When your digital camera has no eye-level viewfinder, shooting candids from the hip may be worth a try. It can certainly help shake you out of photographic doldrums.
Way back in the mid-70s, I was fortunate to have taken a workshop with Garry Winogrand, whose groundbreaking body of candid photography has influenced generations of photojournalists and street photographers. During the class, we hit the streets of Manhattan taking pictures, and I made the mistake of taking a few shots with the camera held at waist level—hipshots—instead of raising the camera to my eye and composing. Winogrand saw me do this and wasn't happy. never do that, he told me.
Why? Shooting from the hip is giving up control over composition. When doing street photography, where so much of what happens is out of your control, the theory goes, you shouldn't give up any aspect of operating the camera, which is under your control. And so, my rule became: Always look through the viewfinder, even if it's only for a split second. This is important, because in general, Winogrand encouraged his students to print the entire frame with little or no cropping.
Related reading at the Adorama Learning Center:
Over a decade later, my resolve weakened and I broke my self-imposed rule. I experimented briefly with hipshot photography after interviewing Magnum Photographer Ken Heyman for an article in Modern Photography magazine. Ken had recently started using small autofocus compact cameras as a "third eye" in his hand, and was doing some fascinating work with the Konica A4 that was about to be published in his book, Hipshot. (Alas, Modern folded a month before that interview was to appear; The article was written and laid out, but never published.)
And so, I gave it a try. The results? Uneven. I often missed. I was frustrated by the lack of control. But while I would hesitate to share the resulting images with the world, the few images that did work out helped to shake me out of a visual rut and reminded me that anything can be photographed in any way, and if you free your mind of the preconceptions of how a photograph should look you can create more dynamic, interesting work.
Hipshot experiment: I took a bunch of hipshots a couple of years ago with a Canon G-series compact, taking advantage of its flip-up screen so I could have some control over composition. Although I would quickly go back to eye-level photography, this helped me understand the allure of this technique for shy street shooters.
Ultimately, the experiment was short-lived. After a few tries at shooting from the hip, I went back to shooting through the viewfinder, but I remember how the resulting images helped to free me to compose looser, more unusual images.
Times have changed
Today, there's an entire generation of compact cameras that have virtually no shutter lag and deliver surprisingly good images, but which lack an eye-level viewfinder. Could these be used for hip shots just as Ken Heyman used his A4? You bet! Some models have flip-out LCD monitors, or touch-screen operation. I am intrigued, for example, with the new Canon N (below), which doesn't look like any traditional camera but thanks to its flip-up screen, could potentially work similarly to an old twin-lens reflex.
So, now you can have your cake and eat it: Shoot candids from the hip and have control over composition! I don't know if Garry Winogrand would have tried this, but I must admit I've tried it again, just a little bit. It's still not my preferred way of shooting, but I can understand its allure. It doesn't call attention to itself like raising a camera to your eye might.
Current "Third Eye" Cameras
A few cameras that are worth considering are the Canon PowerShot G15, the Panasonic LX-7, which lacks an eye-level viewfinder, and the just-announced Fujifilm X-20, both of which are very fast with virtually no shutter lag. Small sensor cameras have an advantage here, as they give you virtually unlimited depth of field so you don't have to worry about setting focus.
In general, look for cameras with fast-reacting shutter releases and manual focus override (focus searching can delay exposure to the point where you may miss the moment—especially with a compact camera). The camera should have at least a 28mm (35mm equivalent) wide-angle lens for the best depth of field and so you can work at a close, intimate distance. And yes, you can even use a smart phone this way, although you might have a bit of lag time.
Many photographers, especially ones who have been sharing their street photos on flickr and tumblr, have also been exploring the new, digital version of hipshots. I get it: Candid photography newbies may feel uncomfortable shooting eye-level, and this gives them an easy (and, possibly, legitimate) way to shoot on the street.
So, what do you do—shoot from the hip, or strictly eye-level? Leave a comment below!