This month, try shooting from the hip. It will alter your perspective as an artist, requiring you to see the scene beyond the viewfinder; while you won’t be able to compose as deliberately, you may discover this shift in perspective and artistic freedom bring some wonderful new qualities to your images. It will also change the dynamic with your subjects in that you can connect face-to-face during shooting — or go completely the opposite way and shoot totally inconspicuously. With that in mind, while this is a fantastic and well-loved technique for street photographers, it can also be used as a personal exercise in letting go, shooting intuitively, and forcing a new perspective that may itself bring forth unexpected inspiration.
Here are a few tips for shooting from the hip:
1. Set your exposure in advance
You won’t be looking through your viewfinder, and you don’t want to be fiddling with dials from the hip — so set your exposure ahead of time. If you’re going to be moving in and out of changing light, you may even want to consider putting your camera in full-auto or one of the program modes (such as aperture priority – see the next tip!); if you’re letting the camera set exposure as you go, be sure to use matrix/evaluative metering rather than spot metering.
2. Close down your aperture
Closing down will increase the likelihood of getting your intended subject in focus. An aperture of f/8 or higher is a good place to start. My personal jumping off point is around f/11. As you improve with this style of shooting, you may find that you become more adept at working effectively with a shallower depth of field, if that is your stylistic preference.
3. Increase your shutter speed
Shooting from the hip means that you aren’t using your traditional grip with the camera steadied between your face and two hands. In many cases, it also means that you may be shooting more on the move — such as walking while shooting in burst mode! For both reasons, you may find yourself needing a faster than normal shutter speed when shooting this way — I’d suggest 1/250sec or faster.
Note, of course, that between the fast shutter speed and the small aperture, you may need to boost your ISO considerably. As always, this is about balancing your technical limitations with your creative decisions!
Find a point of reference on which to establish your plane of focus. For example, focus on the chair four feet ahead of you, then switch your camera’s focus mode to manual so that it won’t change when you depress the shutter button. Alternatively, use the distance scale on the focus ring of the lens; it’s a rather underutilized feature that allows you to manually specify the focus distance.
With the focus distance now set, visualize where the focal plane exists (in our example, that’s four feet ahead of you), and position yourself relative to your subject accordingly as you shoot from the hip.
I know, I know – make up your mind, right? Autofocus can be a great technique as well. If you go this route, rather than setting a focus point, I’d suggest setting your camera’s focus mode to general area autofocus. Newer model Nikons, for example, will focus on the closest person detected in the frame using human recognition / facial recognition technology when the camera is set to Auto Area AF. With Canon’s “Automatic Selection” AF area mode, the camera will focus on nearest subject with adequate detail.
If you choose to use autofocus, you may also have more freedom to experiment with somewhat shallower depth of field, since your camera will be grabbing focus on something (unlike manual focus, which may or may not achieve focus on anything in the frame), and you can let the focal plan fall off from that point.
6. Use a wide angle lens
Using a wide angle lens with street photography helps to incorporate wonderful context and depth. More generally, a wider field of view also increases the likelihood of getting your subject fully or properly in the frame, leaving you sufficient room to crop as needed after the fact.
7. Hold the Camera By the Lens
Holding the camera by the lens — rather than the traditional hold on the camera body — helps the optics to become an extension of you. This technique is likely to increase your framing accuracy as you point the lens towards your desired subject or scene.
8. Seek Out Design Elements and Interesting Light
The same principles apply here as they do with traditional shooting: the inclusion of design elements and use of beautiful light invariably makes for an interesting image, and knowing that your shooting will be less controlled, incorporating design elements and interesting light/shadow can be particularly advantageous if the image ends up being a bit more abstract than you intended. Prioritize the light, and seek out complementary colors, fantastic textures, strong lines, or bold shapes when visualizing your shot.
9. Eyes up, Camera Down
This is more of a reminder than a tip. One of the benefits of shooting from the hip is that you can explore the scene visually, unencumbered by the camera in front of your face and the boundaries of the viewfinder — so be scanning and visualizing what is out in front of you rather than looking down at the camera you’re holding.
Similarly, while it’s tempting to bring the camera up to your face intermittently, do your best to just leave it at your side or in your lap and fire away. Chimp every now and again if you must to check the success of your exposure, focus, and framing — but keep that viewfinder away from your face!
Worst case scenario? If you take enough shots, there’s a very good chance that you’ll have some unexpected images of interest … and even if they don’t meet your personal standards, you can always use them as serendipitous inspiration pieces to guide more deliberate, traditionally composed photographs after the fact. So LET GO and give it a shot (or twenty!).
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.