Why I'm quitting hipshots and zone-focusing

Why I’m quitting hipshots and zone-focusing

I’ve now been doing street photography for a pretty decent amount of time. I’d like to share some thoughts about where I’m going at the moment. I’ve been able to gather a good amount of work during this time and it’s time to review some of my own approaches and techniques. With some approaches, I’ve had good results, but others just haven’t worked for me that well. Looking back at my work from the past couple of years, I can clearly see some mannerism and repetitive mistakes. I like the idea of getting better in the craft and raising the bar as I go along. It’s of course important to hone the skill and not repeat exactly the same things over and over again, which is why I’m questioning couple of my favourite techniques. 

I’m basically concerned in two particular techniques: hipshooting and zone-focusing. I’m giving them both up, or at least putting way less emphasis on them. The simple reason is that, while they admittedly can work, I rarely get good, reliable results with them. They are both techniques that rely very much on luck and guessing. I’m moving more towards precision compositions and these techniques doesn’t support it at all. 

One of my favourite recent shots. This isn’t a candid street shot, as you probably can tell. I shot this with a model, but this is a very nice example of what can be achieved when nothing is left by chance. My dream is to bring this level of precision to my street photography as well.

(Just a quick little disclaimer at this point. This blog is my learning journal and this article, among many others, isn’t meant to be a master class tutorial of anything. I’m not advocating anything or telling anyone what to do. I’m just sharing where I’m going with my own thought processes in photography.)

What’s wrong with hipshots?

About a year ago, I used the hipshot technique a lot. I even switched (mostly) to 35mm focal length to make it even easier. I love the idea of the hipshot, because it enables you to infiltrate so well in to the scene. With a silent camera you can potentially be as close as it gets to being invisible. Looking back at some of my works though, I haven’t been able to get much out of it in reality — even though in the situation, it may feel like an ultimate technique, because you were able to get the shot unnoticed so well.  

The problem with the hipshot is the difficulty in composing precisely (or at all). There is no way of accurately knowing how the elements in the frame are going to overlap in each spatial dimension. If you’re at all concerned about how the subject(s), or any elements, are arranged in relation to each other or to the background elements, hipshots are very risky. These compositional mistakes could have been avoided simply by looking through the viewfinder. Maybe there’s bad ground-figure relationship between the subject and the background? Something like a dark subject on a dark (or visually noisy) background. This has happened to me many times. It feels even more annoying if there’s a lighter area in the background that would have been an obvious spot to place the subject over. The viewer may not realise that it is a hipshot and will probably have hard time understanding why’d anyone make such an obvious mistake. Avoiding these kinds of composition mistakes, is some times just a matter of moving your head slightly to get the critical correction to the angle. It’s almost impossible to do that kind of refinements without looking through the viewfinder. I’m not saying I’m never doing a hipshot again, but I’ll just try keep the horrendous hit/miss ratio in mind and favour precision composing instead of relying on my luck. 

Composition is a key tool for building the center of interest. If I’d be more clever, I’d probably invent more clever ways of utilising hipshots, but typically I end up taking just photos of people walking down the streets. I actually don’t get much out of these so called “walker” images, because there aren’t almost any relationships between the elements. There’s nothing to strengthen the center of interest or a sense of a specific moment being captured — just a photo of a person on the street. This brings us to the difficulty of finding the subject. Sometimes there isn’t anything to shoot, or at least nothing that you’d recognise as a thing to shoot. I’m at least past the point, where I’d settle for snapping a shot of a single person on the street. Even an interesting looking person may not be enough by itself to build a strong image, if there’s isn’t anything else for it to form relationships with.

Typical example of pretty simple hipshot application, with a questionable composition. This was aimed too high by accident, even though it kind of works in this instance. Does this photo have poetic qualities or does it seem more like a simple snap shot? (Leica M6, 35mm f2.8, Kodak Tri-x.)

