f/8 And Be There – the Unclear Origin of a Photographic Mantra and What It Really Means

f/8 And Be There – the Unclear Origin of a Photographic Mantra and What It Really Means

2560 1440 James Tocchio

Photography suffers no shortage of cliché. A favorite of these clichés, it seems, is the persona of the grizzled press photographer running on coffee and cigarettes, doing whatever it takes to get the shot. This colorful character and the idolization of the ideal which he stands for has birthed dozens of mottos, mantras, and phrases to guide we lower mortals in our photographic quest to be more like Him.

Of these many mantras, one stands proud. F/8 and be there.

The Unclear Origins of f/8 and Be There

Apocryphally, the mantra was coined by the mid-20th century New York City-based crime and tabloid photographer Arthur Fellig, more popularly known as Weegee.

Weegee’s unflinching photography was scalding hot in black and white, flash exposed on the rain-slick streets, and often dripping with blood. In the earliest days of his craft he would loiter around the Manhatten Police headquarters. When a story came over the police teletype (an early fast communication device that could send written messages over phone lines) he’d race the police to the scene of the catastrophe, often being the first to arrive. This offered him an opportunity to photograph the carnage without interruption or interference. He would then quickly develop the film and take the grizzly, uncensored pictures to the newspaper.

In this way Weegee made a living (and a name for himself) out of his outlandish, violent, and shocking photography.

The story around the connection between Weegee and the mantra f/8 and be there goes like this. One day, when Weegee had achieved a certain level of fame, he was asked by an interviewer how he had managed to become the most famous crime scene photographer in history. Weegee supposedly replied with the now famous and famously succinct witticism, “F/8 and be there.”

I can’t find this interview anywhere, nor a written first-hand account. Nor, it seems, can anyone else.

Did Weegee ever speak the words? I don’t know. But there’s reason to believe he did not.

To start, Weegee is known to have made nearly all of his published photographs with a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera preset to f/16 and 1/200th of a second, with a flash bulb, and standing from a set distance of ten feet. If a photographer spent decades shooting at essentially the same settings, it makes little sense that the photographer would offer anything but these specific settings in his clever retort to a somewhat dim question.

Next, I’ve found published documents in which multiple people claim the source of the phrase to be National Geographic, though I admittedly cannot find the issue which apparently mentions the phrase. (I know that a few veteran Nat Geo photographers read this site – email me!)

There was an article in the July 1985 issue of Whole Earth Review titled Digital Retouching: The End of Photography as Evidence of Anything. In this prescient article, the writer Stewart Brand wrestles with the question of photographic ownership in an approaching era in which photographs could be created by a computer. He mentions the mantra and its connection with National Geographic in passing. “The advice to photographers from the [National] Geographic is: ‘f/8 and be there.’ If content in photos can be electronically and subliminally added and re-moved, why bother to be there?”

The NG connection to the phrase was mentioned again in a 1993 issue of Popular Photography. In this issue the photographer Kal Muller describes how he made a particular photo. He casually mentions, “The advice, ‘f/8 and be there’ from National Geographic years ago, has long been my motto.”

Whether from Weegee or National Geographic, (perhaps it’s from a piece in National Geographic on Weegee?) there’s no denying the ubiquity of the motto within the zeitgeist of photography. Everyone knows it, and even when it doesn’t work we still talk about it.

In a 1983 issue of Direction: The Navy Public Affairs Quarterly, Master Gunnery Sergeant Ed Evans writes about covering the Marines in Lebanon in 1982. In this article, Evans contrarily writes that f/8 and be there was, for him, useless.

“[…] Marines landed. Cameras whirred and clicked. […] It was a battlefield circus. Masses of PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] supporters were firing weapons and armament of every sort, artillery airbursts promised to make Vietnam-era knees buckle instinctively, automatic weapons chattered, loudspeakers blared, the crowd surged and the situation seemed always on the brink of raging out of control. […] There was no time for the “f/8 and be there” philosophy, no time to be shooting 20 shots in the hopes one would be good[…]”

As for the mantra’s popularity over time, Google Ngram Viewer attributes the first mention of the phrase to have occurred around 1968. Incidentally that’s the year that Weegee died. The phrase appeared more and more frequently throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. It peaked in popularity around the year 2004, dipped considerably throughout the aughts, and climbed back to popularity throughout the latter half of the 2010s. According to Google Ngram Viewer, F/8 and be there is as popular today as it ever was.

