I've lived my entire life in and around New York City—especially Manhattan—so there are certain common “touristy” locations I take for granted, and tend to ignore: The Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Times Square at Night. Instead, I focus on the people, and do street photography.
57th St. & 5th Ave, 2011. Camera: Canon 7D with 17-50mm f/2.8 Sigma lens.
There's one thing about New York that I'm constantly aware of and that in a constant dynamic state of flux: The throngs of people in the streets. From South Sea Seaport to the Upper East Side, Herald Square to Times Square, The Plaza to Columbus Circle, the streets are usually crowded with businesspeople, tourists, locals, and more. As the years have gone by I've seen fashions change, attitudes change (these days, people are more paranoid), even entire neighborhoods transformed (42nd Street used to be wonderfully dicey; now it's mostly Disney).
I cut my teeth as a street photographer, under the tutelage of Garry Winogrand, in 1976 in the Wall Street area. Our classroom was in a nondescript building on Nassau Street; the surrounding streets and sidewalks were our workshop, and that's where New York really came alive for me as a photographer. Before then, I enjoyed people-watching, mostly on the Subway, but rarely took pictures of strangers. And yet, of any city I've ever visited (with the possible exceptions of Paris and London) New York offers the most target rich environment for photographing people.
One of my first street shots, Nassau and Fulton Streets, 1976. See the guy behind and just to the left of the woman with the big purse? That's my teacher, Garry Winogrand. Camera: Canon FTb with Vivitar 24mm lens. Photo © 1976 by Mason Resnick.
So I'm not going to talk about how to photograph the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty—they are among the most photographed places on earth, and they really don't change much. Instead, I'm going to talk about how and where to photograph people on the streets of New York. From one split second to the next, faster than a quickly-rotating kaleidescope, the place is constantly changing, and is always interesting.
Learn more about street photography; read Sidewalk Serendipity and f/8 and Be There.
Candid or Posed?
How should you approach people? There are two approaches to street photography, and both are valid. The first approach is more an extension of portraiture: The photographer sees someone who is interesting, a background that plays off the person's expression or what they're wearing, and approaches that person (or people) and asks permission to take the picture. The advantage of this approach: Nobody could possibly be angry with you about taking their picture if you've asked permission, and you can get them to sign a model release, allowing you to use the images commercially. The disadvantage? All the pictures are posed; there's less chance of capturing spontaneity.
Mark Wallace is a proponent of this approach to street photography, as you can see in this AdoramaTV video. It is a very valid approach and if you're more comfortable asking permission first, you should watch this video.
The Joys of Candid
The other approach is the one I go for, working candidly and capturing people doing their thing without interfering. This approach worked for Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Elliott Erwitt, and many, many others. With the rise of easy posting of photos on the Internet, it has become obvious that street photography is as popular as ever, if not more so. Check out In-Public.com for some of the best current street photography work out there.
While both candid and posed street photography will work in New York City, the place is ideal for working candidly.
57th Street, 2011. Camera: Olympus E-P3 with 12mm f/2 Zuiko lens.
Lots of people have cameras. If you're carrying a camera in New York, few people will notice because, with so many tourists all over the city and so many professional photographers working here, you are more likely to blend in.
Tourists, Tourists, Tourists! Tourists can make great subjects for street photos.
57th Street, 2011. Camera: Olympus E-P3 with 12mm f/2 Zuiko lens.
People are distracted: People who live and work in New York tend to walk with purpose, and are often engaged in texting or talking on their cell phones, or are thinking about their next business meeting or social appointment. They're not likely to notice a stealthy street shooter.
You can easily get lost in the crowd. This is a good thing. You can use the intense stimula of crowded intersections, noisy cars and sirens and other distractions to your advantage, photographing reactions, interactions and near misses as people walk at cross-purposes.
Broadway, 2003. Camera: Leica M3 with 28mm f/3.5 Kobalux lens.
New York is PR central: If a public PR stunt is going on, it is most likely going to play out on the streets of New York, usually with little or no notice. That's why I was able to grab a shot of a Star Wars storm trooper casually walking past Macy's one day last year.
Miscellaneous street tips for New York
Mode of dress: Wear muted, solid colors. Dark blue, grey, whatever. No logos or eye-catching artowrk that might draw attention to yourself.
Look for “Squish Points”. That's what I call spots where people are forced to move through a narrow area. The body language and movement as people try to avoid colliding can create interesting scenarios. By the way, if a crosswalk is partly blocked and people are forced to walk between vehicles, that's a squish point.
Street Fairs are another great place to find a lot of action. I shot this at the entrance to the Adorama street fair in June 2011.
Lurk at intersections: Hang out at corners, where people will gather while waiting for the light to change. Many of my best shots have been made of people waiting for a “walk” signal.
Shoot in Midtown or the Wall Street area during lunch hour. Office workers hit the streets in droves, seeking food, and both midtown and the downtown financial district can become pretty dense with people. That's good. Get 'em while they're hungry, or bringing their bags of food back to the office.
