Do you want to capture stunning street photos in New York City? That’s what this article is all about.
I’ve been doing New York City street photography for decades, and below, I share my best tips and tricks for amazing NYC images, including:
- How to choose the right street camera settings
- How to shoot the NYC streets at night
- How to capture beautiful street portraits
I also offer a quick overview of my favorite New York City street photography locations, which should be a big help if you’re visiting the city for the first time.
Note: NYC is one of the most popular locations in the world for street photography – and because it’s so popular, it’s much more difficult to create images that stand out from the rest. To get great street photos, you’ll need to put in some real effort, but the results will be worth it!
So let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Slow down and don’t try to photograph everything at once
Up, down, left, right, tall buildings everywhere – it is so easy to become trigger happy in New York City. But while you should certainly experiment and take lots of images, if you’re not careful, you’ll miss many of the most interesting moments.
After all, the best street scenes are often either subtle or fast. They’ll require significant attention, or they’ll come upon you in an instant.
So don’t photograph everything. Look with your eyes first, locate something of interest, then capture it with the camera. Got it?
Watch your surroundings and take it all in. Explore. Find interesting compositions, watch the light, and get a feel for the people. Try to go beyond capturing the grand or iconic aspects of the city. Go beyond the images that you’ve seen in books. Seek out the little details and let the streets surprise you.
2. Put yourself in the middle of the commotion
Busy street corners are amazing, they’re beautiful, and they’re great for street photography. Head to a corner, pick a spot, and suddenly people will start coming at you from every direction. They’ll intersect and interact with each other.
It’s like what Jane Jacobs referred to as a ballet:
“The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”
Plus, if you’re afraid to take photos of people in public, picking a spot will allow potential subjects to enter your personal space instead of the other way around. And since you won’t be walking and your camera will be ready in your hands, you’ll be able to notice and capture interesting moments before they disappear.
Note that you don’t have to pick a corner; you can stop in the middle of the sidewalk, in a park, or at the top of a flight of stairs. But I do love street corners, and in New York City, each corner has a different flavor to it. If you go to SoHo, you’ll find the trendier crowd; if you go to Wall Street, you’ll get businessmen; if you go to Times Square, you will get the tourists and people in cartoon costumes harassing young children. Usually, you will get a mix of all types of people, but each corner has its own identity.
So spend a little time each day on a few corners, and have fun capturing what happens around you!
3. Forget your preconceived notions of what New York City should be like
If you’ve never visited New York City, then you probably have expectations about how the city is supposed to look and act – from movies, TV shows, and books. But TV shows like Friends and Sex and the City are just not realistic interpretations of what New York is actually like.
Instead, if you want to get a sense of what New York City really feels like, consider watching YouTube videos that tour the city or look at NYC images ahead of time (on Instagram, Flickr, 500px, etc.). That way, you can start to imagine potential images and think about locations that tickle your fancy.
Then, when you arrive, spend some time just…wandering. Carve out half a day, pick a direction or a location, and walk. See what you can find. See what you can photograph.
After a few hours, your preconceptions about New York City will start to fall away – and while you can rely on your video and image scouting, don’t let it restrict you. Use your real experiences to guide you! In my view, you haven’t truly seen New York City until you’ve spent at least half a day wandering around.
4. Rent a small camera or a prime lens
It’s possible to do New York City street photography with a large DSLR and a zoom lens. I shot this way for years, and I made it work – but larger setups can make it more difficult and cumbersome to shoot, and they can make things more uncomfortable for your subjects, too.
That’s why I recommend you come with lighter gear or rent lighter gear when you arrive. New York has an array of camera shops where you can rent either a light prime lens or a smaller camera.
Personally, I like using a light 35mm lens for street shooting, though I’d recommend going for the f/2.8 version over the f/1.8, since it’ll be much smaller and lighter. If you’re nervous about getting close to your subjects, rent a 50mm lens so you can shoot from a distance.
And if you use a DSLR, consider renting a mirrorless camera, a Micro Four Thirds camera, or even a point-and-shoot model. These cameras are small and light; in fact, once you try one, you may never go back!
5. Prepare your camera to catch fast-moving scenes
The streets of New York move quickly. Interesting moments will appear and disappear all around you – so it’s important to prepare your camera to freeze scenes successfully. Adjust your street camera settings so that you no longer have to worry about specifics and can just point and shoot.
How do you do this?
Then, if you’re photographing moving people – and you often will be! – select a shutter speed of 1/250s and above. In bright summer light, I usually set my shutter speed to 1/320s or 1/400s; otherwise, I shoot at 1/250s. (At dusk and after, I’ll go all the way down to 1/125s as required.)
Next, select your ISO. I recommend shooting anywhere from ISO 400 to ISO 3200 – I usually shoot at around ISO 400 in bright summer sunlight, and I’ll push my ISO to 6400 at night.
The goal here is to use use the smallest possible aperture while also setting a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze the scene – because smaller apertures give you a deeper depth of field, which offers a lot of flexibility if you happen to miss focus (which happens frequently in street photography!). Plus, if you’re combining multiple subjects or shooting complex scenes with interesting elements all over the frame, a small aperture will ensure that most (or all) of the scene is sharp.
