Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Power of the Hip, part II

The hipshot as a technique offers an easy transition toward confidence and competence for the tentative, or beginning, street shooter. However, it also is a useful tool for the more seasoned photographer, particularly those individuals interested in capturing the moment and shooting candid shots of strangers on the street. When going after these types of shots there are generally two approaches, two philosophies to shooting (if you will), and the hip shot has a place within each. One approach I'll call the direct approach and the other the indirect approach.

The direct approach entails seeing a moment, approaching it, intruding to make the photo and moving on. Photos made using the direct approach usually consist of images in which the subject(s) is looking directly into the camera, or where the subjects are obviously fully aware of the presence of the photographer. These are often very engaging images, because often we (the viewer) are looking into the eyes of the subject; we feel a part of the moment.

Busker in Chinatown

Photos made using the indirect approach, on the other hand, generally lack the engagement between subject and viewer. As viewers we feel we are looking in on the scene, almost as if we are invisible. There is sometimes a level of detachment, a sense of inaccessibility for the viewer, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it always the case.

Selling on the Street, Chinatown

Both approaches are valid and the line between the two can be blurry, but I think the main point to consider as a photographer is how to confront the moment. Not every moment requires intervention by the photographer, some do, but some don’t. In either case the hip shot becomes a very valuable tool. A photographer skilled at using the hip shot can get very close to a scene and shoot without being detected, without interrupting the moment. Not being detected can mean getting off several shots, if need be, without (or before) being detected. It can mean capturing the truest or purest sense of the moment as it occurs, or working the scene to get a unique or descriptive angle. Something happens when the presence of a camera is detected, people change, situations change, so using the hip shot can mean getting closer to the moment and possibly capturing a truer sense of the moment.

This doesn’t mean that the hip shot is only useful with the indirect approach. It can be very useful with the direct approach, particularly if you’re using an SLR or rangefinder camera. With these types of cameras it can be useful as a means of keeping the camera away from the front of your face, which is off-putting to some people. Remember, that my definition of hip shot is any shot in which the photographer made the exposure without the camera at his or her face, without looking through the viewfinder. The first shot above of the Chinatown busker is a hip shot. The gentleman was seated playing his instrument. This fellow saw the camera and just stared into it.

To use the hip shot effectively means you have to know your gear. You have to know the coverage of the lens. You have to preset focus. You have to judge distances, judge exposure, etc. You have to be skilled at shooting, framing, and composing without looking through the viewfinder.

"Coin Collectors"

One of the toughest things about using the hip shot is making images that don’t look like hip shots, and that’s really the key. Your image shouldn’t scream “This a hip shot!” A big part of that is keeping the camera somewhat level. There are a lot of techniques and tools you can use, including using your camera’s strap (shoulder straps are great), and different parts of your body to keep the camera level. Experimentation and lots of shooting are really the only ways to build proficiency.


The hipshot is a technique that can allow you to capture the sense of a moment. It’s possible that when using the hip shot you may be able to capture a truer sense of the moment, because it allows you to shoot undetected. Regardless of the philosophy behind the hip shot, it is a useful technique that requires practice and experimentation. If you shoot on the street, the hip shot is a worthwhile technique to learn, a tool worth having.