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…

Below the Ice

Photographing objects within the ice using the E-M5 and Voigtlander - the what, where and how

Photographing what

None of these photos show objects or bubbles on top of the ice, instead all photographic subjects of all pics shown here are several inches below the surface.  The ice itself was clear enough to provide sort of a lens into the subsurface formations, though it also reflected light and was tricky to deal with.

Photographing where

We finally had a couple of nights with temps in the low double digits here in New Hampshire, the thermometer hovering around 10 or 11°F.  Add that to the nights which had already been under 32° and the river has begun to freeze over. 

Horizontal bubbles are pierced by blades of grass growing up from the bed of the river. The small bright circle is not a reflection, but another air bubble a couple of inches  above  the large one.

Horizontal bubbles are pierced by blades of grass growing up from the bed of the river. The small bright circle is not a reflection, but another air bubble a couple of inches above the large one.

This afternoon I walked down to the river and found ice 2 - 3 inches thick. I know, because it froze almost completely clear and I was able to see air bubbles and debris right through the ice by which to judge the thickness. A few inches is plenty thick to support the weight of an adult. The Army Corps of Engineers says just 2" of ice are adequate to support the weight of a person.

The shadow of my camera lens darkens the area around these bubbles a couple inches below the surface. The silhouetted reflection of the camera on a small tripod is visible in the smallest bubble, as are the colors of dusk settling in over the river. 

The shadow of my camera lens darkens the area around these bubbles a couple inches below the surface. The silhouetted reflection of the camera on a small tripod is visible in the smallest bubble, as are the colors of dusk settling in over the river. 

One of the many unique properties of water is that ice becomes exponentially stronger with thickness. For example, if 2" of ice supports a 200 lb. person, 3" doesn't just support a 300 pounder. In fact, The Corps says 3" is enough to hold the weight of a snowmobile and 10" enough for an 8 ton truck. 

A horizontal bubble a couple of inches below the ice surface with vertically rising air bubbles trapped on their journey upwards.

A horizontal bubble a couple of inches below the ice surface with vertically rising air bubbles trapped on their journey upwards.

When I bent down to examine the ice and saw several inches of thickness, I was not worried about falling in. What I did see though was clear, black ice with bubbles and bits of grass and other river debris deeper down.

One common 'scene' was horizontal bubbles which had formed a couple of inches below the surface and vertical bubbles consisting of tiny spiral needles. These spiral bubbles seem to have frozen in time & place as they rose toward the surface and provided an incredible sense of perspective to these mini-scenes.

It pays to look closely, from different angles & perspectives. Unless I had bent down to examine the thickness of the ice, I would have never noticed these formations.  As with all photography, which recommends we get closer to our subject (zoom with your feet), my zooming was done by getting down on my knees to examine the ice closeup.

Photographing how

Since I went down to the river in the late afternoon and the winter light was low, I thought I'd try the Voigtlander with the .95 aperture.  These shots were all taken with that lens on an Olympus OM-D E-M5 in this gloaming light. Sunset was at about 16:15 and the river lies beneath a large embankment, which gives a large area of indirect light.

As with many of us, I use various tripods, depending on the situation.  Two of them are very small travel units with fixed, not telescoping legs. One of those is genuinely tiny - it actually a plastic fold-out unit, small enough to fit in almost any pocket. Given it's light weight, it only supports the E-M5 with a very small lens, such as the Oly 17 or Panny 20.

As you can see in the setup shown here, I used my other small tripod which provides quite a bit of heft & weight and nicely counteracts the weight of the beefy Voigtlander. In fact, even with the weight of this full metal lens, I didn't need any weights on the tripod.

The nice thing about this setup, is how it places the lens perpendicular to the ground / ice and the lens just an inch or so from the surface if the ice itself.  And since the subjects, the air bubbles, were themselves 2 to 3 inches under the surface, this effectively placed the lens 3+ inches away.  I'm impressed the lens was able to focus on subjects so very close; I'll have to check what the closest focus distance is for this lens.

The close placement of the lens to the surface also minimized extraneous light from disturbing the shots and let me easily position the camera over any desired subjects. For some of the shots, I even had to tip the back leg of the tripod up to get the correct angle.

One minor problem was the shadow created by the lens, as it's pretty wide and obstructs quite a bit of light.  This results in a large dark circle over the ice, as seen in the second ice pic in this post.  I've cropped most of the much brighter, area outside of the lends shadow, away.

This was only an issue on some of the shots, depending on lens angle, amount of light in that area of the river, etc...  In fact for some of the shots, since I used the self timer to activate the shutter, my hands were free and I could position myself to completely block the brighter light with my body.  Crude but effective.

Another minor issue was the cold.  Usually when I use the E-M5 in the cold, it's on a strap around my neck and warmly secured underneath  my jacket until I pull it out for a shot.  This was different as the camera was out in the cold for the entire 30 minute shoot.  I did only use a single battery, but the camera registered a flashing red battery icon.  

I did have charged batteries in my pants pocket to keep them as close as possible to my body and hence the warmest possible.  However, I didn't need them, the red flashing battery lasted 30 minutes and that was good enough.


Given the close focusing nature of the Voigtlander, it should be possible to use it for other sorts of close ups and the wide aperture should let in plenty of light, even with the lens physically blocking some of it at close proximity.

I'd like to try these same shots with a macro lens to see if that changes the perspective. Perhaps it's possible to get closer to the formations in the ice with a macro?