Now, if you use Shutter Priority mode, your camera will select the aperture. But by using a reasonably slow shutter speed and a higher aperture, you’ll force the camera to choose a relatively narrow aperture value, and you’ll get the depth of field you’re after.
Note that you should monitor your aperture as you shoot (and raise your ISO as need be). When the light is strong, I prefer to shoot at a minimum of f/8 and ideally between f/11 and f/16.
Once you become comfortable with these settings, the next step is to try zone focusing. Set your lens to focus manually, and prefocus your camera a few meters away (I usually prefocus my camera 2.7-3 m/8.75-9.75 ft). Then, as your subjects come toward you, adjust the manual-focus ring accordingly. If your subject is closer than 3 m, turn the ring to focus closer; if your subject is farther than 3 m, turn the ring to focus farther.
The purpose behind zone focusing is to capture fast action and split-second moments without needing to use autofocus. Of course, if you’re photographing stationary subjects, you can always turn the autofocus back on (which is often advisable!).
6. Try street portraiture
New Yorkers like to be noticed, which means that New York City is amazing for street portraiture (especially if you feel nervous or awkward when photographing strangers).
So find people that catch your eye, and tell them you are creating a photo project of the city. Ask them if you can take their photo, and you’ll be surprised by how many people agree! This is a great way to get more comfortable on the street -once you get a couple of people to say yes, you’ll find yourself feeling so much better.
Flattery is always a good idea when approaching people for a street portrait, and I usually try to spend about 30 seconds getting my shots. Don’t take just one quick photo and run away, but don’t take too long, either. Take a quick look at the lighting and the background to make sure that you get a good shot, and try to capture your subject with an interesting expression.
7. Photograph at night
Night street photography in New York City is amazing; the city glows after sundown and everything looks more interesting.
Of course, you’ll need to adjust your settings to compensate for the low light. Set your camera to 1/160s and ISO 3200 or 6400, and use the zone-focus method I shared above. Forget the heavy tripod, find areas that are lit by store signs or street lights, and have fun taking photos!
New York is extremely safe these days, and I photograph at night all the time, but be smart about it. It can’t hurt to take a friend along, and it’s a good idea to stick to high-traffic areas.
8. Take the typical tourist photos
If you’re visiting NYC from out of town, you’re coming for a reason, right? The buildings, the bridges, and the streets are awe-inspiring, they’re beautiful, and they deserve to be photographed well. History is around every corner.
So do take the typical tourist shots. Do not apologize and feel bad. However, whenever possible, try to think of a way to make the images stand out.
This isn’t always possible, but it occasionally is – and when you can figure out how to take a unique image of a classic scene, it’s a special moment!
(Whatever you do, please don’t create a selective color photo of a yellow taxi with a black and white background. I beg of you!)
The best New York City street photography locations
My favorite photography locations in New York City are:
- SoHo: Stop on the corner of Prince and Broadway, one of the busiest and most fashionable corners in the city, and then walk over to Greene Street and head south to see some gorgeous cast-iron architecture.
- 5th Avenue below Central Park: Stop on each corner from 58th Street to 53rd Street for some of the busiest and most interesting corners in the city. If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll bump into the famous fashion street photographer, Bill Cunnigham.
- The East Village and Lower East Side: Young hipsters, old punk rockers, and about a hundred other demographics gel together in these vibrant neighborhoods. The buildings are old and beautiful, and the streets are interesting and weird. Some great street art is there, as well. Stop at VolaVida gallery on 4th Street and Avenue B to purchase an affordable and authentic piece of street art.
- Anywhere on Broadway: Literally anywhere. Start at Columbus Circle and walk south until your feet hurt and you can’t keep going.
- Chinatown and Columbus Park: Chinatown has some of the most beautiful streets in New York. Eat dumplings while you photograph, then visit Columbus Park where people go to gamble. Be respectful while you photograph there. Afterward, visit Pell Street and Doyers Street. These are two of the most beautiful streets in all of New York.
- Coney Island: This is one of the most vibrant places in the city, particularly in the warmer months. Photograph the boardwalk and beach, eat a hotdog, and go on a few rides.
- Grand Central and 42nd Street Station: Photograph in Grand Central, then take the shuttle to 42nd Street Station. Walk back, stopping to photograph at Bryant Park and on the steps of the New York Public Library. Pop into the lobby of the Chrysler Building while you’re there.
- Bushwick (Brooklyn): This is one of the centers of street art in New York. Take the L train to Morgan Avenue and explore a handful of blocks in every direction. When you get hungry, stop at Roberta’s for some pizza.
New York City street photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
A photographer’s guide to street photos in New York.
So whether you’re a New York City native just starting out with street photography, or you’re a street photography veteran coming to NYC for the first time, you’re now well-equipped to capture some outstanding street photos.
Have fun, and good luck!
Now over to you:
Where do you plan to take street photos in New York City? What do you hope to capture? Share your thoughts in the comments below!