Shooting from the Hip: A Guide to Street Photography on the Sly

Blending in so you can get an authentic, candid shot is one of the goals of street photography, and shooting from the hip is one technique that photographers use to do just that. But, others frown upon the practice, saying “it’s not good photography.”

This guide will explain shooting from the hip in photography. We’ll tell you what it is and why some photographers don’t like it. Then, we’ll explain how to shoot from the hip and give you tips to try it for yourself. 

By the time you finish this guide, you can decide for yourself if shooting from the hip is a technique you want to add to your bag of tricks.

Shooting from the hip
Photo by Charisse Kenion


What is shooting from the hip?

Shooting from the hip literally means taking a photo without lifting your camera up to your eye to shoot. That said, the camera might not exactly be held at your hip. You could have the strap around your neck and shoot from your chest or belly. Or, you could have it resting on your lap or on the ground and shoot from there. 

In other words, you’re not looking through the camera’s viewfinder and composing your shot before you press the shutter button.

Shooting from the hip is a great way to take photos but still go unnoticed. Often, in street photography, the point is to capture the scene — not to interfere with it. Being seen with a camera will change the way the subject behaves. They will turn away or smile unnaturally. So shooting from the hip — secretly — solves that problem. But, there’s a debate between street photographers about whether it should be done.


The big debate about shooting from the hip

Photographers have used the technique for years, some of them with incredible results. They’re able to get extremely close to people without being noticed and capture authentic scenes they wouldn’t have been able to shoot otherwise.

On the other hand, photographers who are against shooting from the hip may have an ethical problem with the practice. Shooting someone in secret could make you look like a creep. They prefer to build a rapport with the subject and shoot them with their permission. 

Other photographers will argue that shooting from the hip is just a bad practice because you don’t know exactly what you’re shooting. However, while you don’t have the benefit of the viewfinder as you take your shot, this guide will show that, with practice, you can control a good amount of what you’re shooting when you shoot from the hip.

shooting from the hip
Photo by Jez Timms

What is the best lens for shooting from the hip?

When shooting from the hip, you definitely need to use a wide angle prime lens. Since you don’t have total control of what you’re shooting through the viewfinder, a wide lens gives you the greatest chance of capturing your subject in the scene. Shooting blindly with a telephoto lens would be a complete guessing game. At the same time, you’ll want to use a fixed focal length prime lens, not a zoom. There’s too great a chance that you’ll move it and change the focal length, so stick to a prime.

A 24mm prime is a great option (go wider if you’re using a crop-sensor body to compensate for the crop factor). 


Camera settings for shooting from the hip

Shooting from the hip is best done during the day in bright light with these basic settings:

  • Aperture: use a narrow aperture, no wider than f/8 but f/11-f/16 are better. This will give you a deep depth of field and make it much easier to keep people in focus while you’re moving. However, it also allows for less light to reach your camera’s sensor, so you will need to bump your ISO to compensate.
  • ISO: keep ISO as low as possible to reduce noise. However, with street photography, more noise is acceptable than most other genres of photography. Plus, modern cameras can handle relatively high ISOs (I’ve had mine set to 8000 shooting in a slot canyon and still didn’t see any noise on the final image). Start at 400 – and then increase as necessary to reach your proper exposure.
  • Shutter Speed: don’t go any slower than 1/200 to avoid motion blur.
  • Silent shutter: Make sure you silence your shutter. There’s no point hiding the fact you’re taking someone’s photo if they can hear you doing it!
shoot from the hip tips
Photo by Duy Hoang

8 Tips for shooting from the hip

Set your exposure in advance

When shooting from the hip, you have to avoid chimping — looking at the back of your camera after each image — and get your exposure settings in place before you start shooting. 

Prefocus 

Focusing while you shoot (and manually focusing) is nearly impossible. The trick for nailing focus when shooting from the hip is prefocusing. Set your focus to a certain distance before you start shooting. Then try to always shoot people from that distance. Remember, you also have a narrow aperture (for a deep depth of field) so you’ve given yourself some wiggle room.

Or, use Facial Recognition

If you’ve got one of the newer DSLR or mirrorless cameras that come with facial recognition autofocus technology, use that! You’ll have a lot more artistic flexibility with shallow depth of field in your images.

Hold your camera by the lens

The reason for this is two-fold. First, it helps you have more control over what you’re aiming the lens at since you don’t have the benefit of looking through your viewfinder. This will increase the accuracy of your shots. Second, it makes you look less conspicuous since people don’t usually take pictures while they’re holding the camera by its lens.

puddle from the hip
Photo by Dibakar Roy

Seek out interesting light and shapes

Just because you’re shooting in an unconventional way, the rules of traditional photography still apply. The final image needs to be interesting. Look for strong design elements, light, patterns, colors, textures, and other things that will help your photo stand out. 

Don’t look at your camera

Remember, you’re shooting on the sly. If you’re looking at your camera, you might as well just bring the camera up to your eye. 

Don’t just shoot from your hip

Yes, the name of this style of photography is “shooting from the hip,” but you can try bringing the camera up to your chest or kneeling down and shooting from the ground, too. The point is more about taking photos without using the viewfinder, without being noticed, and shooting from different perspectives. It’s much less about actually shooting with a camera at your literal hip. 

Be ethical and respectful

This really goes for all street photography. While photographing someone in a public space is legal, there are ethical considerations. Don’t publish images that show people in embarrassing or compromising situations. One way to approach this is to ask yourself if you were the subject in the photo, would you be okay with the photographer publishing it? If the answer is no, then don’t publish it. 

bike from the hip
Photo by Jansel Ferma

What about when you get caught?

The point of shooting from the hip is to not get noticed. To capture a real, authentic, candid moment. We are all guilty of changing our expression, acting awkward, standing a little taller, or sucking in our tummies when we know there’s a lens pointed at us – no matter how hard we may try to ignore it. 

But, what happens if you get caught sneaking a photo from your hip? Truth is, you will probably look like a creep. Someone very well might call you a pervert in public. The way to thwart that is to always be ready to show them your portfolio and prove that you’re a real photographer, not a creepy weirdo. That could mean giving them your business card and showing them your Instagram feed. Try to build a rapport. Then, if they like your work, show them the photo you took of them. Maybe they’ll like it, too.

Remember, if they’re out in public, taking their photo is perfectly legal (with a few exceptions). But, they can also ask you not to take their picture or to delete the photo they caught you taking.


Shoot from the hip photographers to know

Many street photographers start out shooting from the hip because they’re nervous to shoot strangers and it’s easier to shoot this way without being seen. However, the following photographers strictly shot from the hip, and are widely revered for their work. So, don’t just use the method as a crutch if it feels right to you. 

  • Mark Cohen: Has been shooting street photography from the hip for more than 60 years. His unique style has earned him multiple awards, books, and solo exhibitions all over the world.
  • Vivian Maier: An American street photographer who started shooting in the 1950s with medium-format Rolleiflex — a camera that required shooting from chest height. Most of her massive collection of work was discovered in a storage unit after her death in 2009.

Final thoughts

Now that you’ve seen this guide, it’s time to get out and practice. Shooting at the hip can be difficult at first. You might not get the results you hope for on your first few attempts. But, with a bit of practice, you will find that adding the technique of shooting from the hip to your street photography toolkit may give your portfolio the edge you’ve been looking for. 

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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