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Shooting from the hip: how to take a photo on the sly

by May 19, 2020Photography

Therese Iknoian Shooting From The Hip On The Tower Bridge In Sac

Sometimes you get better photos when traveling if those around you don’t know you are taking a shot. That’s why learning how to shoot from the hip is key in travel photography. Here are a few tips to help you get the hang of it.

Over the years, I have become pretty adroit at what is called “shooting from the hip.” What that means is taking photos without bringing the camera to your face or otherwise obviously taking photos. That one motion can make people shy away from you and can make the natural action in a place suddenly become unnatural. Taking unposed travel and street photos means slipping into the flow of life, floating along with it, and documenting life and the people without altering it.

Even lifting a smartphone to your face these days can make people turn away or perhaps smile unnaturally. The question arises, how do you take a photo while not looking through the camera or looking down at a flipped-up screen? Not so difficult really, but it takes practice to learn how to shoot from the hip. And the time to start practicing is when you are not traveling!

What “shooting from the hip” means

Simply put, it literally means not lifting the camera up to your face or eye. Shooting from the hip, however, may not actually mean the camera remains at your hip. Certainly, it could mean the camera strap is looped over your shoulder and the camera is about at your hip, but it could mean the camera strap is around your neck and at your belly. Or it could mean the strap is over your shoulder, but the camera is just in your hand or being cradled in your arms in front of you. Long story short, it just means not looking like you are taking a photo. After a little stay-at-home practice, you will figure out what methods work for you to improve your travel photography.

Learn more about street and travel photography by reading Photography tips for improving your travel and street scene images

I tend to either have the camera over my shoulder and, indeed, at my hip, OR I have it held securely in one hand and held in front of me, lens cradled in the crook of the other arm, as if I’m just holding it there to protect it as I move.

Sometimes you may be around a shy subject. Even though he or she knows you are taking photos and is OK with it, every time the camera comes up, the person smiles or moves unnaturally. That’s when you can keep the camera low and just talk to them, all the while taking photos so the person remains unposed.

Shooting From Hip Meknes Sewing man

In Meknes, Morocco, we spent a bit of time wandering through areas of the old town where most tourists did not go, including streets lined with artisans, including men sewing. This man was sitting in a “box” at about eye level, which turned out was his home too! You had to take a few steps up a short ladder to reach him. Since he spoke some French, I was able to get permission to take photos, but he still was not acting natural, so I dropped the camera to my chest and just kept taking photos, which helped him relax.

Stay ethical and respectful

Shooting from the hip does not give you a license, however, to forget your traveler’s ethics. It does not include for example snapping photos of people’s faces without their permission, taking photographs of children in a place that is sensitive to that, or taking photos of women’s faces in a society that frowns upon that.

So keep your respectful hat on to assess the photo you are seeking through the lens of the society you are in. Granted, if it’s just a shot for your home album, and it will never see the light of day, catching a photo of a street vendor or child at play may be OK. But think about every shot before you take it. That’s when backs of people can be the best thing to shoot.

Hip Shoot Doha Womans Back

It is tabu to take photos of women’s faces in Qatar. So as we wandered the old souk market area of Doha, this woman with her back to me became the shot.

Above all, do not embarrass people! I know street photographers who somehow think travel and street photography means catching people with embarrassing looks or in wretched poses, then publishing them. This is NOT a good thing. And yes, you could be sued.

Speaking of suing, know the laws and guidelines in any country where you are. Some European countries aren’t as lenient about “public places” or “public figures” as on other continents, or they demand consent to take a photo, so be sure you know local regulations before you publish a shot anywhere, even just on one of your social media feeds.

Camera settings to consider

Pre-adjust your camera settings before you “enter” the scene or area you may want to shoot – You will find various schools of thought here. Assuming you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can put ISO, shutter and aperture on auto settings or leave them all or part under manual control.

ISO – I know some people who swear by choosing an auto ISO setting. The ISO measures the sensitivity of the sensor to light. If it’s on auto, that means if you are in lower-light situation, the ISO will go up, possibly way up; a higher ISO can mean more “noise” or grainy stuff. I personally am not a fan of that. But if the light is going to be more inconsistent, or if you believe it is better to have the shot than not at all, even if it is not so great, this could be a choice for you. I prefer to find an average setting and put it there, perhaps fiddling with exposure a bit more in post-processing or altering lowering speed to let in more light.

