Shooting from the Hip... Murderous Taxidermy?

They say that for good speaking or instruction to happen, you should "Tell 'em what you're gonna say, say it, and then tell 'em what you said."  There it is all laid out... your three point sermon; your intro, body, and conclusion; your magnum opus.  In keeping with such wisdom, this post is the first in a discontiguous series on street photography technique.  In particular, the sneaky tactic of taking pictures of people while appearing not to.  This is not so much about the ethics of such a thing, although that is worthy of discussion and will probably happen in the not too distant future.  Rather, it's about the practical and artistic advantages and disadvantages of said technique, at least as I see it.

Advantage #1 - Truly Impromptu Output

Besides being in a vertical orientation, can you see similarities between the three images?  There are two things I have in mind.  The first is that all four people have a gaze that is north of the camera lens.  This is because my camera is below my eye, very low in the first and third image, and probably at my chest in the middle image.  Surely this perspective could be obtained without being sneaky, right?  I really believe the answer to that it No, unless it is not a naturally extemporaneous image.  Imagine me stooping, in plain view, pointing the camera in their direction.  Let's play it out.  They'd probably look at the camera.  Of course I can say, "Oh, just keep going."  I've done this before, but it most often seemed that spontaneity had been lost.  Don't get me wrong...there are great actors out there and people that can ignore the glass eye pointing in their direction.  Most can't.  Drop the mike.

Radio broadcaster, sharing his passion, from the San Pedro Maritime Museum.

Radio broadcaster, sharing his passion, from the San Pedro Maritime Museum.

Secondly, and related to the first, did you see that the people are speaking to me?  Maybe the quotes helped?  (By the way, they are not exact quotes but encapsulate what was going on).  The conversation was already going, I thought to myself, "Get this on wax," so to speak, and as they were choppin' it up...boom, you're on a camera candidly.  To be fair, the last gent on the right was kindly trippin' on my awesome family and gave me a happy greeting as he was passing by.  Not quite a convo, but you get what I mean.  I point out the talking because, it seems to me, that it would be impossible to capture a person, in earnest, talking to me, while at the same time having the lower perspective.  Can you imagine the alternative?! "Hey, I'm gonna kneel down and get a pic but keep talking, act naturally, but pretend you are looking me in the eye as if I were standing up."  Lame!

I would never understand photography, the sneaky, murderous taxidermy of it.
— Lorrie Moore, Anagrams

Advantage #2 - Nerves

"If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right," right?  Right!  But, who's to say that right (meaning, correct) is always telegraphing the capture of an image?  For many, if shooting out in the open were an ethical or artistic maxim, then there'd be little shooting.  Of course if the intention is privacy, I'm feeling the objector.  But this would be true for any shooting, even out-in-the-open shooting.  I'm learning about myself and others more as I persevere in street shooting, and this includes the nuanced wisdom of when to ask, and when to not ask.  When to shoot incognito from the hip, as it were, and when to hold the camera to my face.  For me, when there's no violation of privacy or opportunistic nastiness engaged in, but there is a great picture to be had or visual story to be told, and I just can't bring myself to be in the open about my will find my camera at me hip or chest clicking away.

As far as I can tell, this was my first sneak shot.  A friendly gardener near Washington Square Park in Manhattan.  He was kind enough to compliment us for our kids' behavior. Circa '07

As far as I can tell, this was my first sneak shot.  A friendly gardener near Washington Square Park in Manhattan.  He was kind enough to compliment us for our kids' behavior. Circa '07

Advantage #3 - Built-in Perspective

It already has been mentioned in passing, but if there's a very important factor in any image, it's perspective.  To take an image of a person from slightly below, is to change the way the person is perceived.  They come across as more powerful or large.  Likewise, a lower angle of view can convey a more dynamic feel to what is going on.  That is, it's easier for one to imagine more movement just before and after the frame.  Also, the scene is not as serene as it would otherwise seem with a more flat perspective.

Mind the Bar  - L.A. Metro Blue Line

Mind the Bar - L.A. Metro Blue Line

Consumer traffic in Chinatown, San Francisco

Consumer traffic in Chinatown, San Francisco

Disadvantages #1 - Composition

Sometimes you miss a great opportunity because you shoot from the hip and the framing and focus is all out of whack.  Focus can be fixed with proper technique and knowledge of hyperfocal distance and all that stuff.  All you can do for better hip composition is practice and grow in your ability to discern what the camera sees given a certain focal distance and general direction in which it's pointing.

Disadvantage #2 - Street Cred

I gotta admit, if I were to "get caught" by a person hip shooting them, it's be awkward, or maybe worse.  It wouldn't feel good to be perceived as sneaky, but it could be a neat opportunity to come clean and explain what was going on.  At the very least I can tell you what many others have told me as of late, even earlier today!  Shoot first, apologize later.

Disadvantage #3 - Nay Sayers

Some may say that you're getting lucky or not engaging in the artistic enterprise for all it's worth.  I say that the proof is in the pudding.  Let your images rebuff the rebuke.

"I would never understand photography, the sneaky, murderous taxidermy of it."  I love this.  Ms. Moore has put her finger on a few truths about photography, and street photography in particular.  That it tends to be sneaky, tru dat!  Even when you make known your camera by raising it to your face, it's usually a quick little movement so as to not "disturb the animals" at the zoo.  Of course, I'd disagree photography is murderous, but I agree it can be, just like any other human venture... so be nice!  As for photography, it is absolutely taxidermistic.  That is, it's an attempt capture a moment in time, which is by definition already one, atomic, and indivisible.  Like a kid who made an ashtray, with nothing but love, and presents it to their parents.  "Look, do you like what I made for you?"  So also the street photographer hopes for approbation, even if our present to the viewer was fired in a different kiln...those of the hot-baked streets of the city.  So, look, do you like what I made for you?

P.S. If the term "taxidermistic" ever becomes of value, you heard it here first!  But I'm not holding my breath ;-)