Street Photography Tips – ‘Shooting from the hip’ Tutorial
Want to be a Street Photographer? Learn how to ‘Shoot from the hip’ in this Street Photography Tutorial..
What is shooting from the hip?
You’ve probably heard the phrase “shooting from the hip” before, but maybe not related to street photography. Whether its origin was wild west gunfighters or business slang, it has become a common term used in street photography and over the years the practice has gained quite a following. In a nutshell it’s a way of framing and shooting without looking through your viewfinder delivering free-form, natural, candid shots you would find hard to reproduce the traditional way.
Learning this discipline is a great way of getting to know your camera so it becomes an extension of YOUR arm, to see light like YOU are the exposure meter and to predict and compose a scene so instinctively you could give Mystic Meg a run for her money. Many people think it is a shotgun approach of taking 100′s of images to fluke a good one, this is really not the case, i will hopefully dispel this myth.
Stick with me and i will give you my insight into how to get great photos using this method, it may not be easy at first but it WILL be fun.
OK, so you have got your camera bag racked full of gear and your ready to hit the street to shoot some action… err, just hold on a second, there are a few tips n’ tricks would love to share with you before you hit the streets for real.
To really shoot without looking through the viewfinder takes time, patience and practice. There are some key ingredients you will need first…
- Equipment decisions
- Predicting focus distance & Exposure
- Learning to frame a shot remotely
- Reading & Planning a shot from a distance
- How to blend into your environment
- and not forgetting… Excellent timing!
What’s in the photo kit bag?
You might be expecting a list of thousands of pounds worth of equipment to get you started… wrong… you can get started with the most minimal of equipment, it’s probably the cheapest type of photography out there.
Believe it or not, I take one 35m digital camera (or rangefinder) and one manual focus wide angle lens. Maybe two lenses at a push. Two or three batteries and a few CF cards, that’s it. No tripod, no 70-200 zoom, no back up body… You will miss more shots because you are not ready, more equipment just means, more weight and more decisions you don’t need to make.
Wide angle vs telephoto lenses
Most people will tell you that their recommendation would be to use a telephoto lens for candid street shots, in an attempt to avoid being “noticed” and keep your photos looking natural. This paparazzi style shooting will often end up with you loitering around street corners with a conspicuous hunk of metal attached to your face; which, if you are trying to “Blend in”, nine times out of ten is the wrong way to go about it.
This is not to say that telephoto candids are not acceptable, personally i find longer lenses (200mm +) tend to have a look that shouts “surveillance” which does not help draw the viewer into the shot and you will not get the “Street Photography” look.
Firstly, shooting candids with a telephoto lens will require you to shoot with much shallower Depth of Field (DOF) (Due to focal length) resulting in you having to focus through the viewfinder, clearly ruling out a spontaneous, “shooting from the hip” approach. With shallow DOF your margin for error with focusing is much higher, unless you use really high ISO and smaller aperture, therefore compromising on quality.
I would recommend shooting WIDE and getting CLOSE to your subject.
If you are not shooting full frame, try 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm and see which you prefer, i prefer shoot at 35mm most of the time, reflecting normal rangefinder focal length. Note: the equivalent wide angles for crop sensor cameras can often be a bit bulkier, however a 24mm will give you somewhere in the 35mm region.
Benefits of shooting wide angle
- Shooting at an equal aperture, e.g f8, f11, will give you more depth of field with a wide angle, so your subject has a higher chance of being sharp.
- Slower shutter speeds can be used, allowing you to shoot in darker lighting conditions without increasing ISO and compromising quality.
- Wide angles (prime lenses) are smaller and much less conspicuous and intimidating than modern zooms.
- Your shots will look more natural and have a sense of being part of the scene.
- You will be mostly shooting with manual focus, so older (non AF lenses) can be bought really cheap, plus they will also have a very useful DOF scale on the barrel which really help with hyperfocal and predictive focus settings
Predicting Focus & Exposure
Getting to grips with exposure is one of the most difficult aspects of learning photography, but focusing is easy, right? you just depress the button and it beeps to tell you its on focus. Well, Autofocus is great, we have grown to rely upon it, but our cameras have suffered, so much so that consumer cameras are difficult to use without autofocus.
