Some Things I Learned about Nighttime Street Photography at Times Square

One of the most fruitful and perhaps easiest places to practice street photography is Times Square. It’s full of people at all times of the year and so many of them are taking pictures, that cameras are pretty much ignored. For photographers, this disregard gives us relative impunity to move around and shoot at will.

Whenever I have a morning business meeting in New York, I arrive the night before. This gives me a chance to hit the pavement in search of some cool steet scenes. It was with this expectation that I showed up at Times Square one evening.

Some of the things I’ll write about here I already knew. But others I discovered.  A few of the pics I snapped are embedded.

Lens Selection I brought my Olympus E-M5 behind the Oly 17mm 1.8 lens. Of course this provides the same field of view as a 35mm lens on a 35mm film camera. Some consider this a traditional length for street photography.

I really wanted to put this into practice, to see what it would be like to get close to people with relatively wide glass, as opposed to shooting with a 50mm or even larger. This focal length would force me to get close, in order to get shots where the people are front & center in the composition.  A side benefit of this lens is the incredibly small size. The entire camera + lens fits into one hand, ...and I don't have large hands either.

Scope it out One of the things about Times Square is the large crowds. There are just so very many people out and about, that it’s not really feasible to plant your self in the middle of the sidewalk. I mean, you could, but it would be rude and awkward and you’d constantly be bumped as you’re trying to get off some shots.

So I walked around Times Square a bit, to scope out what might be decent vantage points. One of the learnings is to first reconnoiter an area to get a sense of the layout, the venue; to find decent photographic vantage points.

Choose a Spot Another learning regarding relatively large crowds; it’s pretty difficult to chase after a composition, get the camera set and snap a photo, all the while moving and scoping out the possibly unfolding scene. It’s actually easier to let the scene come to me. In other words, people on the street are constantly moving, so if you simply stand still, the flow of humanity will come past you.  

With this in mind, I parked myself in a fixed spot - the entrance of an office building and that's why you may notice the same Times Square sign in the background of most of these pics. The fixed location offered several advantages. Since it was night, perhaps around 10 or so, no one was using the entrance and it gave me an uninterrupted vantage point for shooting. I made no effort to minimize myself behind the entrance wall; that’s getting too close to the creepy, hiding photographer kind of thing. But it did let me position myself just out of the ever moving mass of people criss-crossing Times Square. 

Constant Light Further, since I was positioned in a fixed spot, the light was more or less consistent. This let me us a relatively small range of ISO and shutter speed selections. Had I been moving around a lot, I might have constantly been adjusting from ISO 400 up to 2000 or 3000. As it was, I used mostly ISO 1000 and shot a few at 800 and even 400.  In fact, the sharp photo above, was shot at ISO 400.  

Aperture Using a prime lens with a wide aperture gathers quite a bit of light, so it can minimize the need for high ISOs. And compared to shooting tele, shooting with wider glass tends to let in more light, so bringing the 17mm lens was a good choice for these nighttime efforts. I also have the marvelous Olympus 12-40 Pro Zoom, which I believe offers sharper images than the 17mm. However, being able to maximie the light & shutter speed with the f1.8 glass trumped shooting with the sharper, darker zoom.

Fixed or Zoom? And most importantly, if I had brought a zoom lens, whaddya think I would have been doing? I wouldn’t have been able to resist temptation. Yup, I would have been busy constantly moving the focal length in & out and may have missed perhaps many shots.

Dialing it in As it was, after a few test shots, I dialed in ISO 1000, f1.8 and of course, the 17mm choice was fixed. On aperture priority, this yielded shutter times between 1/50 and 1/1000, depending on just how the many advertising lights in Times Square impacted the scene at any given moment. This was fast enough to stop the motion of people walking slowly on the sidewalk. And since I maintained a fixed position, once dialed in, this combination of ISO and F-stop let me focus just on the scene.

The other factor which I did change from shot to shot was the exposure via the EV dial. On Olympus, this is the front dial, right underneath the index finger, making it real easy to dial exposure compensation up or down at will.

Combined Benefit All of the things I’ve mentioned combine to provide another benefit. Too many choices = too much temptation. Using a lens with wide aperture, using a fixed focal length lens, shooting from a fixed spot with relatively constant lighting …setting all of these up before shooting precludes having to dial in different settings for each individual shot. It becomes much easier to focus solely on composition, to focus simply on shooting.

Capture a Story It turns out there’s a sweet side benefit of shooting from a fixed location. As different people constantly stream into the same spot, from the photographers perspective, they’re streaming into the same composition and updating that composition with new faces, postures, expressions, etc… An evening of shooting the same composition yields sort of a storyline. It becomes real interesting to compare many similar shots made unique by the different people captured within basically the same compositional framing.

Anyhow - to recap a few of my practices and learnings:

  • Lens selection …35mm, wide enough for city scene
  • Scope it out …check out the photo shoot area
  • Choose a spot …pick a spot and let the photo come to you
  • Constant light …fixed location may minimize changing light
  • Aperture …wide aperture for night pics
  • Fixed or Zoom …fixed focal length to preclude experimental zooming by photographer
  • Dialing it in …test and set up settings for the scene
  • Combined benefit …focus solely on the scene & composition
  • Capture a story …fixed location shots create a story line

I enjoy the drama of low light and especially night time photos. Being able to practice this while shooting live on the street is doubly challenging and interesting. If you’re not already doing some of this, maybe this might motivate you to get out.

I hope to see ya out there too…