Shoot near transit hubs during rush hour. Hang around the outside of Penn Station, Grand Central, or any popular subway stop and during rush hour a flood of people will come out every few minutes.
34th Street and 7th Ave., 2011. Camera: Olympus E-P3 with 12mm f/2 Zuiko lens.
Shoot in Times Square on Wednesday early Afternoon. The Broadway show matinees start at 3. People line up for discount tickets by late morning. Everyone's looking to grab a bite before going to their theater. It gets very crowded, and there are plenty of squish points, especially walking down 7th Avenue, where the light is generally a bit better.
Spring, Summer and Fall are prime seasons: In the summer, tourists flood the city and the light is great. In the Spring and Fall months, there are still tourists but Midtown and the Wall Street area gets down to business, filled with people rushing to get to their jobs and meetings.
5th Ave. in the upper 40s, 2011. Camera: Olympus E-P3 with 12mm f/2 Zuiko lens.
Be aware of backgrounds: Posters, billboards and store display windows can provide an interesting backdrop to the people. Conversely, confusing backgrounds will be, well, confusing, especially if you follow the adage of “f/8 and Be There,” which results in deeper focus.
Respect street people: I have an arbitrary personal rule about street photography. While I have no problem photographing strangers in public places on the sly—which is perfectly legal—I don't photograph the homeless. The street is, due to whatever unfortunate circumstance occurred in their life, their home, and I don't want to take away any privacy they might have.
Avoid photographing police, subways and busses: Since 9/11, the cops have become more paranoid photographing them can raise suspicions unnecessarily.
Don't stare! When you're shooting, don't telegraph your intentions by staring at someone before you photograph them. Constantly scan the crowds, and if you must make eye contact, keep it brief and be sure to smile. Use your peripheral vision. Shoot fast and move on. Watch a video of a street shooter such as Joel Meyerowitz to get an idea of how descretely you should work.
5th Ave. in the 50's. Camera: Leica M3 with 28mm f/3.5 Kobalux lens, Fujifilm Press 800 film scanned and converted to black-and-white.
My Four Favorite Street Shooting Locations in Manhattan
I've been doing street photography in New York since 1976. Based on my years of experience, these are some of my favorite spots to shoot.
34th Street and 7th Ave.: This intersection is both a major transit hub and a major shopping destination. Macy's is on one corner, Penn Station is down the block. Any time of day you'll find plenty of people around, but it is especially jammed during the rush hours. And that means there's a lot of action and potential photos.
Times Square: If Dashing Dans (an obscure New York reference to Long Island Railroad passengers) are not your preference, consider tourists. I'm going to speak frankly as a native New Yorker now: They clog the sidewalks and block the way for the people who work in the city and have to make it to their next appointment. If you work in New York, tourists are an inconvenience. And if you're a photographer, that's beautiful. Especially around 42nd Street, which has gone from grungy and sleazy in the 70s and 80s to home to a series of Disney properties, Madame Toussad's, and other tourist traps. It's dense in non-native targets. Look for busy New Yorkers impatiently navigating around lost visitors.
South Street Seaport, 2008. Camera: Panasonic LX3.
Nassau and Fulton Streets: Just a few blocks north of Wall Street is a wonderful pedestrian mall, filled with tacky stores and a colorful cast of characters. Walk the length of Fulton street during lunch hour and you'll get plenty of photo opportunities of people and interesting businesses along a narrow sidewalk, while Nassau Street has become a pedestrian mall.
5th Avenue, from 42nd St. to 57th St.: This 16-block stretch covers a variety of retail stores, tourist attractions, delis, and high-rise office buildings filled with corporate offices. The sidewalks are filled most any time of day with a mix of messengers, office workers, tourists, and barkers handing out flyers and trying to coax you into their stores or restaurants. I don't know why—perhaps it's the way the sun bounces off the skyscrapers—but the light on 5th Avenue is spectacular almost year-round.
7th Ave., 2007. Camera: Leica M8, 28mm Summicron lens
So, what camera should I use?
While I'm partial to Leica M-series rangefinders for street photography, such as the M9 with a 28mm lens, I recognize that these cameras are beyond the fiancial reach of most people. So, when choosing a camera for street photography, use the following criteria:
- No lag time
- Eye-level viewfinder
- Wide-angle lens
Recently I had a chance to take pictures with the new Olympus E-P3 with the Olympus Zuiko 12mm f/2 lens, and found that if I added an optical viewfinder on the hit shoe, it was very well-suited for street photography. I also like the Panasonic GF-2 with the 14mm lens, Panasonic LX5, Canon G12, and Nikon P7000 (although the last three use smaller sensors, so image quality is more limited). I've even used larger cameras such as my Canon 7D with a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 zoom lens and gotten good results.
But no matter which camera you use, as long as you have these four features, the rest is commentary. Remember that the best camera for street photography is the one you have with you. Choose what you can afford, get comfortable with it, and start shooting!