How to shoot from the hip in street photography?

by Sep 12, 2018Composition, Equipment and Tech

Ok, let’s face it: one year in, and I still shoot very much from the hip. What I initially considered an approach in street photography to overcome my shyness, ended up being my major way of shooting when focusing on candid pictures of people in the streets. So far, I was almost apologizing throughout the posts this past year when explaining that this and that shot was taken from the hip.

With the maturity of one year in street photography, I come to the conclusion that I absolutely embrace this approach now. If I want to take candid pictures of people without noticing, shooting from the hip is probably one of the scarce solutions when using a moderate wide-angle lens as the 23mm (35mm equivalent) on the X100F. Of course, you can climb up and use focal length beyond that, but one of the things I adore in street photography is, being within the crowd and not a distant observer. 

This said I thought that it might be a nice occasion to write down my key learnings of shooting from the hip after one year. From an intermediate beginner’s perspective, this is my first (and very humble) “How To” post. And here is the outline of the post – or my 5 tips for shooting from the hip:

  1. Know your lens: wide-angle or not, it is essential to be highly familiar with the lens;
  2. Shoot in shutter speed priority mode: while losing control over aperture (and depth of field), shutter speed priority helped me to freeze movement when both, the subject and the photographer, move. 
  3. Find your posture and camera position: from hand to sling to neck straps, four different positions are presented and discussed;
  4. Never look at your camera or your subject: you try to blend in and to be as unobtrusive as possible to make candid photographs – looks draw attention. 
  5. Make your camera (and yourself) as discrete as possible: switch off all the sounds and lights of your camera and dress in dark tones or like a tourist. 

1 | Know your lens

On the few blog posts, I read on shooting from the hip when getting started on street photography one year ago, one major tip was to use a wide-angle lens. One reason for that is to increase the probability that the subject will be in the frame and to potentially add some context. In my experience, I completely agree with that: using a wider lens helps a lot. However, instead of labeling my first learning “use a wide-angle lens”, the title reads “know your lens”. Through most of the past year, I used my Lumix GX80 with an Olympus M Zuiko 17mm lens (34mm equivalent) and became really familiar with this lens – by the way, I simply love the snap-focus mode by pulling back the focus ring on this lens. In the beginning, among the many pictures, I took of the same subject or setting, there were many where the subject was not in the frame or almost. 

Throughout the year, however, I noticed that the scrap rate regarding the framing question became less important. What had happened? I just learned using this lens, which basically always remained mounted on the camera, when I was out in the streets. By then, I knew how close I needed to be to the subject/s (usually always closer though with a 34mm equivalent) and how to hold the camera to have it in an upright position and right in the good direction. 

Again, I agree that a wide-angle lens like the moderate one I use, is a valuable tip; however, I think that what is more important is that you are highly familiar with the lens to increase the potential success rate of the shots taken from the hip. By the way, when I switched from the GX80 to the X100F recently, I basically lost none of my experiences in shooting from the hip as the fixed lens on the Fuji is the 23mm (or 35mm equivalent). As this is basically the same focal length, I was really surprised how quick I obtained good results in framing with the X100F.

2 | Shoot in shutter speed priority mode

Ok, this is a very personal tip here. Usually, you should try to control the depth of field according to what you want to say in the picture and shoot in aperture priority mode. Increasing ISO then helps to obtain faster shutter speeds to somehow freeze the movement and the moment. While I tried that in many situations, I mainly came to the conclusion that shutter speed works best for me. The reason is simple: usually, in my way of shooting candid photos of people, both, the subject and myself are in movement. And after many unintentionally blurred pictures in aperture priority, I found myself selecting shutter speed more and more often and let the camera choose the “right” aperture. 

This comes with some risk of course as you do not control the depth of field and in many situations with shutter speeds of 1/500 or even 1/1000, the lens had to choose very wide opened apertures, which in turn considerably shallow depth of field. In street photography, deeper depths of field are probably more common. In addition, if you are not pre-focusing or zone focusing, you need to hope that the camera’s autofocus then chooses the right point in your frame as a minimal error of that already leads to the fact that your main subject is out of focus. In turn, shutter speed and the probability to catch your subject and freeze the action remains constant in shutter speed priority, which I found extremely helpful in situations with heavy alterations in light conditions – changes from hard sun to dark shadows. 

Shooting in shutter speed priority mode is somehow a double-edged sword and after one year, the advice to choose speed priority should be taken with caution. On the X100F, I am attempting many combinations and some complete manual setups to control the depth of field by minimizing the risk of blur. Furthermore, there are many many situations in street photography where you take more time to compose a shot – although you keep your camera at the hip level. In those situations, you stand still and sometimes the subject is not in any movement neither, which are all reasons to switch to aperture priority. 

3 |  Find your posture and camera position

What I actually missed in the blog posts, I read a year or so ago, was an explanation of how to actually hold the camera to shoot from the hip. When I started my photographic journey in the streets, I used a simple hand strap and held the camera on the side next to my right hip in portrait mode (similar to the one pictured in photo 4 below). The camera remains quite discrete in that case and basically, nobody ever really suspected me of making photos. What you see in picture 4 as well as in all the other pictures below, is that I always have my right thumb on the release button. This position was, for me personally, the most comfortable one.  

1 - Camera in front of your chest (neck strap)
2 - Camera on the side (sling strap)
3 - Camera on the side in landscape (hand strap)
4 - Camera on the side in portrait (hand strap)

The problem with the position depicted in picture 4 above is that photos are taken in portrait mode and this makes the right framing without looking through the viewfinder extremely hard. Additionally, after one year now, I largely prefer taking pictures in landscape mode – although I cropped most of my photos to squared format in the beginning. Landscape mode adds some context and I prefer that even if there is only one single subject in the photo. 