This is 100% candid street shot, that I managed to compose very precisely without resorting to guessing. I wish it could be always like that. A harmonic geometry like this would be very hard to achieve with a hipshot. Taken with Leica M6, 35mm f2.8 and Kodak Tri-x ). Does this have poetic qualities or does it seem like a simple snap shot?

Mastering a certain focal length will of course be very helpful in hipshooting. Knowing the frame lines of a 35mm or a 50mm lens will give you intuitively a good hunch how the image is going to be framed, but even that is a guess and will yield in cut off heads. I know my 35mm frame lines pretty well, but 2/5 of my hipshots will have a floating head in the corner of the image, or a headless figure, because I aimed too low. When I try to be aware of that and correct it, I shoot way too up. And that’s not even the biggest problem. Remember that there are three spatial dimensions and it’s very hard to visualise accurately how elements are arranging in the depth axis. Very important to be aware of that, if you wan’t to keep your backgrounds under control. 

What is the alternative technique then? Well, the reason for resorting in hipshots in the first place, is being afraid. The solution is getting over the fear, so you can approach the shot in some other way.   

Giving up zone-focusing too (and returning to 50mm lens)

Hipshooting and zone-focusing goes hand-in-hand. Hipshots pretty much requires at least some understanding of the zone-focusing technique in order to work. They both share a similar problem too that involves a lot of guessing. Even though they are educated guesses, not complete shots in the dark, they both still hold a huge risk of failure caused by your own miscalculations and underestimation of distances and camera angles. Both techniques have a certain fun factor for sure, that comes from not knowing exactly what you’re going to get. The surprise and randomness can be extremely fun, but at least for the moment, I’m over that stage. If I look at the success rate I’ve had, I’m not too encouraged to keep going with zone-focusing either. Zone-focusing is really simple in theory, but bear in mind, that we are all humans that screw things up all the time. That is the reason I still get a LOT of (zone-focused) blurry subjects even though I should know better.  

If the only reason is to get a documentation without much emphasis on the artistic execution, zone-focusing is very useful. When I look at my photographs, I sometimes feel like they could have been better with a better background blur management. On the other hand, it is convenient to shoot at f8 and have a large depth of field and everything (or at least very much) in focus. Some times though, I feel like a particular shot should have been shot with a larger aperture to draw less attention to the background. Zone-focusing works well only with small apertures that’ll give a large depth of field. Anything between f8—f22. But what if you don’t wan’t to shoot at small apertures? 

Zone-focusing is also a technique that is more friendly towards the wider lenses. With a wide angle lenses, practically everything will be in focus even with the larger apertures. 24mm lens on f5.6 will give you practically almost focus free point-and-shoot. 35mm lens gives a lot of depth as well, which was again, one of my reasons into getting one. Having the ability to spray and pray with a greater success ratio (in terms of nailed focusing) didn’t how ever give me much satisfaction, because I did it in the expense of accuracy and composition. If the point is to get just some image — a document of an event that took place, without any emphasis on the artistic execution, it doesn’t matter too much I suppose. I’d imagine in war photography (or something similar) it’s more important to have the documentation than a pretty picture. I’m not personally interested in photographing reality or documenting anything. I’m, to be completely honest, interested in making just pretty pictures — visual poems almost. At least that is my goal. 50mm lens, with a greater background and depth of field control, supports that better than a wide angle lens. This is why I’ve now got back to using mainly the 50mm focal length. 

Ah, the good old 50mm… 

As a photographer, I seem to be somewhat subject oriented composer, which favours the 50mm lens (in my opinion at least). Even though I like the idea of opening the background up with a wider view, to give some context and setting, it doesn’t seem to fit my nature very well. What I manage to do is to clutter background with elements that I would intuitively just want to leave out. For some reason I just can’t use the wider angle to my benefit and it’s apparent strengths just keeps turning against me. 

