iPhone photog shoots gritty street scenes ‘from the hip’

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iPhone photo book
From the pages of Shooting from the Hip.
Photo: Scott Strazzante

Scott Strazzante may have named his upcoming coffee table book of iPhone photos, Shooting from the Hip, for the way he holds his camera near his waistline to surreptitiously photograph people.

But the title is also apt because his love for shooting with the iPhone began with an itchy trigger finger.

The award-winning photojournalist was on a much-needed vacation in 2010 but quickly felt anxious without a camera in his hands. His daughter, Betsy, handed over her iPhone and her relieved father began capturing dozens of images, the first of what he estimates to be more than a half million photos.

Strazzante’s book is an edit of his favorite 150 iPhone photos and it is available for pre-order through Press Syndication Group, a publisher and photo agency, to be released this fall. It is his second book with PSG.

“I haven’t written a dedication yet. How do you thank people who don’t know they were photographed?” Strazzante, a San Francisco Chronicle photographer, told Cult of Mac. “If someone comes up to me and says they saw their picture in the book, I’d give them a free copy.”

Shooting from the Hip
The collection is just a small bite of an estimated half million photos Strazzante shot with his iPhone.
Photo: Scott Strazzante

Strazzante is one of several well-known pros to have embraced the iPhone, its camera and an App Store loaded with useful editing and publishing software the most disruptive force in photography since the Kodak Brownie.

For novice photographers, the iPhone, its image quality growing with each generation, eliminates the need for technical know-how or expensive bulky equipment. These were once barriers in the minds of many who believed they need both to just make pictures and now, photography has never been more popular.

To a photojournalist like Strazzante, the iPhone eliminates another barrier – camera awareness. Ethics dictate a storyteller like Strazzante mustn’t stage moments or request a do-over of something missed. Still, even as a photographer tries to blend into a scene to capture candid interactions, there is still a nagging feeling that the camera’s presence is somehow stunting what would otherwise be natural.

“I don’t like when people are aware they are being photographed and that is something I have always struggled with,” said Strazzante, who has more than 56,000 followers on Instagram. “Throughout my newspaper career, I would have to shoot from the hip, especially with kids. I got tired of kids looking right into the camera.”

Gunslingers in the old West known to shoot from the hip may not have always hit with accuracy. Firing as the barrel of a gun leaves the holster may save a split second and win the first shot, but the gun raised and pointed has a higher percentage of hitting the target.

Similar to the confident sheriff or outlaw, Strazzante likes his chances from the hip and seldom composes a picture using the iPhone’s screen.

Shooting from the Hip
Facing pages from Shooting from the Hip
Photo: Scott Strazzante

Not looking allows him to see and react. A creature of habit, he hunts the same path three or four times a week, his eyes scanning the throngs of people walking toward him. His arms are relaxed with lowered hands holding the iPhone 6 near the belly button that offers an upward view of the faces of San Francisco’s.

He fires between 500 and 1,000 times and says the pictures are composed to his liking 75 percent of the time.

When looking through the viewfinder of his DSLR, Strazzante says composition can sometimes feel forced or overly formal. From the hip allows him to let go of control, but Strazzante has found the moments he captures this way to be more serendipitous.

Shooting from the Hip
Strazzante’s dedication in the book will be a thank you to the people who are unaware they were photographed.
Photo: Scott Strazzante

“The pictures seem to be equally divided into two categories,” he said. “Half are people just walking down the street in their own world or there are these incredible moments that happen in public that go unnoticed. If people just paid attention, they would see some amazing stuff.”

Maybe not. Strazzante is hyper-vigilant and hardwired to see the most fleeting of situations.

His eye can quickly draw a bead on contrast. He will spot two ideas just before they intersect and capture them in an odd juxtaposition: a dog staring at a passerby wearing a cat tail, businessmen looking at the smartphones as they cross a checkered plaza, looking like pawns on a chess board or a man with a cone of ice cream swirled in the same shape as a modern building in the background.

Shooting from the Hip
Strazzante can find interest in big city bustle and rural county fairs.
Photo: Scott Strazzante

An otherwise distracting advertising at a bus stop is an opportunity for something humorous or poignant as soon as the right person walks by. The cover of the book sets the table for a new viewer. It is the shark from the movie Jaws reflected in a window, a man strolling by with his head lost in the open mouth of the Great White.

Shooting from the Hip
Scott Strazzante
Photo: Betsy Strazzante

Strazzante sees the benefit in stalking the same grounds. He integrates with the rhythms of the streets and sidewalks and gets familiar with the play of light and shadow.

For the shadow detail and tonality he likes in his work, he shoots through the popular app, Hipstamatic, switching off between the John S. and Lowly lens but always with the BlackKeys black and white film setting.

Hipstamatic created the Bucktown HipstaPak for Strazzante, featuring the Scott S. lens and a new BlackKeys infrared film.

“I discovered Scott’s work a while back on Instagram,” Mario Estrada, Hipstamatic’s Director of Fun, said. “He has such an incredible eye for light and human interaction. He was capturing these candid street moments that were interesting and honest. It’s been great to see what he’s been able to do with Hipstamatic as a tool. Scott’s work has helped elevate the quality of the (Hipstamatic) community as a whole.”

The bulk of his street shooting came in Chicago, where he worked for the Chicago Tribune for 13 years. He left there to join the Chronicle in 2014 and finds San Francisco to be the most visually raw city has ever worked in. The book has mostly San Francisco scenes, though there are images from Chicago and some of the cities he has traveled for work.

The video below shows the manner in which Strazzante shoots with his iPhone. The black and white short film was made by his daughter, Betsy, who lovingly relinquished her iPhone to him on that vacation seven years ago.