If you switch a crop sensor SLR into manual mode, you can’t see enough detail through the viewfinder to focus and one slight turn of the lens takes you from 1metre to infinity! This is why autofocus is an easier and more accurate option, because to focus accurately in manual is just guesswork.
Full frame sensor cameras make life a lot easier as there is no crop and the viewfinders are bigger and brighter, but don’t worry, you won’t need to shell out on a new camera, all you need is good solid manual focus lens and your set. You won’t even look through the viewfinder that often, remember!?
Judging distance / Zone Focussing
This section may get a little technical, but all you have to remember is that you need to focus without a viewfinder and autofocus, so this means judging the distance, setting the lens and relying on your Depth of field calculations to give you a sharp shot, sound easy?
When i was learning, i found the best way to get to grips with judging distance was to get outside and pick a spot, say a corner of a wall, a lamp post, a plant, whatever it doesn’t matter. Get an exposure with your camera set to f5.6, take a guess at the distance (Metres or ft, i happened to learn both but stick with what feels easier) set the lens manually to roughly that distance and fire. Check your shot’s focus on the back of the camera and try again, and again at different distances and angles. Eventually you will surprise yourself and get it pretty close.
If you are shooting film then just us the split screen after to check the focus and read the lens for the distance.
Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance
Focusing is dependent upon the distance from the focal plane of your camera to the subject and sharpness is dependent upon the depth of field at your given aperture (And the circle of confusion, but that’s too in depth for this tutorial). If you didn’t understand what i just said, then i recommend that you read up on these here first it will really help. When you understand Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance you can make the magic work, it’s your freedom to shoot tool.
The hyperfocal distance is the nearest focus distance at which the Depth of Filed (DOF) extends to infinity but how does this relate to the lens markings?
The Focus Index is the marker that points to a Distance marking on the Distance Scale, so when it is say set to 2m, the subject exactly 2 meters from the focal plane will be in focus.
The Depth of Field is the distance in front of AND behind the subject that appears to be in focus which changes according to focal length and aperture.
The Hyperfocal Depth of field scale on the lens shows distance markers to the left and right of the Focus Index that show the maximum distance in front of and behind the focus point that will be perceived sharp at that given aperture. For example, if you align the center of the infinity marker with the Depth of field Scale Marker for f16 (This will depend on which way your lens rotates to focus, for the lens in the diagram it would be moved to the right) this will set your lens for the hyperfocal distance for f16, making everything sharp from half the focal distance to infinity.
If you are working on landscape then depth of field to infinity is important, however if you are shooting up close then the background sharpness may not be. You can still use the depth of field scale to your advantage by setting it in reverse, pick your closest distance of sharpness, say 2m and then rotate the lens until the 2m mark aligns with your given aperture, say f8. This will keep everything from 1m until about 9m acceptably sharp so you would be aiming to focus on your subject just over 3 metres (this is where your Focus Index is set). Setting it up is quick and gives you a margin of error, with this example you have about 1.3 m in front and nearly 6m behind at f8.
As you get more familiar with predicting distance and setting the optimum DOF range, it will really free you up as you will be confident you will get a higher percentage of sharp shots, it’s not random, its science.
Learning to frame a shot remotely
For a 35mm slr, hold the camera with one hand under the base so our fingers are free to rotate the focus ring and you other hand using your thumb to depress the shutter release, it really helps using a grip like this.
This forces you to naturally hold the camera close to your body and parallel with the ground which is a good starting point. You can hold the camera perpendicular to the ground to shoot portraits at the side of your body, however this can be more difficult to start with.
