Waist Level Democracy, a Guide

(This is meant for beginners. For you old hands, spy chicken.)

To overgeneralize, there are two sets of variables to consider when shooting on the street.

Ask Permission
or
Shoot Candidly
Use a Face Camera
or
Shoot Prefocused, from “Hip”

Asking permission can alter things greatly, but sometimes asking yields fantastic, unpredictable results. And shooting candidly might mean you’ll miss a portrait you could later stage, by asking permission. I used to only shoot candidly – now I do both, depending on the situation.


Mr. Cameraface

Not mine, mine's all beat-up. If you want to keep things candid with a camera to your eye, it’s best to learn how to move fast. If you’re not fast enough to bring the camera to your face and need to photograph from the hip, your pictures may look like they were made by a ten year old. Neither of these is a plus or minus, necessarily.

Sometimes I shoot with an old Rolleiflex. It’s a beast to work with – extremely narrow depth of field and occassional light leaks. Framing objects in motion is tough because of the image reversal on the ground-glass.

But lately, the camera’s been a blessing. It’s so democratic. I can approach people, get close, and photograph them in a way that achieves tacit permission, while keeping things candid. They see me, I see them (both by looking directly at them, and via the ground glass), and my intentions are clear. It’s obvious that I’m photographing. There’s nowhere to hide.

. Unlike a face camera, I’ve found that the Rollei doesn’t affect the scene much. People are far less threatened or reactionary about it. If I need to gain permission, I can usually do it without speaking – with a nod, or a glance & a smile. Which means I can usually get closer, and be slower – the Rollei’s pretty slothy when adjusting focus and aperture.

There’s a specialness (or an officialness) to the camera that people seem to recognize. You don’t see people walking around with them. Kids ask what the heck it is. And because I can get closer and stay longer, I often use a strobe to get the most of what’s there.

. Shooting with a waist level camera is difficult to explain, and it’s taken me two years to get comfortable with it, but it feels so much better than quickly snapping pictures from higher up. It requires patience, thoughtfulness and a kind of openness that’s new to me, as a photographer who once thought speed was everything.

There’s historical precedence, of course. Diane Arbus, Larry Fink and Rosalind Solomon have all primarily used waist level cameras (and each studied with Lisette Model). Basically, if you see an uncropped street picture that’s square, chances are it was made at waist level.

Cat Show (1)If you like flickr, there are a few people who post street work from waist level. I love Stuart Isett’s portraits from China. Check out Mike Peters & Michael Cinque. Howard French. John Brownlow has some night strobe shots, too.

You don’t have to shoot black and white with an old camera. Right now, I’m prefering color and flash. If you wanna give it a whirl, lots of people like starting out with the Yashica Mat. Good luck!

Last 3 photos © MDM, 2006-2007

14 thoughts on “Waist Level Democracy, a Guide”

  1. I use a Yashica Mat sometimes on the street.
    It’s true, people don’t seem to care, and I feel “braver” when I am using it as it’s less confrontational than pointing a camera at people.

    It also works well if you do ask for portraits, people seem more likely to say yes and are intrigued by this old camera that they see.

  2. I’ve noticed this too when approaching people with my Rolleiflex. I have a set of street portraits here all shot with a Rolleiflex.. It’s actually quite rare for people to decline when I ask if I can photograph them. Sometimes people just come up to me to as about the camera. Still wish I didn’t have to do all that scanning though…

  3. The only pictures I’ve ever seen of Diane Arbus shooting showed her holding her Mamiyaflex chest high or even higher, right up to her face (I assume looking down into the magnifier).

    The TLR viewfinders are so wonderful, but I find it hard to get used to reversed direction of movement — things move the opposite way I expect! On the other hand, waist-level is great for full-body portraits because you’re dead in the center of the body.

    And those 2 1/4 negatives — so gorgeous.

  4. I traded in a Pentax *ist DS for a Rolleiflex T a few weeks back after my Autocord bit the dust. Interesting that you write about it’s usefulness as a street camera, as it’s already become my main camera for this purpose.

    I love the advantage it provides of being both more and less conspicuous than an SLR or rangefinder.

  5. Thanks Michael. I do have to clarify that I use a 45° prism on the Rollei and the Hassy that I currently use. Much easier for this guy to focus with. Looking down into it is still not quite as off-putting as a 35mm set up.

    The real beauty of old MF cameras as you touched on is that it telegraphs your intentions to take a photograph in a way that people seem to understand and accept without objection. I think it eliminates the sneaky quotient from the equation, and by sheer size and differentness, separates us from the masses weilding their digicams.

    Wrestling with the beast is also a good way to get yourself to truly concentrate on what you are doing. Rollei’s and Hassy’s are so counterintuitive to use that you really have to practice to be good at it, but it rewards that practice with images that are a wonder to behold, and exhibit.

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