New York City is one of the great meccas of the world for photography, and it’s a place where every photographer should try to explore at least once in their life. From the state of the art skyscrapers, to the old ornate architecture, to the people and the fashion, there is a never-ending amount of content to surprise you around every street corner.
James Maher, author of the new book, The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide, sent us his favorite tips for the next time you visit the city. Enjoy!
1. Go to the busiest areas, pick a spot, and wait
The speed of the city can be overwhelming, to say the least—crowded, busy, energetic. When you walk and try to photograph at the same time it can be incredibly difficult to see something, get in position, and capture the scene in the right way. Instead, find a good location and stop yourself. Stand on a street corner. Hang out and let things happen around you. This will allow you to pay more attention to your surroundings and the people that walk by, and so you will be faster to capture those impromptu moments. In addition, by picking a spot in a busy area, you will be stacking the odds in your favor for something interesting to happen in front of your camera.
This practice has another effect as well, particularly if you are nervous about photographing strangers candidly. By picking a spot, these people will be entering your personal space instead of you entering their space, and so the entire situation will be much easier. By already being in position as people come upon you, they will have more of a feeling that you are the one that belongs there.
2. Set your camera to freeze motion and get sharp shots
Unless you are in bright sunlight, I highly suggest raising your ISO up. My general rule is ISO 200 or 400 for sunlight, 800 for light shade, 1600 for dark shade, and 3200 to 6400 for dusk and night. This goes against a common notion that says that you should always shoot with the lowest ISO possible.
Cameras these days can handle much higher ISOs than the used to. Raising your ISO allows you to use a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture, and you will notice that your shots will consistently be much sharper for street photography despite the added grain. The small aperture (f/8 to f/16 if possible due to the amount of light) will allow you to capture scenes with multiple subjects that are all sharp, in addition to giving you a buffer should you mess up the focus of a fast moving scene. If you mess up the focus at f/4, then you are screwed, whereas if you mess it up at F11, you will have a much better chance of saving the shot. For a shutter speed, I prefer to use a minimum of a 1/250 of second to freeze motion in people, but I will go down to 1/160 or 1/125 at night in dark areas.
3. Combine elements and layers
New York is a unique place in that there is so much happening that you can capture multiple interesting subjects into a coherent scene.
Find an interesting person and see if you can capture them with a great background. Search for a great background and wait for interesting subjects or moments to occur. If you see a beautiful building, make sure to walk around to see if you can include some other elements, including other buildings, trees, fire escapes, water towers, lampposts, or people. Finding the right subject is one thing, but creating a complex scene around that subject can take a photograph to a whole new level.
4. Don’t be afraid to be different
By all means, take the beautiful and touristy shots of New York. You should take those pictures. Capture the Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock, but also aim to capture images that are different in some way. Not every image has to be traditionally beautiful or something that will do well on Instagram. Capture images of interesting things that you see. Look down, look at window displays, capture ordinary looking people, and capture weird scenes.
When people visit New York they often have preconceived notions of it, many of which are romanticized, and they take images that are similar to the ones they’ve seen or thought about. This makes it hard to stand out and create something new. There is so much more to photographing New York than the typical photography that you see. Take the time to clear your mind and to take whatever comes to you. You will be very surprised with what you will come across.
5. Photograph at night
During the day, you will have more content to capture because more will be happening, but at night New York sparkles and becomes even more beautiful. Wherever you go, you will be able to take magical photographs.
Tripods are necessary for certain shots, particularly the architecture, but I would also suggest leaving your tripod behind and focusing on night street photography. Instead of using a tripod, you will be searching for the light that is already there, particularly from store windows and lampposts. Find this light and put yourself in a position where you will be able to capture a person as the light illuminates them. This is how you can create incredible night street photography shots without a tripod. For settings, I suggest a shutter speed around 1/160th and an ISO of 3200 or 6400 depending on your camera.
New York, and particularly Manhattan, is incredibly safe at night, but as always be careful about where you go. And if you don’t know where you are going, I would think about taking a friend. But New York generally is very safe to capture at night.