Camera A P S M Dial Selection

Shutter / Aperture — Then you have an auto setting for just shutter speed (often the “A” or “Av” on the dial for aperture priority, meaning you control the aperture and the camera automatically chooses the shutter speed) and auto for aperture (“S” on the dial for shutter priority, meaning you control the shutter speed and the aperture is automatically set). Remember, shutter speed controls how fast the shutter moves to freeze movement, while aperture (F-stop) controls the amount of light and also depth of field (smaller F numbers mean a bigger opening and vice versa). See the example of a dial for the M, S and A settings, above.

If you are in a situation with faster-moving subjects, you may want to choose a shutter priority (“S”) so you can choose the shutter speed and let the camera pick the aperture for correct exposure. Conversely, if you want to control your depth of field, then pick aperture priority (“A”) and let the camera pick the speed for best exposure.

Kunming China Vendor in Bookshop

This man had the craziest book and whatever shop in Kunming, China, but when I tried to get a shot, he’d turn away. Although not perfect, I was able to go across the street and just pretend I was walking by. With a slightly longer lens, I was still able to capture the scene. Admittedly, this is cropped because the quick shot still cut him off slightly, but it still shows his “shop!”

Manual mode — Then there is the manual mode (“M”). Frankly, I prefer to use a manual setting, unless the situation seriously demands I give the camera some say-so. Maybe I’m a control freak. Maybe it’s just because that’s how I learned. (My first DSLR in college was a small Nikon that had no auto settings, so I did all my adjusting manually – a great way to learn!)

Shoot From Hip Old Russia

On my first visit to the then-Soviet Union in the ’80s, I was already trying some hip shooting — capturing this man on a street in then-Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). This was taken in full manual mode with my first DSLR!

My modus operandi as I approach an area I may want to shoot or before I head out into a city is to assess the light conditions and weather, and then pre-set the camera to a somewhat neutral range – a range that will get just about everything. I realize I may have to add or reduce light in post-processing, but at least this allows me to be ready if you will. (Note: This pre-setting of the camera cannot cover situations that are outside of a mostly average range, i.e. subjects moving very fast or depth of fields that need a little blur.)

Had Gharbia Market Nonblurred Background

This is a full-frame, only very slightly processed shot as I took it from the hip at a small regional market in Morocco. With a wider lens, you will often get more than you want. Although I LOVE this man’s emotion, I need to crop more of the foreground and generally get in closer to the subject. Plus, it would have been much better if I’d used a wider open aperture to have blurred the background, at least a little. But my goal in this fast-moving market was to grab people and action without altering the scene.

My personal choices for “average” settings are:

  • ISO – as determined by the current light when I do my pre-setting.
  • Aperture (F-Stop) – a medium range that will allow me some depth of focus. In other words, if I cannot focus quickly or precisely on the subject I want, the camera will allow a certain range to be in focus and I will likely get what I seek. For me, this is in the range of 6.3 or 7.1. (If it’s particularly bright, I may close down the aperture a stop or two more.)
  • Shutter speed – something that will freeze most “normal” action, such as 1/100th to 1/125th or a bit higher. You will likely just see 80, 100, 125, etc. on your dial.

 Six special tips and tricks for travel photography

  1. Let the camera focus — One auto setting I do take advantage of these days is focus. Back in the day, it was tough to “pre-focus” manually – you had to guess how far your subject might be and cross your fingers. I remember quite vividly walking past a store I wanted to shoot into, then stopping when I was past it, setting the camera focus point, then walking back in front of it again and snapping. These days, you just put the camera on auto-focus so a half-press on the release gets your focus, and then you shoot. If you can choose your focus area, you may want to choose a wider area compared to center and a “continuous focus” (“AF-C”) so you have a better chance of getting what you want in focus when you are taking photographs on the sly. These should also be pre-set unless you have custom buttons to give you quick access to what you need.
    Hip Shooting Ukraine Meat Seller

    Walking through a market in Kyiv, Ukraine, the vendors were not keen on photographs, usually just turning away. So this photo of the woman and her poultry was made with a hip shot and a wider-angle lens. To make it even better, though, I will need to process that basket handle out using Photoshop!

