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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Shoot From The Hip

The instant feedback of digital cameras offers new possibilities for travel street scenes

A street scene in old Stone Town, Zanzibar.
A street scene in old Stone Town, Zanzibar.

As a young newspaper photographer in the mid-’70s, I used to look at the work of the great street shooters, from Robert Frank to Alex Webb, and wonder to myself how these shooters could get so close to their subjects without seeming to be noticed by them. They created these wonderful, layered street scenes, using wide-angle lenses, where subjects were just bursting out of the frame, looking like they were about to walk right into the photographer’s lens. Yet they seemingly had no awareness of the photographer’s presence whatsoever.

I studied the work of these masters, and I knew they used small Leica Rangefinders to be quiet and discreet. I got that part, but I still couldn’t figure out how to get my reflexes to the point where I could grab shots that were so spontaneous, up close and personal. Candids shot with telephoto lenses just don’t have the same feel—they lack the immediacy and intimacy you get from moving in tight with a wide lens. How could these shooters bring the camera to their eyes, focus and compose so quickly and effectively?

I learned that, in a lot of cases, the camera never really made it to their eyes, that these photographers had mastered the "hip shot"—a no-look grab shot that required prefocusing the camera, previsualizing the frame and developing lightning-fast reflexes. I tried the same thing back in my news days and was so disappointed with my results, despite trying over and over again, that I basically gave up on the technique altogether.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, well, okay, maybe a few decades, and I’m in Rome with my digital SLR. The street life is vibrant, chaotic and teeming—just the sort of conditions that no-look, hip shooting was made for. This action happens so fast that I just can’t get the camera to my eye and actually frame the scenes, and even if I could, I’d be creating a spectacle of myself, so I decide to try the hip shot again.

Actually, "gut" shot would be a more accurate descriptive term for the technique, at least the way I started doing it. My camera strap length allows my D-SLR to hang just about midway between my waist (and it is, alas, gut-like and ample) and my neck. I rest my right hand on the camera, with my hand around the camera’s grip, but I end up with my thumb on the shutter release, not my trigger finger. It looks like I’m just resting my hand there. 

Shoppers and strollers on Via Condotti, a street of elegant shops and boutiques in Rome.
Shoppers and strollers on Via Condotti, a street of elegant shops and boutiques in Rome.

This time, I could see my framing and focus mistakes in nearly real time, courtesy of the LCD. Pointing the camera too high or too low, having the point of focus too close or too far, getting stung by backgrounds that were five stops brighter than the subject—all these mistakes were readily visible and immediately correctable. Being able to make on-the-fly adjustments meant my results were getting better and better in a matter of hours, not days, weeks or months.

Before I knew it, I had a pretty good idea of what the framing looked like from that perspective, which focal length seemed to work the best and which focus technique yielded the largest number of keepers. I was getting some edgy-looking compositions that approached the look of the master street shooters, and I found a whole new tool to add to my photographic repertoire, courtesy of the instant feedback of the digital SLR.

Now, I won’t kid you, I still get far more misses than hits with this technique. Like sports and wildlife photography, where you make a fair number of frames to try to catch peak and largely unpredictable moments, there will always be more chaff than wheat. But those few keepers are special kernels indeed.

The only price I pay for my misses is more time editing at the computer, and I’m not throwing away processed (and paid for) film frames. But in the right situations, this technique is splendid for working unobtrusively and capturing moments that otherwise would have eluded you if you had lifted your camera and shot.


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