Imagine a centre line coming from the middle of your lens, attach a laser pen light to the camera if you cant visualise it. This will be your centre point of the frame. If you then imagine two lines eminating at equal angles from the centre line forming a trangle shape. (This will be dependent upon your lens focal length and crop factor) You then have to imagine how wide your shot will be at a given distance, the further from the camera, the wider the shot. This applies to not only the horizontal axis, but also the vertical, but you don’ have to be super accurate as as long as you know roughly what sort of coverage you will get and where your centre point is you will get good results.
For example, if i want the scene composed in thirds, i will imagine a line that splits at thirds (Blue triangle) .
Once again, practice makes perfect, to just head out to the park and practice pointing and framing, and.. deleting lots of shots. get the batteries on charge!
Reading & Planning a shot from a distance
The hit rate will be poor at first, however as you become more comfortable and faster with the technical elements, you will find you will see a whole lot more. A comparison would be when learning to drive you concentrate on changing gears and the operation of the car so you are not fully aware of what is going on around you. As you learn, driving a car becomes fluid and just an extension of yourself, this is how a camera should feel.
On the move
If you are mostly on the move, you won’t stand out as much, but how do you take pictures whilst walking? Well, technically you don’t, pausing for a split second whist you press the shutter is enough to kill the camera shake then continue moving.
If i am up close, i often disguise the shot by momentarily stopping to adjust my rucksack, changing direction, putting a hat on, moving my ipod earphones, shooting under my arm, i use whatever looks and feels natural, like you would do everyday. Try to avoid eye contact with your subject and do not hang around for more than a second or two. If the subject looks at you, they may hear a shutter but if you are not looking directly at them and the camera is not at eye level, they assume a shot wasn’t taken.
I was teaching a good friend of mine what i know about street photography, trying to see if my techniques could be passed on easily; unsurprisingly, the technical stuff is a matter of learn and practice, just like most things in life. However, there was one important thing i could’t really teach, and that was “blending in”. Teaching a 6ft 4in overly energetic rogue, who looks like Sean Bean, how to blend in was like asking Amy Winehouse to keep it under control at a dinner party. Wherever he went, he just stood out and attracted attention, even after i recommended stopping the whistling and humming! So, i guess its down to the individual, but these are my tips.
- Wear non-loud dark clothing and something that just looks normal
- Don’t stand around, try and keep moving, you must look like you have intention (other than taking pictures).
- Try and work in busier areas as ambient noise helps keep you under the radar.
- Carry a rucksack or bag that is not a camera bag, carrying extra stuff also distracts the eye from the camera
- Keep the camera lens small to avoid attention, a pancake wide angle manual focus is perfect
- Take off your Nikon/Canon logo’d camera strap, i use an inexpensive camera grip like this, which allows you to be confident moving the camera about and avoid cumbersome strap.
- A quiet shutter! I have a nikon D700 which is as loud as my 6×7 mamiya (loud!) and people still don’t realise they have been ‘captured’, but it makes life harder for me. If you have a rangefinder then great.
- Cut out the whistling and humming!
I will leave you to work this one out for yourselves, but practice, practice, practice. Try to practice for different types, angles and speed of movement, use your cat, grandma or passing motorway traffic. However sometimes we all just need a bit of luck.
Initially aim for places where there are lots of people and noise, cities are an obvious choice, football games, festivals etc. As you gain more experience and confidence, together with a silent-ish camera, you can try and shoot in quieter places and up close. Try and pick somewhere where there will be action and where people will be preoccupied so you will go unnoticed.
Make sure you plan a route because it’s so easy to wander the streets aimlessly and get totally lost, as i have done many times. Maybe getting lost puts you in fate’s hands but i prefer to avoid accidentally walking into a red light district with a camera.
The beauty of this type of photography is there are NO rules, shoot candid when you can, if you feel that someone is approachable then ask to take their picture, then switch back to “shoot from the hip” mode again. Believe me, you will take a lot of frames to start with and so many of them are going to be really bad! but stick with it and you will get great results.
Eventually, experience will enable you to concentrate on the light,your environment and the subject rather than being distracted by the camera and technical settings.
Now go out and have some fun!
Please share your thoughts on this thread if you would like to add something or ask any questions.