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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

Amish farmers discuss the quality of the horses for sale at the Bart Township “mud sale,” one of the spring auctions of farming machinery, quilts and household goods held in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Amish farmers discuss the quality of the horses for sale at the Bart Township "mud sale," one of the spring auctions of farming machinery, quilts and household goods held in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Shooting Tips.
It took me awhile to hone this technique to a point where it would be usable. Even after that, when I’m starting a new assignment and haven’t shot this way for awhile it takes me some time to get my "sea legs" in terms of framing, etc. But with a little practice, you can start making interesting pictures without even looking! Here are a few tips to help you get started.

For focal length, I find that somewhere between 20-24mm works well on my Nikon D200 and D80. Factoring in the 1.5x magnification factor of the APS-C-sized sensor in these bodies, that would translate into the 28-35mm range in 35mm parlance—exactly the two focal lengths favored by classic street shooters.

No matter how fast a camera’s autofocus is, I find that taking another page from the classic street shooter’s book and prefocusing in manual is the way to go. A focus distance of one to two meters (about three to six feet) works well for the compositions I’m after. I use an aperture of ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6 whenever possible; these apertures give me enough depth of field, but don’t result in shutter speeds so low that I’d need to use higher ISOs to achieve an action-stopping shutter speed.

Speaking of those shutter speeds, what you’ll need depends on how you’re shooting. If you shoot as you walk past people who are walking toward and past you, you’ll need something like a 1/250-sec. shutter speed or faster to render them acceptably sharp. If you and your subjects are stationary, you can drop that speed down to 1/30 sec. if need be.

You need to be hyperaware of the backgrounds in this type of work. Since you’re shooting from the lower, gut-high perspective, there’s a tendency to have huge swaths of sky behind your subjects’ heads, giving you areas of the scene that are much brighter than the subject and that burn out easily. So look for uniform light conditions—either all sun or all shade—and don’t be surprised if you have to trash some otherwise perfectly good compositions because you got a huge burned-out background. It’s the learning curve at work.

The noise of the SLR’s shutter is also a limiting factor in pulling off this technique. One of the reasons that the master street shooters preferred the Leica Rangefinder is because its shutter is darn near silent. Not so with an SLR. I tried doing the technique with a couple of my digital compact cameras, a Ricoh GR Digital and a Nikon Coolpix 5400, but neither of these has neckstraps, and you look awkward walking around bracing one of these on your belly, whereas strolling around with one hand casually resting on the SLR that is hanging around your neck somehow looks like a much more natural posture.

I haven’t figured out how to hack a neckstrap arrangement for these compact digital cameras, but if I do, I’d probably try using them first, since you can turn off the simulated shutter sound altogether in these cameras, making them mighty stealthy sound-wise. I also have the option of manually focusing these babies, and both have the wider 28mm perspective. Except for the strap arrangement, these would be the perfect cameras for the job.

Finally, it’s useful to develop a casual, hanging-out type of demeanor, especially if you and your subjects are stationary. I pretend to look at something else with interest and occasionally break away to check my framing and exposure on the LCD. I haven’t been caught yet by my subjects, although a fellow workshop instructor at a recent class in Tuscany observed me using this technique on old men chatting in a village square and said I looked a bit like a bad pickpocket sizing up my marks! Fortunately, my subjects didn’t seem to notice, and their wallets were intact, so no harm was done.

After handing in a recent assignment in Zanzibar, where I did a lot of this technique in the back alleys of Stone Town, the art director called to compliment me on the photos, especially those "edgy, up-close street scenes." Those were his favorite pictures from the whole take.

Of course, you could stop and wonder about yourself and your photography if your client’s favorite shots are the ones you took without looking. But, like any veteran freelancer, I’ll take a compliment from an editor, and hopefully another assignment, any way I can get one!

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the Teach and Talk heading.



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