  2. Pick a wider angle lens — If you have a “crop” or APS-C sensor, remember that if your lens is 35 mm it is really about 1.5 times that or about 52 mm. Because I am a travel writer and photographer, I opted for an APS-C mirrorless camera because it is smaller and lighter. Personally, I find about 18-20 mm crop (about 27-30 mm) pretty ideal for shooting from the hip, give or take a few ticks. Thus, I have a short zoom of 10-18 mm (15-27, full-frame) that is ideal because it is so small. I also often use my quite compact medium zoom of 18-105 mm (27-150, full) for an all-purpose lens if I don’t know what I’ll be shooting when taking photos while traveling. I can crank it to a wider angle but also get closer. Granted, it’s a bit more obvious since it’s a little longer. So how do I make myself less obvious? Ah, read on….
  3. Put your camera in stealth mode — Whether you use a smartphone or a DSLR, you can pick a “silent” mode and eliminate all sounds, all clicks. This takes some getting used to. At first, you are not sure you actually took a photo. But after that, you feel like a spy extraordinaire! Everybody is so used to that CLICK, they often don’t realize you are a snapping fiend.
  4. Look in a different direction — First and foremost, do NOT look at the camera when you are shooting from the hip when traveling. That’s rule #1. But I like to actually look in a different direction, too. People will often look WHERE you are looking – Just a natural human reaction to follow another’s gaze. So, if I am shooting right, I glance off to my left.
    Shooting From Hip Therese Iknoian

    Casually admiring the Sacramento River, I am still cradling my camera and aware of what’s going on around me, still ready to click, if desired.

  5. Consider a scarf or sweater — I have found if I’m wearing a scarf, the camera gets a little half-hidden behind it. You can also use a jacket or sweater or another baggier outer item to somewhat bury the camera against you.  But only if it’s not hot!
  6. Dress to blend in — Consider wearing more neutral colors and clothes that are acceptable for where you are traveling. Certainly, as a woman in particular, you should not wear anything too revealing anywhere since that will (unfortunately) draw some looks. That is, no see-through tops, exposed mid-sections, or miniskirts. This outfit in the photo below may not have been sexy when we traveled in Morocco but it certainly allowed me to blend a bit more!
    Therese Blend In Apparel

Learn more about blending in when traveling by reading How to blend in when traveling

When shooting from the hip: Take a LOT of photos

Consider putting your camera on a burst (sometimes called continuous) mode so you can take several photos of the scene you seek, one after the other. That way, if somebody or something is moving, you don’t just catch the one inopportune moment, but have a choice. But do know how to delete once you download them!

Practicing at home – now is perfect timing!

Before you even hit the trigger, you need to get to know your camera and lenses. And there is no better time than when you are at home or planning a trip.

You need to determine what kind of angle your camera and lens — and every lens will be a little different – needs to be at to get a shot of a particular level. A longer lens often hangs down a bit so you will have to kind of “lift” it a little. Guaranteed, you will miss things, even once you think you got it down. Even as someone who shoots from the hip quite naturally, I have in the past happily snapped a few sly shots, only to find I have cut off legs, buildings or treetops.

Hip Shooting Woman Cutoff

This woman was not terribly shy but I still shot from the hip — and unfortunately cut off the toe of one foot! Still a nice shot though from the Yunnan Province of China. You can’t always get it right when shooting from the hip.

What to do when you are staying at home to practice shooting from the hip for travel? Walk around your home, yard or neighborhood, and start experimenting. Spy something you want a take a photo of. Then after taking it, stop to analyze what you got. Too high? Too low? Good focus?

Now that you’ve heard my tips and tricks, it’s time to practice. Shooting from the hip for travel or street photography is a skill that will take you far. If you are planning your next trip and you are staying at home, then make a little time to practice the photography skills that will help you record even better memories.

To see more of Therese Iknoian’s award-winning photography, go to her website, Photos by Therese

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Acknowledgements: Story by Therese Iknoian; Photographs more...