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.
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.
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.
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.