre going to have all kinds of distortion; squares become trapezoids, the parallel lines of buildings will start to converge, your subjects head is going to be much bigger compared to the rest of the body and the whole thing will just look wrong. Sometimes it will be subtle, but with brick walls for instance, the distortion will look terrible. So instead of angling the camera down, what about lowering the camera while keeping it level, say to hip levelÖ Now youíre aiming the camera at the middle of your subject, half his body is above center, half below; youíve got everything in frame and havenít introduced any perspective distortion.

Donít get me wrong, Iím not saying any good photo is necessarily free of any kind of perspective distortion, on the contrary thereís been many photographers that use this kind of distortion to their advantage to create some dynamic and exciting photos, but the point is they did it on purpose. Used properly with intent you can use the laws of optics to great advantage, but accidental distortion is very rarely flattering. Like I said, sometimes the effect of distortion can be very subtle and itís not until you correct the issue that you realize just how much better your photo looks without it, but trust me youíll notice a big difference when you start keeping your camera level. Yes, you can correct a lot of this kind of distortion in Photoshop, but: A) correcting perspective distortion means stretching or compressing image information, which means youíre automatically loosing detail whenever you do, and B) correcting distortion on just one axis can be a frustrating, correcting it on all three is just madness, kind of like trying to solve a Rubix cube that changes shape every twist. In the end, itís just way simpler to avoid the problem all together and keep your camera level.

Shooting from the hip is definitely not for everyone, some people feel it borders too much on being voyeuristic or sneaky and others donít want to spend the time it takes to train yourself to be able to compose the shot without using the viewfinder. It does take a significant investment in time to get good at it; all I can say is that for me at least it was totally worth it. For those that think shooting from the hip is sketchy, I can understand your reasoning and I think itís a case of a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. Thereís a big difference between shooting from the hip and using hidden cameras or low angles cell phones to take pictures up girls skirts (which seems to have become almost epidemic in some places). I wear my camera around my neck in plain view; I donít make any effort to hide what Iím doing, I just donít advertise it either. I’m only taking pictures of what’s in my normal field of vision. If someone sees my camera and obviously has a reaction to it, I make it a point to smile and avoid taking their picture. I donít stalk people, I donít push my camera in peopleís faces and Iíve had very few people actually take issue with my shooting, far fewer than the number of people that stop me to genuinely talk about street photography. A smile and a friendly attitude go a long way. Keep that in mind and you shouldnít have any problems.

<- Street Photography Tutorial #4: All the Small Things
Street Photography Tutorial #6: Shooting From The Hip II ->