The Cutoff Technique in Street Photography

Dear friend,

A technique I learned from my good friend Charlie Kirk in street photography: what he calls the ‘cutoff technique’.


The basic concept is this: When you’re shooting street photography on a wide-angle lens (anywhere from a 24mm-28mm lens), you must shoot more “head-on” in order to create a dynamic street photography composition. If you shoot too much from the side (what Charlie calls ‘oblique angles’), then the photograph won’t be as visually powerful and impactful.

How to do the ‘cutoff technique’

So basically the concept is this:

When you’re walking on a sidewalk, and you see someone you want to photograph (candid street photograph without their permission), you first start off by walking on one side of the sidewalk, and when you’re ready to make the photograph of them, you cut them off, by shooting head-on, and then continuing to walk past them.

Describing this via text is difficult, so let me try to explain via photos.

Oblique angles

Okay first of all, this above image is an example of shooting from an oblique angle. I’m shooting this photo on a 24mm lens on a Lumix LX100, and when shooting in real life, I’m actually pretty close to her (around 1.2 meters). But visually, the photograph lacks impact, because I’m still not “close enough” to fill in the frame with her. And I’m also shooting this photograph NOT head-on (this is an ‘oblique’ angle)– I’m shooting her about to pass me on the left side (I am on the right side).

I then get really close to her with the 24mm lens, and fill the frame with the subject (shooting vertically/portrait orientation). Now, the photograph is more dynamic and compositionally more interesting. Yet, even though I got really close, the photograph is shot from an ‘oblique angle’ (from the side), and therefore this photograph (to me) isn’t that interesting.

Cutoff technique example 1: Man with Flip Phone in Tokyo

Flash. Ricoh GR II, popup flash, P mode. Tokyo, 2017
Successful photograph with the cutoff technique: Crouching low in front of him, using a flash, on 28mm on RICOH GR II // Tokyo, 2017

So this photograph above with the man and the flip phone is a good example of a street photograph I shot with the Ricoh GR II (28mm lens) with the cut-off technique.

This is how I made the photo:

  1. I was walking in the narrow alleyways of Shibuya in Tokyo, and I saw this interesting character checking his phone.
  2. What I then did was walked to the left side of him, and once I got very close, I “cut off” his walking path (by walking diagonally in front of him), crouched down, and quickly shot a photograph with a flash on the RICOH GR II.
  3. The flash allows separate him from the background (figure to ground), saturates the colors, and because I crouched down low, the lower-angle perspective looks more interesting, and has better leading lines that direct to him:
Tokyo abstract, 2017
Tokyo abstract of man with flip phone, 2017. Note the leading lines and perspective in the background, pointing to him.

Cutoff technique example 2: Man with hand over his face in Tokyo

Man with hand over face. Tokyo, 2017
Man with hand over face. Tokyo, 2017

Another good photograph to explain this concept is a photograph of a man with his hand over his face.

I was walking in a pretty sparse area in Ueno overpass in Tokyo, and in order to make a more dynamic and aggressive street photograph, I got in front of his walking path (he was an older Japanese man, walking slowly), and then I “cut off” his forward movement, by getting in front of him, crouching down low, and also shooting with a flash.

Why is he covering his face?

Because I was too slow in shooting the photo, he saw me about to photograph him, and therefore he responded BEFORE I made the photograph, by covering his face with his hand.

I then took the photograph with the flash, and it ended up making an interesting photo, because his hand covering his face is more mysterious– and therefore the photograph creates more of a ‘curiosity gap‘ (you as a viewer wonder, “What does his face look like, and what is his expression like?”)

Cutoff technique example 3: Women with shopping bags

Girls with shopping bags walking towards me. I use the 'cutoff technique' to get in front of them, and to shoot head-on, to make a more dynamic street photography composition. Tokyo, 2017
Girls with shopping bags walking towards me. I use the ‘cutoff technique’ to get in front of them, and to shoot head-on, to make a more dynamic street photography composition. Tokyo, 2017

The last example (for now) I will give you regarding the cutoff technique is this photograph.

Visually, note that the photograph looks like the woman are about to collide with you (the viewer). It looks like they’re walking directly INTO you, which adds more dynamism in the photograph, which makes the photograph more interesting.

