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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