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…

Key New Features of Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

Olympus just announced the updated E-M5 and it seems packed with new features.  Let's distill the highlights of the announcement and new spec sheet.

EM-5 Mark II image from   www.olympus-global.com

EM-5 Mark II image from www.olympus-global.com

Olympus is strongly headlining the updated stabilization technology - apparently updated even beyond the tech in the E-M1; "The powerful 5-axis VCM image stabilization is even more advanced than ever before." 

With this tech, Olympus is advertising a full 5 shutter speed steps of compensation.  I'm kind of enjoying how they're actually get a little 'chippy' when describing the benefits of in-camera stabilization vs. the in-lens stabilization other vendors offer.  I'm loving this head-to-head competition, which they specifically call out in this press release;  "It powerfully compensates for camera roll, which cannot be corrected with in-lens stabilization..."  

Yes, Olympus includes the perhaps most highly anticipated feature, 40M Hi-Res Mode.   Strangely, it's listed under the 'other' category of their press release.  The press release describes it this way, but actually there's more.

"8 images are captured with 16-megapixel image information while moving the sensor by 0.5 pixel steps between each shot. The data from the 8 shots are then combined to produce a single, super-high resolution image, equivalent to the one captured with a 40-megapixel image sensor. This feature is perfect for capturing fine arts and landscapes, and other scenes where high-resolution photos are required. It maximizes the resolution of Zuiko PRO and Premium lenses, making image quality possible that surpasses that of full-frame DSLR cameras."

What's more?  While the press release advertises 40megapixels, it turns out this is only for JPEGs.  RAW files (Olympus ORFs) are actually captured at 64 megapixels.

The press release devotes the most space to describing new or updated movie capture features, touting "cinema-quality movies in hand-held shooting."  If the image stabilization is as good as claimed, and it's already good on my original EM-5, then it makes sense that it could dramatically improve hand-held movie making.  Imagine riding a bike and filming as you ride or shooting movies from a moving vehicle.  I'll be eager to see some clips from the new EM-5.  Here again, it does seem Olympus is calling out Panasonic, the vendor about which we've heard white a lot in the movie area for the last several years.  Is this an attempt by Oly to one-up Panny's capabilities in the m4/3 movie making arena?

EM-5 Mark II image from www.olympus-global.com

EM-5 Mark II image from www.olympus-global.com

Additional features and improvements --

WiFi is also included in the E-M5 and provides a number of features. It syncs with mobile phones for geo-tagging via the phone GPS, photo sharing and for remote control.  Wireless shooting allows control of both movie and still modes with, what seems to be, a pretty full range of control; shutter speed, aperture, exposure, ISO, white balance, art & scene modes, countdown timer, shutter release and so forth.  One of the best parts of image sharing appears to be the ability to simultaneously sync up to 4 remote devices.  So now when my wife asks to have a copy of the shot, I can simply link her mobile phone to the camera and she'll get a copy of the pic instantly.

For shooting sports or wildlife, sequential shooting in RAW format works 5 fps and is touted to work until the card is full. Olympus claims the number of capture frames won't drop, so apparently they've improved or increased the size of some buffers. 

The shutter is now faster at 1/8000 sec, but it gets even better.  In a node to the silent shooter desires of street photographers, the E-M5 II show offers a silent shutter mode, which apparently turns off all sounds in the camera, yet still shoots as fast as 1/6000s.  An anti-shock mode, which reduces shutter shock, is compatible with both the sequential shooting, and silent modes.

There seem to be no less then 6 customizable function buttons.  I've pretty much customized all of them on my original E-M5, so I'm eager to see this on the new model.  The LCD has been updated as well, with a vary-angle model, allowing the screen to be seen when holding the camera at odd angles, even selfies.

Overall, it looks like Olympus really provides a massive upgrade to the original EM-5.  As a user of that camera, I'll be eager to try this new one.