The next attempt came with a new strap – the Slide Light from Peak Design – a very useful and nice strap, which can be used as neck, shoulder, or – as used then – as sling strap. In that position, the camera hangs to the right of your hip or belly (slightly higher than in the hand strap/portrait mode example). The Slide Light makes this position extremely comfortable. In picture 2 above, I re-created this position with the X100F, although one side of the strap should be fixed under the camera. This was my preferred position for the major part of the past year with the GX80 and helped me to largely improve my success rate of pictures. For those, who use the straps from Peak Design or other sling straps, I think that this is probably my priority recommendation. 

However, more recently, the setup changed with the arrival of the X100F at home. When I used the GX80, I basically never took the camera up to eye level and, thus, only rarely used the camera’s viewfinder when out in the streets. With the X100F, things changed though, as I really love using the viewfinder of this camera – especially the EVF to get an idea of the final result through the wonderful ACROS film simulation. For that reason – among others – I switched to the position you see in picture 1, what I usually referred to as the tourist’s camera position. Having the camera in front of your chest has several advantages:

  1. You take your photos in landscape mode (as compared to the position presented in picture 1)
  2. Vertically, the camera is on the same axis as your look – and horizontally much less low than any position near the hip. 
  3. You seem – even more – like a tourist and not a street photographer, which makes you less suspect to people in the streets. [Usually, I also dress like a tourist, to increase this harmless posture.]
  4. You have the camera lightning quick ready to move it up on eye level. 

Funnily, I saw a video on YouTube, where the street photographer talked about his experiences of using the camera in this position, but using the smartphone in the other hand as a remote control to push the release button. The big advantage is here that most apps of camera brands give the possibility to see on the screen what the camera sees right now. This of course, potentially and dramatically increases your success rate in getting subjects correctly framed. Although I find that really appealing, I never came around using this advice as I usually never take out my smartphone when out in the streets with my camera. But maybe this is different for you and the approach of using the smartphone as a remote control is something highly valuable. 

Currently, I often switch between the just described position (picture 1) and the position presented in picture 3: using a hand strap, but keeping the camera in landscape mode. As compared to the position described before and depicted in picture 1, this position has the advantage that you are much more flexible in camera positions: hip, chest, eye level, down on the ground, above your head, etc. There is basically no limit – except for those imposed by the length of your arms. However, this last position seems slightly less unobtrusive than the “tourist’s position”: I actually caught some more skeptical looks and have more people staring right into the lens when I go through the pictures at home. For me, the hand strap/landscape mode position is used when I go out with the aim to focus more on (the recently discovered) urban or architectural photography. In those situations, I prefer the flexibility of this position over the tourist’s one. This said, as soon as I get closer to more crowdy areas or to interesting people, I usually switch to the neck strap position (picture 1).  


4 | Never look at your camera or your subject

This is a recurring tip in street photography: avoid any eye contact with your subject. If you look at them, they understand that they are somehow of interest to you and your camera. When taking the shot, continue to look ahead of you or as if you are looking for the best next shot of a building or any attraction of touristic value. After one year, I learned that anticipation of your next shot – even if the anticipation span is very short – is absolutely key in street photography. Potential subjects should be detected in advance to be ready once they are coming closer or you are getting yourself in the best possible position to get the composition right. 

Another tip is to avoid any look at the camera. As to what I said about the lens you are using is also (and even more so) true for the camera: know your camera and be able to adapt any settings (if needed) almost without looking at the camera. This, however, is sometimes difficult – especially when you just changed cameras. But, being able to make photos without anyone noticing is important. In the settings for my cameras, one of the first things I did was to switch off the automatic presentation of the last picture on the screen. This helped me a lot in staying in the moment and concentrating on the next shot – if you take a quick look at the photo you just took, the next unique moment might be gone already. 

5 | Make your camera (and yourself) as discrete as possible

This fifth tip is a logical follow-up to the preceding one: make yourself invisible. What works well for me is to dress in rather dark colors by avoiding anything too flashy in terms of colors. When I bought the X100F, I hesitated between the silver and the black edition – both were really appealing. In the end, I chose the black edition over the silver one for the simple reason that the black one would be more inconspicuous when having the camera in front of my chest or along my side in dark-tone clothes. 

What is even more important than blending yourself in the crowd is to choose the right settings of the camera to make it completely unobtrusive. For the GX80 before and the X100F now, this meant to switch off all tone signals and to choose the electronic shutter over the mechanical one. All lights are switched off as well such as the autofocus assisting light. In addition, the screen at the back of the camera is completely switched off and only the EVF remains on.

Bonus | Make swimming against the current a habit

The last tip is a short one and I already had the opportunity to mention that before: what I find extremely helpful in street photography – and when shooting from the hip in particular – is to walk in opposite direction of the crowd. Often people in the streets tend to adopt the same behavior as when driving in the car: in countries with right-hand driving, people tend to walk on the right side of the street as well, for example. In that case, I started to force myself to walk on the left in order to have more people walking towards me and making the anticipation of potential subjects easier. First, I had to overcome my natural instinct to walk on the right – however, throughout the year, it has become a habit and facilitated making photographs of people from the hip. 

I hope these tips will be useful – those are tips based on my personal experience and everybody will need to find out what works best for her or him. The aim of this post was to at least provide some starting points and to add a list of tips to posts you might read elsewhere.

Please let me know what you think and if you had similar or completely opposite experiences. 



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