Shooting From the Hip, Part II

In this second part of “Shooting from the hip” I’m going to attempt to give some tips and guidance, having covered the arguments for and against this practice in Part I.

Dozens of articles on the Internet explain how to shoot from the hip and most are reasonably accurate. Alas, many are illustrated with examples where the technique wasn’t really necessary.

Here are some of the tips I use myself:

1. Shoot from the hip on sunny days, not dull days — and don’t attempt it at night.

There’s good reason for this advice because you need both a fast shutter speed and a small aperture, a combination that’s going to work only in bright conditions.

2. Use a wide angle lens: at least 40mm (a “wide standard”)  but preferably 28mm or 24mm. Wide angle lenses deliver greater depth of field, bringing more of your subject into focus.

3. Use at least 1/250th second, preferably 1/500th or even 1/1000th second or faster to minimise the effect of any camera movement.

When you’re shooting from the hip you’re likely to be walking. Try to pause for a moment to eliminate the effect!

For the shot below I wasn’t able to pause mid-step, but the fast shutter speed (1/2000th second) froze the movement reasonably well.

man in cowboy hat and shades

4. Stop down at least to f/8, possibly going to f/11-f/16 if you’re looking for better overall sharpness.

Depending on the circumstances, this is not always possible — and you may sometimes get a superior picture with a wider aperture.

5. Make the ISO higher than you would normally use in order to compensate for the fast shutter/small aperture.

Some camera sensors are more prone to noise than others. Don’t go beyond the point where noise becomes a disturbing element.

6. Use a focus technique that gives you the best result. Options are: manual/zone focus; or fully auto. I tend to use my normal Aperture Priority mode with a centre focus point and then try to aim straight!

Alternatively, pick up focus from an object that’s, say, four feet away from you and use it for your next shot. I find this is often more convenient than zone focusing which gives you a fixed distance until you change it manually.

I picked up a four-foot focus for the shot below. It’s still not “tack sharp,” but acceptable at, say, 8 x 10 inches.

man walking in front of shop window displaying a closed sign

Getting It Straight
I’ve noticed that some photographers recommend holding the camera by its lens in order to shoot straighter from the hip. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Did Billy the Kid hold his gun by the barrel? Of course not!

Modern cameras offer technological help by providing swivel screens that allow you to compose the image while holding the camera at waist level. On a bright day, it can be hard to see the image on the screen, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Using a Rolleiflex, Vivian Maier was obliged to shoot from below eye-level but her shaded viewfinder with its upside-down image was helpful in a similar, imperfect way.

The Wider Issues
There are people who say “Anything goes, do whatever it takes to get a great shot,” and those who keep reminding us to observe this or that rule of ethics, behaviour, or aesthetic.

To the latter we could reply: “If it feels right, do it; if you and your subjects are not discomforted by it, do it; if it looks right, do it.”

Your ethical code, your mode of behaviour, and your artistic judgement are all influenced by your native culture and can vary widely from one part of the world to another.

two tourists

Getting Philosophical
Added to the issues I’ve already mentioned (above, and in Part I) is one more: the philosophical issue of “What is street photography?” The question arises because of the hit-and-miss nature of shooting from the hip. If you get a lucky hit, is that really a good street photograph, or is it an accidental snap?

I am reminded of the old story of the chimpanzee, typing for eternity and eventually writing the entire works of William Shakespeare. Is that not essentially the same process, taken to extremes?

If you want a closer metaphor turn to Google Street View. You wouldn’t call it “street photography,” yet in photographing millions of city streets the Google cameras have captured dramatic scenes, spotted pretty women walking past interesting backgrounds, and captured no end of people arranged by chance into pleasing groups.

I should note that the late Michael Wolf (1954–2019) was given an honourable mention in the 2011 World Press Photo contest for images he culled from Google Street View. “I’m appropriating Google,” he said at the time.

Technological advances also make it possible to photograph, in high resolution, crowds of people from which you can extract cameo scenes that have some of the characteristics of street photography. However, what they lack is the real close-up experience of the street that you get from actually being there, in the thick of it, with your camera.

woman in front of cartoon dog, both wear similar sunglasses

So we’re back to square one, struggling with the many difficulties of mastering the art of street photography. To cope with these problems I’ve recommended the use of multiple strategies (in “Can You Reduce Street Photography to a Few Rules of Thumb?“) Shooting from the hip is one of them. Let’s all use it occasionally and see what happens.

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