Written by John Kennerdell
It was only near the tail end of the film era, around 1998, that I finally acquired the camera I’d longed for since my student days: an old mint-condition Rollei twin-lens reflex. Just hefting its weight and touching those precise German controls made me think, oh yes, here we go. With a machine like this even I ought to be able to carve my name upon the photographic firmament.
Like so much in life, the reality fell short. Not that I really expected the firmament to take much note, but I couldn’t even reliably focus the damn thing. Fair enough, I could if I flipped up the magnifier loupe and squinted right into it, but that kind of defeated the point of waist-level framing. And so eventually off it went to KEH, where I hope it found a new owner with better eyes than mine.
That began my quest to find myself a digital equivalent: a Fauxliflex. I’ll spare you the twists and turns of the search, but suffice to say that by a couple years ago I had not one but two matching bodies that finally fit the bill. Flip-up screens, quiet shutters, good enough image quality. Apart from low light or events (I’ll get to that), they’re mostly all I’ve used since. So I thought it might be time to offer a few thoughts on shooting from the belly button á la digital.
The three-foot-high club
This is the paradoxical and wonderful thing about a waist-level finder: it helps you be more anonymous when shooting candidly, and yet more personal when working with your subject.
Raise a camera to your eye and people take notice. Point it directly at them and their reaction can escalate into concern, nervousness, even anger. Of course we learn to deal with that, and every good street photographer develops his or her own ways to keep things relaxed. Still, the gun-like aspect of an eye-level finder is always going to hold a certain subliminal threat: I’m looking at you through this machine and I’m about to...shoot.
Here's the pair of waist-level digicams I’ve been using for the past few years. The lenses stay attached, black for normal and silver for wide, so I reflexively know what view to expect when I pick them up. That “72,621” is the shutter count—hardly breaking a sweat for a real Rollei but not bad from a $500 consumer appliance.
A waist-level camera is still, clearly, a camera. People can see the lens and if they notice you they'll know perfectly well what you're doing. But there's something of a remove: your immediate attention is not on your subject but your camera. Maybe you're fiddling around with it a bit, geeky and harmless. It's all so low-key that many people don't notice at all. For fly-on-the-wall photography, that's about as non-intrusive as it gets.
Now the flip side: holding a camera halfway down your body is also pretty much ideal whenever you want to engage with a subject. As far as I know, the late Tim Hetherington didn't choose a Rolleiflex out of any special love for film or even the square format. It was a machine thoroughly unsuited to 21st-century combat zones. He used it, by all accounts, because he liked to maintain full contact with his subjects while shooting. By that I mean not just eye contact but talking, interacting, communicating with facial and body language. The camera essentially disappears.
Whether working candidly or otherwise, shooting from the waist brings one more benefit we seldom hear mentioned. You're no longer at eye level, where generally there's nothing else but heads. You're just a bit lower, down where all kinds of other things are happening. There are peoples' bodies, the way they're dressed, the things they're holding and doing, the place they're standing and everything it contains. Yes, using an eye-level finder of course you can point your camera downward, or lean forward or kneel, or do whatever else it takes to get it all in. But from the waist, more often than not, you simply aim the camera straight ahead and a balanced composition falls into place.
In the market, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. I've always liked the kind of framing that happens naturally when working from the waist. Your subjects' heads are suddenly above the horizon, or at least the clutter. You see more of their hands, their bodies, their context. It's decidedly not the perspective you normally get from your own eyes (well, unless you're a child), but photographically often it's just right.
Tips from the hip
Right then, some assorted thoughts on the whole digital waist-level approach. These are purely personal, so take or leave them as you will.
Apart from focusing, the main problem with the Rollei for me was just holding it steady. TLR users had a number of tricks, like pulling it down against a taut neck strap or holding it tight against your belly. But fundamentally, supporting a camera in your two hands is never going to be as steady as also pressing it against something nice and solid like a handy skull, typically your own. Ah ha, you say, but now we have image stabilization. We do, and it’s a big part of what helps these cameras work for me. Yet I don’t believe it’s the panacea that many people now seem to think. The steadier you can hold your camera, the sharper you can still expect your results to be. But here's the good news: the more you shoot with two-point as opposed to three-point support, the better you seem to get at it. TLR shooters used to say as much, but only with experience have I come to believe them.
Instead of arching my index finger over the shutter release, I usually find myself keeping my right thumb flat along the top of the camera and then flexing it to trip the shutter. Partly it just feels more comfortable that way when holding a camera low, partly it may be out of a subconscious recognition that it sends one less visual cue as to the moment of the shot.
Again, if it wasn't clear above, I'm not talking about sneaking photos. It's just about being minimally invasive.
Waist-level viewing might work best for those of us who like to crop square. It’s fine for horizontals too, of course. But verticals? Maybe you could try one of those "fully-articulated"* screens? (I’m just guessing here. They never seem to work for me for anything. Long live the flip-up, in-line screen.)
To me the Fauxliflex feels more natural with single focal-length lenses than zooms. Probably that’s something about knowing where you want to be even before you look at the camera and compose the photo. I treat a waist-level finder mainly as a final confirmation of what’s in the frame, not as a window to peer into while moving all about and zooming in and out. Feel free to differ.
I don't like it with longer lenses, but then I don't use them much, and anyhow wasn't the Tele Rolleiflex a bit of an odd duck too? Waist-level is also usually less than optimal for events and other jobs where everyone knows and accepts that there’s someone with a camera who’s going to be snapping like mad the whole time. When you’re really working a scene, in my opinion still nothing beats the responsiveness and immersive quality of an eye-level optical finder.
Anyhow I'm quite devoted to my Fauxliflexes, and while no doubt even better ones will come along presently, I could happily carry on with exactly what I have now. But perhaps that is where true photographic fulfillment lies: finding what works for you, and then just getting on with it.
*A slight misnomer, as they don't swing in the one direction that many of us most want. Sony proved with some of its DSLRs that it is possible to design a true fully-articulated screen, but a side hinge ain't it.
John Kennerdell writes two essays a year for TOP. His past contributions can be found under his name in the Categories list in the right-hand sidebar.
©2015 by John Kennerdell, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Hugh Crawford (partial comment): "I can not stand using eye level viewing. Composition is so much easier when you aren't looking 'through' the camera."
[For complete comments from which "partial comments" are taken, please see the Comments Section. —Ed.]
Peter Van Dyken: "In a day so long ago when I was thoroughly convinced that it was the camera and not the photographer that made the difference, I bought a Hasselblad with an 80mm lens. I enthusiastically support everything that John mentioned about the experience of waist-level shooting and would add a further consideration that I discovered in sporting about with the 'Blad. I came to appreciate what became to me a very significant difference between eye-level and waist-level composition, that being the difference between shooting with two eyes on the screen as opposed to one. I began to imagine that I saw three dimensions in my efforts to compose. I'm sure for many it would make no difference but for me it was the factor that brought a pleasure into photography that I had not known before."
Kodachromeguy: "One of the nice aesthetic features of portraits taken with a Rolleiflex or Fauxliflex is that the subject is often mid-body. Gents look heroic. And ladies are evenly proportioned—they do not have that absurd big head and tiny diminishing body that you see in Hollywood pictures where a six-foot paparazzi held his monster Canikonflex at eye level while photographing a petite lady."
emptyspaces: "I love using the Olympus face/eye detection feature at waist level."