To make the photograph, I was in Omotesando in Tokyo (my favorite neighborhood, make sure to check out the coffee shop ‘Cafe Kitsune‘ in the hood), and in the small streets, I saw a bunch of women walking. I then pretended like I was just walking on their left side, and then when I wanted to get the photo, I “cut off” their forward movement by walking in front of them, took the photograph, but then continued to walk on the right side of the street. This enabled me to make a dynamic street photograph, clicking the shutter at the moment when I was visually right in front of them (shooting head-on).

Garry Winogrand and the Cutoff Technique

Gary Winogrand, Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967.
Gary Winogrand, Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967.

One of the best street photographers to study the good use of shooting with a wide-angle lens (28mm lens) and shooting head-on (and also using the ‘cutoff technique’ is Garry Winogrand (thanks also to Charlie for introducing me to him).

You can see even in Winogrand’s famous photograph of the couple above with the chimpanzees, you can see the shadow of Garry Winogrand on the man’s suit jacket, because Winogrand was shooting head-on. I surmise in order to make the photograph, Winogrand had to walk right in front of them (with the cutoff technique) to make the photo. He probably made the photograph by first walking on their left side, cutting off their movement by walking in front of them, and then perhaps he said “thank you” and continued to walk on their right side.

Tod Papageorge, “New York, 1967.
Tod Papageorge, “New York, 1967.

An interesting aside: Garry Winogrand was shooting with his friend Tod Papageorge, who actually photographed the couple BEFORE Winogrand made his version. You can see Tod’s photograph isn’t as good, because Tod didn’t shoot head-on, and Tod shot the photograph too much from the side (oblique angle). Not only that, but when Tod initially took the photograph, the couple was actually walking the apes on the ground.

Funny story: when Garry Winogrand saw this scene, he actually shoved Tod out of the way, in order for him to get a shot for himself. Tod describes the shove:

“Then, bang!, I felt myself being pushed in the back away from this odd little group. A real shove, unfriendly, hard. And, of course, it was Garry, camera already up, making pictures, who’d done it.” – Tod Papageorge

Lesson: I think it was justified that Winogrand shoved Tod Papageorge out of the way in order to get his version of the photograph, because the photograph is a beautiful image– that treads the issues of inter-racial couples, as well as the interpretation that the viewer might have about an inter-racial couple and having chimpanzees as children.

Garry Winogrand laughing with the couple. Tod Papageorge, Photo shot by Tod Papageorge
Garry Winogrand laughing with the couple. Tod Papageorge, Photo shot by Tod Papageorge

You can also see via the ‘behind the scenes’ photograph by Tod that Winogrand had a nice laugh with the couple after he shot the scene.

Learn more about this photograph here: About a Photograph: New York, 1967, by Garry Winogrand or Download the PDF here.


Downtown LA, 2015
Cutoff technique, shooting layers, head-on, 35mm. Downtown LA, 2015

To be frank, to describe this technique without seeing it in real life is very difficult. I don’t think I have done the technique/concept justice in clearly explaining it. I might try to get someone to record me (or I might do a GoPro Street Photography POV of me shooting it, to better explain it in the future).

These are the basic takeaway points:

  1. If you’re shooting with a wide angle lens, like a 24mm, 28mm or even 35mm lens, to make more dynamic compositions in street photography, shoot HEAD-ON. And to shoot head-on means that you might be perceived as an asshole when you’re shooting street photography. But realize if you want to make powerful and dynamic street photography compositions, you must be aggressive.
  2. Treat yourself like a street photography ballerina meets boxer: This is a concept I got from the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, and also from Bruce Gilden who said, “I love seeing how other street photographers dance in the streets.” You must practice your footwork when you’re shooting street photography to experiment with your compositions, angles, and position. Street photography is all about where you’re standing on the streets, when you click the shutter, and your perspective (whether you’re crouching down, or shooting at eye-level).
  3. When doing the cutoff technique and shooting head-on with a wide-angle lens, I generally find horizontal (landscape) orientation to look better visually. But of course, just always experiment.
  4. Shooting head-on and using the cutoff technique is hard. The most difficult part is having the aggressiveness, quickness and the lightness of your feet and movement, but also the difficult thing is TIMING: when to actually click the shutter.

Lastly, remember street photography is hard, difficult, and scary. But the more you build your confidence, the more you take risks, and the more you hustle hard on the streets, the more successful you will be!


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