I always seem to think in 50mm anyways. A large amount of my 35mm shots end up being post cropped to something that looks more like a 50mm framing. Giving up 35mm lens has some huge drawbacks as well, but at least at the moment, I feel like 50mm is the most natural for me and I just want to continue focusing on it. And yes, I’m one of those freaks that prefer concentrating on only one lens. Even one focal length is hard to master… I can’t even imagine just how lost I’d be with a zoom lens. Good grief! 

Zone-focusing and hipshooting are one step harder with a 50mm than with wider angle lenses. The decision to give both up, certainly encouraged me to get back to 50mm, but it was still a hard call and it took some serious thinking to let go of the 35mm. For the first couple of days, 50mm felt more like a telephoto lens, but after just few frames, it just started to feel so much more natural than my previous 35mm. In return, it hasn’t encouraged me to cheat with hipshots or relying too much on zone-focusing. 

Hybrid focusing

I still use the distance scale and utilise the knowledge of zone-focusing, but I just don’t rely on it completely. I still pre-focus to 2m (or whatever I anticipate to be the upcoming shooting distance). If I have my aperture at f5.6, I’ll know my depth of field is going to be so-and-so, based on the distance scale reading (and experience too of course) but I still focus visually by using the viewfinder. If I can’t focus in time, or if I fumble with the camera, at least I know what kind of margin of error I’ll have. If I shoot from two meters distance at f5.6, I know it doesn’t matter too much, if my focusing wasn’t spot on. I’ll have the confidence to know, the focusing was probably close enough to render a sharp subject. The larger the aperture gets, the smaller the margin of error gets. At f2 there’s absolutely no point in trying to zone-focus and you’ll know you have to pay extra attention. 

The drawback of not using zone-focusing is of course slower focusing speed. Many would argue that, especially with rangefinders, zone-focusing is the intended, primary, focusing technique. I agree to some extent, but I’d take that argument with a grain of salt. The truth is that rangefinder focusing has it’s drawbacks and zone-focusing is just one way of getting around some of them. I wouldn’t say that zone-focusing is the only true way of shooting with a rangefinder. Now that I think about it, relying only on the focusing patch, doesn’t seem like a completely wise decision either. They complement each other and work well when used in unison, which is exactly what I’m planning to do. The best way is to take advantage of all techniques and use them together. 

Shooting with a wide angle lens at small apertures, lets’s say 28mm at f8, is the fastest focusing technique in the world (faster than any auto-focus), because it is not even a focusing technique to begin with. With those settings, focusing can become obsolete, because everything just is in focus. Again, that was one of the reasons why I started to lean towards the 35mm instead of 50mm a while ago. I was intrigued of the idea of having an easier time with focusing. Now that I think about it, I was just lazy and tried to figure out short-cuts. Having a higher discipline by letting go of that mentality, and accepting that I’d have to take the responsibility, made me feel very good about returning to to 50mm.

That’s basically what has been on my mind lately. I think it’s good to be aware where you are as a photographer. I certainly don’t want to keep doing exactly the same things over and over again. I’m happy to be at the stage where I can observe my previous work and analyse it. Now that there starts to be a substantial body of work, I’d feel very wrong keep repeating the mistakes that are present in it. Especially during this year, there has been a nice improvement in my photos. At least I feel that way. The progression wouldn’t be possible without any any self analysis and honing in the process. I’ve tried to recognise what my weak points are and what is causing them. My biggest problems as a street photographer is my fear of interaction and getting close, that I’ve tried to solve by not getting noticed. That’s why I’ve resorted in hipshots etc. How to fix all this then? I suppose the answer is to develop social skills (which is difficult for me by nature) and to get more comfortable with the whole street shooting endeavour. That means just getting more experience and going out there to shoot. The saying practice makes perfect comes to mind. Even though, the more correct saying would probably be: “practice makes better — not perfect.”


Graphic designer and a 35mm film photography enthusiast. I enjoy straight photography on natural/available light and in-camera techniques. I'm inspired by early and mid-1900's classic photojournalism, street photography and documentary photography. Currently shooting mainly with Leica M6, and Olympus OM-4.

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