How to f/8 and Be There, and Why It Became a Thing

With the lens aperture set to f/8, sufficient light enters the camera to create a proper exposure in most situations. If we set the lens to the lens’ hyper-focal distance (using zone focusing), f/8 also provides sufficient depth of field that everything up close and far away alike will be rendered sharply focused in the photo. That’s the “f/8” part of the phrase.

With the lens aperture set to f/8, the lens focus set to hyper-focal distance, and the shutter set to a general purpose speed, it’s possible for the photographer to completely ignore the camera. With the controls set in place, he or she can instead focus their attention entirely on what’s happening around them. That’s the “be there” part.

The result, supposedly, is that photographers attempting to capture a story, for a newspaper, let’s say, will have the best luck doing so by following the mantra. F/8 and be there and they’ll get the shot.

In the heyday of film photography, and to the many hobbyist photographers who idolized the reportage of the famous photojournalists who often said the phrase (apocryphally or not, who knows?), f/8 and be there came to stand for a certain photographic philosophy. It asserted that taking good photos was less about technical ability or innate talent and more about being in the thick of it, amongst the action with your eyes open and your senses tuned. To f/8 and be there was to be knee deep in the mud and up to your elbows in the drama. All you needed was guts and an eyeball.

F/8 and be there. That’s all it takes. Press the button and watch for falling Pulitzers.

What f/8 and Be There Means To Me

There are plenty of photographers who live by the mantra today. I’ve seen it written on countless blogs and heard plenty of YouTubers mention it. I’ve seen t-shirts branded with it (I’ve even considered making one myself). For many, I’m sure it still conjures images of the ideal photojournalist (whatever that means).

For me, f/8 and be there means something else.

I’ve long ago given up the idea that my photography will mean anything to anyone outside of my family. My photography isn’t anything special. I’m not a fashion photographer or a celebrity portrait artist. I don’t have a high concept in mind when I reach for my Nikon SP. I’m too old to be cool and too young to be interesting. As I have said on my YouTube channel and in other articles, I shoot photos so that someone I love might someday look at them and think I was pretty good.

But I can still wring some use out of the mantra f/8 and be there.

I focus on the last part. Being there. On vacation. At home with my girls. When I was in the hospital after my daughters’ births. At Disney World. Especially at Disney World. I always have the camera. But I don’t really care about it. I don’t worry about it, or focus on it. Or pack it away delicately between shots, or bother with a lens cap, or bring too much gear, or obsess over getting the perfect photo. I just shoot the thing and spend my time being there. There with my wife and kids. There with my thoughts. There for them. Just being there.

For me, after all, being there is the best thing about photography.

[Below: times I was there, not necessarily at f/8.]

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
26 comments
  • I always thought about it as a challenge to think about what we select to be in the frame with a 35mm camera, opposed to just select a wide aperture like f1.2 which could make to easy to get a subject without need to think much about the background. Personally I think it depends much about the characteristics of a lens, I had a Canon FD 50mm f1.8 which at close distances the bokeh was a bit too nervous so I would prefer to use it at f2 or so, tele objectives instead somehow can simulate a bit that medium format look if shoot wide open. Said that I think Sam Abel’s iconic photographs are shoot mostly in 28mm at seemingly an aperture of f/8. Nice memories in your photographs, James. After all photography is about memories.d

  • I use f.8 a lot 😉

  • Steve Mitchell May 16, 2022 at 4:55 am

    I guess F8 will always get you a reasonable shot, the important part of that saying is “be there” I think. And every now and then I seem to need to prove to myself that I cannot take a photo with a camera that I don’t have with me! Leaving the camera at home is a guaranteed way to generate beautiful light and amazing compositions as I drive along!!!

  • leah de la cruz May 16, 2022 at 5:43 am

    I’ve never heard of this mantra before but I do tend to shoot at f/8 or higher subconsciously! thank you for writing this. you have a way with words that’s inquisitive while not giving a boring history lesson haha looking forward to reading more from you James!

  • Steve Selvidge May 16, 2022 at 8:33 am

    I’m so glad I found this blog/IG
    Well written, great content, and it is a welcome addition to my reading.

    • Totally agree Steve.
      By the way, my Contax T uses this mode as a mode, which makes it “the fastest camera of the world …” (from a famous American expert on photography, cameras, HiFi, Ebike …).
      I have used many cameras this way, for street photography this is perfect. But sometimes we have to return to normal : lens has many apertures, and each one has some interest.
      One more time, here, a great article, great comments,
      Love it one more time.

    • Thank you so much Steve. If this was your first visit, welcome! We’ve got almost eight years of articles for you!

