f/8 and Be There – What We Can Learn From WeeGee’s Philosophy
“f/8 and Be There” – a famous quote attributed to Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, a world famous New York photojournalist and street photographer most known for his works in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Allegedly, this was his response to an inquiry into his photographic techniques. It has since become a philosophy of street photographers and photojournalists – even among professionals. But what is really the purpose behind the mantra, and what can we really learn from it? Street photographers and aspiring photojournalists should pay close attention today, because we are going to dissect the mantra today, and it should be an invaluable lesson.
Weegee’s response is beautiful in that it gives away the technical side of his two-part philosophy: f/8. That’s pretty much all you really need to know. In a word, he has given away the easiest way to ensure a crisp, clean photograph. He’s provided you with a formula, and a simple one at that. f/8, as we know, is a middle-ground aperture. It will give you enough depth of field to prevent critical focusing mistakes. But it will give you enough of an opening to let light through, thus avoiding the slowest of shutter speeds. Keep in mind, Weegee worked in a day when photography equipment was nothing like it was today. Aperture priority and shutter priority did not yet exist. Calculations needed to be done in your head and even the best photographers would need at least a few seconds to figure out the correct exposure. One developed a knack for it, of course, but there is a lot of possible combinations to consider. Weegee’s solution was simply to eliminate unnecessary combinations. Using only f/8 eliminated a lot of the guesswork. I expect he learned the shutter and aperture combinations better than his way around town. His method was built for speed and efficiency, and the end result was predictable.
While the technical side of Weegee’s philosophy was based on antique equipment, the mantra still applies today. Even with our fancy cameras – all of which have a computer onboard, even film cameras – there really isn’t much reason to deviate from f/8 when shooting in otherwise unknown conditions. Time is of the essence, and any element of your shot setup that can be eliminated should. It may mean the difference between capturing an award winning photograph, or missing entirely. Considering any potential circumstances, f/8 is an appropriate aperture for most of the conditions you will come across. This philosophy still holds true today.
You can’t shoot what isn’t presented before you. The other part of Weegee’s philosophy – and perhaps the most important part – is simply to “be there”. By whatever means necessary, figure out a way to be present so that you have an opportunity of getting the shot. I hate to use the Paparazzi as an example – because it’s a business practice I am not a fan of – but the whole basis of their business model is simply getting the shot. Even the crummiest of shots will earn the photographer lots of money so long as we, the public, can tell what’s going on. A crappy photograph of Sean Penn throwing a fist at reporters still paints a picture, even if the context is not fully realized. But that’s the point – the quality of the photo doesn’t matter to the Paparazzi. Getting the shot does. That applies to street photographers and photojournalists as well, though to a lesser extent. Quality does matter, especially since our reputation is staked behind it. But we still need to be there, and we still need to get the shot. Otherwise, we’ve got nothing.
In 1938, Weegee was the only newspaper reporter that had a permit to have a portable police-band radio in his car. Clearly, the goal was to make sure that he had a method for finding the news and getting the shot. I’m sure he also had his inside sources all over the city, allowing him to find out news as it was happening. “Be there,” was his mantra, and he really did do everything possible to make sure he got there. I wonder if Weegee would have been so famous if he hadn’t adopted this second part of his philosophy. I wonder if others in the trade were so quick to pick up his unorthodox methods of the time. When did they realize that they should also have police-band radios? Of course we live in a time where our phones can tap into the news before even the news outlets are aware – as quick as they are themselves. During the earthquake that rocked most of the east coast, I got confirmation from fellow Twitter users well before it popped up on any other resource – not even the radio picked it up that quickly. We almost have no excuse for missing the news. These days, it should be pretty easy for us to “be there”. If we don’t get the shot, absence shouldn’t be an excuse.
Aurther “Weegee” Fellig died in 1968, but his legacy lives on. In the photojournalism industry and among street photographers worldwide, Weegee and his philosophy have left a mark. His mantra, “f/8 and be there”, is so simple, yet so elegant. It’s a window into the mind of a great photojournalist, and it nearly gives away all of his secrets in just five syllables. There is much to be learned from Weegee’s philosophy, much more than I have covered here today. But it stands as a stable foundation for other personal philosophies that have built upon it to this day.