Best locations for street photography
These are locations that I personally love, but New York is a big city and there are so many areas that will be amazing beyond what I suggest.
- The corner of Prince and Broadway in SoHo. SoHo is a neighborhood that has turned into a giant luxury shopping mall, and thus it is an area where you will see the most fashionable New Yorkers mixed in with people from all over New York and tourists from all over the world. The corner of Prince and Broadway is the busiest corner in the neighborhood. This is my favorite people-watching spot in the city.
- 5th Avenue and 57th Street. As the favorite corner of New York Times fashion street photographer Bill Cunningham, this is where you will see fashions of all types. One of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, you will see everyone from rich Upper East Siders to tourists from around the world. The shop windows make for beautiful backgrounds as well. Start at this corner and make your way south on 5th Avenue, stopping at each street corner along the way.
- 42nd Street. From Grand Central to Times Square, this is one of the most crowded streets in New York.
- 34th Street. Similarly to 42nd Street, 34th Street is a major thoroughfare with a diverse section of New Yorkers and tourists to capture.
- Coney Island. Roller coasters and sunbathers, Coney Island in the summer will have a section of the most interesting New Yorkers to capture, all having fun and enjoying the place. The surroundings are very photogenic, and try to capture the Mermaid Day Parade if you can.
- Chinatown. As one of the few ethnic communities left in the southern part of Manhattan, the people are great and the surroundings are beautiful and interesting. Go to Columbus Park, where Chinese people from the neighborhood congregate to play games and gamble, or walk down Doyer’s Street, nicknamed the Bloody Angle for once being the most dangerous corner in New York (don’t worry, that was back in the 19th Century). Don’t forget to stop to eat some dim sum along the way.
- Anywhere on Broadway. Wherever you are on Broadway will have a wealth of people to capture.
- The subway system. Look at a copy of Bruce Davidson’s Subway book for inspiration and capture people in the subway stations and on the trains. Small cameras with a silent shutter or a cell phone will be much easier in the subway cars, but if you go to the Times Square station or any busy subway station, you will be able to capture thousands of people walking and running by.
7. Best locations for architecture and city scenes
- Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Waterfront. Forget the Brooklyn Bridge. Walking the Manhattan Bridge is where it’s at. You will have gorgeous views of old tenement buildings with the financial district skyscrapers in the background, and the halfway point has one of the best views of the Brooklyn Bridge in the city. Walk all the way over and head to the Brooklyn waterfront. Main Street Park has one of the best skyline views in the city, particularly at dusk. Nearby Washington Street has the famous view of the Empire State Building through the legs of the Manhattan Bridge. If your legs aren’t tired out by this point consider walking back over the nearby Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan.
- 42nd Street. Within a five-block stretch on 42nd Street is the Chrysler Building (make sure to visit the lobby), Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library (explore the interior), Bryant Park, and Times Square.
- Central Park. The Mall, Bethesda Terrace, Bow Bridge, The Lake, Sheep Meadow, The Pond, and Gapstow Bridge, the southern end of Central Park has too many photogenic views to count. While visiting at any time is good, I highly suggest starting 45 minutes before sunset.
- Greene Street in SoHo. This is possibly the greatest architecture stretch in the entire city. SoHo has the best cast-iron architecture in the world and Greene Street has the greatest collection of these buildings in the district. Start at Houston Street and walk five blocks south to Canal Street.
- Bushwick. Once an industrial area, Bushwick has been gentrified in recent years. This neighborhood holds the best collection of street art in the city. A huge percentage of buildings have given permission to some of the best street artists in the world to do murals, and the result is that the neighborhood looks like a street art gallery.
- Top of the Rock. No photographic trip to New York is complete without a trip to Top of the Rock. The daytime is great for it, but sunset and dusk are my favorite times.
About the Author:
James Maher is a fine art, portraiture, and professional photographer. Maher is the leader of many New York Photography Tours and Workshops. He also published more great tips for photographing the city in his new book, The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
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