  • Michael Eric Berube May 16, 2022 at 9:32 am

    When I made my living with TriX, f/8 and 1/125 were my presets. These days I make my living with APS-C format sensors (Fuji) and “f/5.6 and be there” works even better…More especially with the advent of Aperture Priority, AutoISO and Auto WB (400-12800) at hand. 🙂

    • You’re right. F/8 and be there is definitely MORE apropos in the era of aperture-priority semi-auto exposure mode.

  • First off James, your photography is FANTASTIC. Plenty of shots in the above series alone that tell a story all by themselves, apart from their value to your family album. That’s what I like to see in photography. Knowing the planning and attention to detail you put into each shoot, it shows that you are still able to “let if fly” when the time comes. Preparation breeds results or something like that.

    As for F8, I find it a middle ground stopping point for situations where you want focus edge to edge but still allowing enough light in to bring in some detail. It’s an aperture I use mostly when shooting surfing for those reasons. When things slow down you’ll usually find me down around f1.4-f2 or up at f16 to really bring in the detail. An “F-stop Extremist”, haha!

    But yeah, “F8 is Great” as the other saying used to go. Maybe a deep dive into that one next?

    • Thank you, truly, for the kind comment! There’s no shortage of self-doubt in this hobby, so it’s nice to get a little boost.

      As for your aperture habits, I’m with you! A real extremist, I guess.

  • Tom Raymondson May 16, 2022 at 3:52 pm

    I’m more of a f/16 guy myself.

  • Never linkes f8, as I very much prefer f1,4 to 2.8 or 5.6 – 7.5 on 35mm or 5,6 with 6×6. For landscapes it is 11 mostly. For me it doesn’t matter analog or digital. In German there is the advice of f8 when the sun shining, “die Sonne lacht, nimm Blende 8”, was useful in the old days of slow films… always good light!

    • Yeah, I said it in reply to another comment, but I’ll repeat it here as well. You’re probably just a good photographer – so the general rules are less useful to you! Enjoy shooting at the right aperture for the situation, my friend.

    • … never *liked … Sorry!

  • Great article! Also loved your eminently relatable phrase “I’m too old to be cool and too young to be interesting.”

  • Malcolm Martin May 17, 2022 at 3:04 am

    Years ago I read an article which quoted a picture editor for a newspaper. He said “… there are no bad lenses at f8”. It resonated with me because at that time my lenses were East German or Russian tripe and at f8 they were fine, losing their nastiness.
    I now have a lot of expensive kit, rarely shoot at f8 and frequently go wide open and I am happy with the results.
    Incidentally, those tripe lenses now have a cult following!

    • I think as we get better and better at taking pictures, general rules like “f8 and be there” lose some of their usefulness. It sounds like you’re simply good enough to know what to do, and when! Happy shooting to you!

  • Excellent article as usual, James. Wilbur E. (Bill) Garrett joined Nat Geo as a picture editor in 1954, progressed to Associate Editor, and eventually Editor-in- Chief from 1980-90. He was also the NPPA Magazine Photographer of the Year for 1968. Several NG photographers (including his son Ken Garrett, and James P. Blair) and writers (such as Cathy Newman) attribute this aphorism to him. If not its source, he seems to have been, at least, a prominent proponent of its message.

    • Thanks for this info. I’d love to get a definitive answer to the question of who said what and when. Maybe we will someday.

  • Many thanks for great article. I could not help but to think of my Nikon 43-86mm f3.5 ai lens (last and best version!) when I read your article. Many regard this lens as one of the worst Nikon zooms ever made, yet wonderful images can be had when you get to know this fantastic lens – in fact the difference between f3.5 and f8 output is so great (dreamy/creamy with lower contrast at f3.5 and crisp/sharp/higher contrast at f8) that one could be forgiven to regard images at these apertures sourced from different lenses! Zoom development made incredible progress over the last 20 odd years with uniform performance (in general) over the entire aperture range. F8 was probably a “safe” aperture setting back in the day to ensure great/acceptable lens performance to many different photographic eyes/tastes/genres of photography and hence F8 very much stuck in the minds of photographers until this day. Kind Regards philip jooste

  • I thought, probably wrongly, that it was due to Eliot Erwitt, because it was in the Foreword of one of his books as an unattributed maxim, along with a quote from the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, namely Erst muss Mann den inneren Schweinehund beseigen, basically you have to conquer the inner coward or inner weakness. I’ve come to suspect over time these are probably examples of Erwitt’s sense of humour. I’m not even sure that it is an actual quote from Von Richthofen.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio