Photo tip of the Week: Shoot from the hip
Ever wondered how the pros capture those decisive moments on the streets without drawing attention to themselves? Want to be more inconspicuous? Wish you were invisible?
Unfortunately there is no magic trick for becoming completely invisible on the streets, but there is a popular technique many street photographers employ which can definitely make you more undetectable.
The technique is called “shooting from the hip” and it literally means what it says on the tin. It is as simple as holding your camera at waist-level while focusing your attention and vision away from your hands and camera. It’s an approach that allows you to capture more candid images without being noticed by raising the camera's viewfinder to eye-level. Most people will be oblivious that you are taking pictures, therefore giving a much more natural result. It also gives your street photographs an interesting perspective shooting from different points of view.
It's worth noting this style of shooting is very difficult, and it’s also important to realise that for every 100 shots you take from the hip, you will likely only nail a dozen or so keepers! But this is normal and also part of the excitement once you start shooting from a new point-of-view.
Finally shooting from the hip may be a slightly more controversial approach among some purists, but nevertheless hip shooting is exciting and can be very rewarding, plus it’s a really great method of shooting to have under your belt. Here are my tips for anyone thinking of becoming a ‘hip’ shooter.
There is no right or wrong camera when it comes to street photography, but once you start experimenting and shooting from the hip, you’ll realise that a smaller camera will be a lot easier to hold and go “unseen” with on the streets. Rangefinders are definitely popular among the street photography community for their nimble and discreet size. A bigger camera (like a traditional DSLR) will become somewhat of a barrier between you and your subjects. It’s best to eliminate this as much as possible by downsizing to a more compact camera.
I also recommend using a prime lens. Primes allow you to become familiar with your focal length so that you don’t need to worry what focal length you are set to. A prime lens will also help when positioning yourself to get the shot because you know exactly where you need to stand to get closer or further away from the subject.
Use a wide angle lens
To make things easier while hip shooting, I’d recommend using a wide angle prime lens. Many people new to street photography tend to assume the longer the focal length the more candid and natural the results will be, but this isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to street photography, and especially from the hip. In order to really capture the vibe on the street you’ll need to get amongst the action and mix with the crowd; it’s really the only way to go “unseen”. Any focal length longer than 50mm on a 1.6x crop sensor is likely going to be too close to effectively capture what you are seeing in front of you.
Using a wide angle lens will allow you to move in closer to the action while still capturing a nice wide perspective from close range, which is helpful when shooting ‘blindly’ from the hip. Another reason to use a wide angle is that it gives the viewer the sense of being part of the scene. The most common focal length for street photography is 35mm, which gives a wide enough perspective to capture scenes from close range without producing unflattering barrel distortion in the corners and edges of the frame. A 35mm focal length is more or less true to what our eyes see, which is why it’s the most common focal range among street photographers.
Setting Aperture and Shutter Speed
The best way to make the most of shooting from the hip is to stop down your aperture (use a large number aperture). By using a smaller aperture you’ll be able to shoot at a faster shutter speed to make sure your subject is in focus with no camera blur caused by the shutter speed being too slow. Anywhere between f8 – f16 on a sunny day will give you a shutter speed of 1/320S or quicker.
ISO is another factor to remember when setting up your camera for hip shooting. I suggest setting an ISO of 400 for sunny days, as this will compensate for any loss of light in shadow areas so that your shutter speed won’t drop below 1/320s. If your images are coming out dark, increase the ISO to 800 or higher to keep your shutter speed as high as possible. I like to use aperture priority mode on my camera for the above reason.
Use an Electronic Shutter (if your camera has one)
If your camera has the option to switch between the mechanical shutter and electric shutter, use the electric. Mechanical shutters are noisy when you click a shot and can draw unwanted attention to you, which can be a dead giveaway that you are taking photos even when shooting from the hip.
Using an electronic shutter is completely silent, which can aid in going unnoticed even in the quietest of places. There are a few disadvantages with using an electronic shutter, most notably the shutter lag. This may mean missed shots, however I find using an electronic shutter is by far the best option when shooting from the hip.
I recommend using autofocus rather than manual focus. Autofocus takes the worry out of hip shooting, and 98% of the time it works well. I find selecting a single focal point to be the most accurate, which is usually the centre focus point on my Canon and FujiFilm cameras. The benefit of using the centre point autofocus for hip shooting is that you can focus extremely fast and accurately, and on many cameras, DSLR's especially, the centre point is the most accurate.
If you are shooting with a DSLR with a small viewfinder, you may find it difficult focusing using manual focus. It’s much easier using manual focus with bigger viewfinders on DSLR’s or rangefinder cameras.
Zone focus (set and forget)
Zone focusing is a technique that involves setting your camera's focus in advance for shooting at predetermined distances. Zone focusing allows you the piece of mind to set and forget, giving you more opportunities to shoot more freely and quickly without worrying about adjusting the focus of your lens. This is a common technique used by experienced street shooters, however it isn’t difficult to learn once you grasp the concept.
Let's say your standing on one side of the street with a mural on the other side of the road about 10 metres away. First, set your lens to manual, then adjust the focussing scale on your lens to 10 metres (You may need to do this in-camera). By doing this, anything 10 metres away from you, like the mural, will be in focus.
It's worth noting that the aperture you choose will affect the distance between subjects being in focus and out of focus. With a narrow aperture, the area in focus will be greater, and with a wide aperture the area in focus will be smaller. All you have to do now is wait for your subject to enter within the focused area and click the shutter to get the shot. It's a technique that requires practice, so do it often enough and you'll find you can estimate distances quickly, set up the camera even faster and most importantly, shoot with no hesitation.
The reason street photographers use zone focussing when shooting from the hip is because it simply takes too long to adjust focus without raising the camera to eye level. Once you start fiddling around with camera settings and trying to adjust focus manually on the go, you will not only miss shots, and your subjects will likely notice you taking their picture too.
Utilise The LCD Screen
A camera with an articulating rear LCD screen makes shooting from the hip much easier to compose your shot and will increase the accuracy rate of keepers. This is because you are able to see exactly what you are shooting and frame it in accordance to what you want in your frame. With the camera resting on your hip, you are able to look down at the LCD screen to view your composition and wait for the moment to unfold.
Just be mindful that people will pay more attention to you when you are looking at your camera, which is why I always find myself a good vantage point near my subject to compose my image on the LCD and then look upwards away from the camera and click the shot. If you saw someone looking up then you are more likely to focus your attention on whatever it is they are looking at – the same principle applies when shooting from the hip. Trick people into what you are focused on and you’ll go unseen.
Remember that shooting from the hip can be challenging even for seasoned professionals. It takes a lot of patience and persistence to master this technique, which is why it’s important to never become disheartened if your images aren’t working out as you envisioned - the key is to experiment and practice as much as possible.
One of the advantages of digital cameras is the freedom to overshoot and cull later in post. Mix it up, try shooting from different angles, for example, holding the camera lower towards your legs and raising it to your chest will give a completely different perspective. Once you start becoming familiar with the process you’ll be shooting masterpieces from the hip in no time. ❂