I made my first experiences as a street photographer in New York in the 1990s. During this time I learned a lot about New York and photography. The conclusions I drew for myself about photographic approaches have been confirmed over the years, and I’d like to share them with you.
This is how it all started:
I was in New York with two friends in 1994, shortly after passing my high school diploma. Back then, New York looked completely different than it does today: the World Trade Center’s twin towers were still standing, the cars were big and square, and the gentrification of Brooklyn had not yet begun.
Meeting the immense photographic challenges of this city was a great challenge, especially for a beginner like me. I learned three things in particular.
Lessons Learned part one: zoom lenses are good for Street Photography
People like to assume that zoom lenses were invented by the devil himself to take the fun out of photography for mankind. The general tenor is that only fixed leses are sufficiently sharp and fast. In addition, the so-called creative constraint of zooming with one’s feet is said to promote creativity. Is that all nonsense?
Let’s start with sharpness. Certainly, fixed lenses have better image quality than zoom lenses – at least, that was the case shooting in the 1990s on film. But who notices that? If you were to shoot a subject under exactly the same conditions once with a prime (fixed focal length) lens and once with a zoom lens, most viewers would not see any difference.
More importantly, does that last extra percent of sharpness matter at all in street photography? I don’t think so. Good street photos don’t thrive on clinical clarity. The rough and dirty can be quite interesting. Good pictures live much more from framing, beautiful use of light, and a sense for the decisive moment.
Who cares about slightly better image quality?
Let’s move on to luminous intensity. I understand that for portraits, for example, you may want to use the fastest possible lenses in order to conjure up beautiful bokeh. But in street photography, you don’t usually use wide-open apertures; after all, you want the surroundings to be recognizable, since urban space is a significant element of a street photo.
We slept in a hostel and were stupid enough to travel to New York in July. Only after our arrival did we realize that New York is unbearably hot in the summer. So, we always slept — if it ever came to that — with open windows at night and thus learned that New York is indeed the city that never sleeps.
30 years later and the sound of New York is still ringing in my ears when I think back to that time. All night long we heard the sirens of police cars and ambulances that we had only seen in American TV shows and movies before. Until late into the night the Indian cab drivers raced through the city honking their big limousine horns.
You could go to a different club every night, the day of the week did not matter at all. The wildest parties in town took place in a discarded church. Since the Internet was still in its early days, people met in record stores during the day to exchange ideas and to network. Flyers informed interested (and uninterested) people about the next party and DJs of the previous night offered their mixtapes at a low, low prices (yes, audio cassettes). The club scene seemed like one big family to me.
Lessons Learned part two: large cameras are good for Street Photography
The main argument for small cameras for street photography mostly focuses on the inconspicuousness factor. You often read that you would be unpleasantly conspicuous with an SLR camera.
So are large cameras really unsuitable for street photography?
In my opinion, this is not true. First of all, when you shoot with a wide-angle lens, no one notices that he/she is being photographed. People simply don’t expect to be in the frame. So in this sense, it doesn’t matter at all whether you use a big SLR or a pocket camera, a tell, normal, wide or ultra-wide lens.
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In addition, it seems that some street photographers of a particular leaning have no problem flashing their subjects directly in the face. It is questionable whether it makes a difference in how big the camera is.
I’ve read before that SLR cameras are considered particularly bad for street photography because the shutter noise is so loud. I can’t think of anything else to say about that. As if even one person on the streets of New York would notice when the mirror goes “clack”.
In this context, I would like to make some clarifications:
- Street photography is not limited to shooting people from the front (hardcore candid).
- Street photography is, fortunately, more diverse.
- Street photography works wonderfully without people.
- Many good street images also show people from behind or from the side.
Where the advantage of small cameras is supposed to be in these applications is beyond me.
During the day we were intoxicated by the size and dynamics of this incredible city. Steaming gullies, hungry hot dog sellers, the subways were full of graffiti and without functioning ceiling lighting, bankers rushed around, and dreamy New Jersey as a blatant alternative to New York City.
You never forget such impressions.
Lessons Learned part three: telephoto lenses are good for Street Photography
Many street photographers preach that 28 mm, 35 mm or 50 mm are best for street. And what about telephoto lenses? I’ve actually read several times that it’s cowardly to shoot people with telephoto lenses.
In my opinion, it is primarily a matter of taste whether you shoot with 120 mm or with 28 mm lense, because the image aesthetics are completely different. A long-focus lens offers a shallower depth of field, allowing the subject to be better isolated. In addition, the image effect is “tighter”, offering more potential for intimacy. You don’t have to like the look of a telephoto lens, but it’s good to see street images that have a different look.
A few final words and pictures before I leave you for now…
Street photos don’t have to tell stories, even if that’s what people say over and over again. Good street photography should arouse the viewer’s interest and provide an insight into a culture, subculture, a city, district, or even smaller geographical terms – even a single literal street.
Good street photos are like good wines: they get better and better over the years. What seems banal today has a documentary character 20 years later and shows the next generation how it was back then. Speaking of which, here are another ~15 pictures taken during my first trip in the 1990s. To me, they show the flow of New York at that time and illustrate my approach to photography. I’d like you to tell me what they show to you.
Please note that you can click/tap on any image below to vie it fullscreen.
All photos of this series were taken with a Yashica 200-AF and Kodak Tri-X 400. If you are interested, please check out more street photos from New York and other parts of the world on my website, streetwise.photography.
Thanks for reading.
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