I suspect that just about everyone reading this has heard the phrase “f/8 and be there” bandied about at some point, most likely in the context of photojournalism, documentary photography or street photography. Like the Sunny 16 rule, “f/8 and be there” is a ideological holdover from the film era that remains relevant in the digital age because, simply, it works. But if you’ve ever wondered about the origins of this principle and its real world efficacy, wonder no more as we take a quick look at a guideline that could play a consequential role in your own work.
As the story goes, when New York based photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig was asked how he captured amazing photos at such a consistent clip his reply was, “Simple. f/8 and be there.” Fellig’s answer may sound a bit cryptic at first, but once dissected it makes perfect sense.
Photo by s58y
Arthur Fellig’s most enduring work was produced in the 1930s and 1940s, so that gives you a good idea of the kinds of cameras he would have been using. 35mm was a commonly used focal length for documentary type work, as it allowed the photographer to easily include enough of the background to provide environmental context. Given that shutter priority and aperture priority didn’t exist yet, photographers of Fellig’s day had to account for variables and make calculations that modern cameras are capable of doing for us. Fellig wisely set his lens to the “sweet spot” of f/8; this middle-ground f-stop provides enough depth of field to keep everything in reasonably sharp focus, while also gathering enough light to use shutter speeds fast enough to avoid motion blur.
Of course, setting an aperture of f/8 only accounts for part of the technical process known as zone focusing or scale focusing. Zone focusing revolves around the idea that when you take a lens of a given focal length, set it to a specific aperture and focus it to a specific distance, everything that falls within that zone will be in acceptably sharp focus. So, if Fellig set his 35mm lens to f/8 and focused it to a point 17 feet away, everything between 9 feet and infinity would be in focus.
One can easily see how this technique liberates the photographer from having to think about settings while in the field. Zone focusing at f/8 essentially put a point-and-shoot camera in your hands in an era before there was any automation to speak of.
Claim Your Free Camera Craft Cheat Sheet
Print it out and keep it for when you really need it - when you're out shooting!
Photo by Gerry Lauzon
“And Be There”
While the first part of Fellig’s catchphrase is technical in nature, the second part of it is philosophical and isn’t difficult to decipher. You have to do whatever it takes to get the shots you want. If you’re a street photographer you have to be on the streets among the people and you have to get close. If you’re a photojournalist you have to be willing to go where the action is (Fellig was known to keep a police radio in his car). It really boils down to a matter of knowing what interests you and putting yourself in a position to capture moments that you care about.
Photo by régine debatty
“f/8 And Be There”: Final Thoughts
Some might wonder why any photographer today would rely on zone focusing when we have autofocus lenses. Well, autofocus lenses don’t always focus as quickly or accurately as we need them to. In rapidly changing environments where simply getting the shot is of primary concern, the tried and true technique embraced by Fellig and his contemporaries is just as useful now. If you’re in any way skeptical, all you’ve got to do is try it for yourself. This link will take you to an easy to understand zone focusing tutorial; in a matter of minutes you will be ready to follow in the footsteps of the great “Weegee.”