Exploring NYC, Part 3: Faces of the City

Over the last few years, I have taken an interest in a form of photography dubbed "street photography." Unlike other photographic disciplines with obvious sounding names (wedding photography / newborn photography), the name "street" does not convey a clear meaning of the art form.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography might be more aptly dubbed "genuine photography" - the goal is to capture everyday scenes and interactions in a new and fresh way to highlight the beauty in our routine life.  When I am shooting the streets, I am looking for genuine interactions; faces, reactions, expressions, moods, and emotions that are genuine and not prompted by the presence of a camera.

Think about it.... when someone holds up a camera to your face, the first natural reaction is to smile and say cheese. But does that smile truly express your emotions and feelings in that moment? Unlikely.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

As a street photographer, I want to capture the subject's emotions and state of being without having the camera enter the equation and effect the expression. In order to do that, I often need to be stealthy and discrete.

A large camera is off-putting. People don't want a stranger shoving a camera in their face. Which is why I use a Leica rangefinder (specifically, the M10) for my street shooting. The small and discrete nature of this camera lets me attract less attention, thereby increasing the odds of going unnoticed by my subject.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Philosophically, I want every picture I take to be a flattering one. I try to avoid any photograph that could embarrass or humiliate my subject. For instance, I don't photograph the homeless or disabled persons, with few exceptions. 

Ideally, when I am taking street photographs, I am invisible. The person never knows that I took their photograph, or if they do, they are not embarrassed. If someone sees me taking their photograph, I will smile and wave, showing that I'm not a threat. Sometimes I'll tell someone they were beautiful and interesting to me. Surprisingly, most people respond very well to this, and I have never had anyone get mad because I took their photograph.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

As a photographer, I find street photography offers a unique challenge over some of the other photographic disciplines. When I am making landscape images, I often plan the photo, sometimes to a scientific extreme. But as a street shooter, I take whatever I get and roll with the punches.

If it is sunny outside, I have to work with that. If it's raining, I work with that. 

The impromptu and impulsive nature of this type of shooting means I often "follow my nose" - if the light looks particularly good one direction, I'll walk that way. I walked 14 miles in New York one day without having any real plan - I just wandered Manhattan looking for things that caught my eye.

I remain hyper aware of the location of the sun and will switch to another side of the street if the shadows and light is better there. My head is on a swivel, constantly looking for that sparkle.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

"Sparkle" - that is what I am looking for as I walk. Sparkle is the photograph. Sparkle is the emotion, the color, the contrast, the shadow, the expression...the thing that pushes me to take the photograph. 

As a street photographer, I am instinctive. When I see sparkle, I shoot. If I wait too long and think about it, I have lost that moment of sparkle. 

When someone looks at one of my images and comments "I never would have seen that" or "how did you catch that," I know they see the sparkle. They are looking at the print and see the sparkle that pushed me to create the image in the first place.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography can also be about story telling. Not every image has a story, but sometimes the story is the sparkle. For instance, take this pro-Tibet rally I saw in New York. Thousands of people were marching across Manhattan to the site of the Chinese Consulate peacefully carrying signs and flags supporting Tibet. 

At one point, their march passes in front of the McDonald's restaurant near Times Square. I immediately saw a story, and began photographing that story.

I was moved at the juxtaposition of American consumerism and the protected right of speech. Here are some people peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to free speech in front of one of America's biggest corporations. To me, this captures the essence of what makes America an incredible country -- there are so many places in the world where this scene would not be allowed, and the combination of the two created an emotional sparkle.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography often involves people, but there are some images I'll photograph without humans that still tell a human story. Usually, I try to convey human interaction with the environment in the non-people prints. These images may be more abstract and invoke the idea of people without clearly showing any in the scene. Sometimes they capture an irony or something so familiar that we stop noticing its existence. 

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

In some ways, everything I just described about street photography makes it sound like there is a good amount of "pray and spray"- but the art is anything other than. Pray and spray is a phrase used to describe what happens when I photographer just holds down the shutter and aims the camera recklessly in the hope of capturing a good shot.

Look carefully at my photographs and you'll see that isn't possible. Scroll down and look at the three images below (then come back).

Notice anything in them? Only the subject is in focus. Everything else has a smooth soft blur. That blur, which is referred to as bokeh (a Japanese word), is where the art comes into play. As a photographer, I drew your eyes to the subject- to a pre-determined spot - by precisely choosing what area of the print will be in focus. Don't believe me? Scroll down and look again.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Each of those photographs has a super thin area of the image in focus. Now consider that the camera I use is a manual focus system - there is nothing automated or automagic about it. If I do a poor job of quickly focusing the lens, then my photograph is missed. I usually get one chance - a split second - to turn the focus ring on my Leica lenses to capture that sparkle.

I won't lie - it's hard. I miss more than I catch. But the more I go out and shoot, the better I get. I have a lot of close misses - photographs I'd love another chance to take. But that's not how this works. 

In some ways, the thrill of getting it right is my drug.

I'm addicted to the elation that comes from seeing a perfectly focused shot with the story I wanted captured. That feeling drives me back to the streets, looking for my next fix.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Quick Shot: Urban Landscapes

I consider myself, first and foremost, a landscape photographer. But if I tell someone that I'm a landscape photographer, they assume I focus on trees and mountains..... which is partially true. I love a good nature scene. Yet I believe in many types of landscapes, and enjoy photographing all of them. 

Today I'm sharing a series of images that capture the urban landscape - that is a landscape that focuses less on trees and blue skies and more of the urban jungle created by mankind. When I photograph the urban landscape, I try to focus on capturing those little scenes that we've become numb to - the things we see so often that we no longer stop to appreciate their beauty.

As you look at these images, I hope you'll be reminded that there are beautiful landscapes and whimsical settings all around us. I captured these images using a Leica Monochrom with f/0.95 Noctilux (because that lens is not just for portraiture!).

This is a bit of a surrealist image - a photograph of a light pole with a reflection of a light pole

 A sign on one of the locks and waterways on the Danube River. This lock separates the boundary between Austria and Germany.

These old trollies in Austria looked like they were fresh out of 1970. I loved them!

Water spigot here.

Staircase running along a hydro electric powerplant

Tram tracks in a busy intersection in Vienna, Austria

Bridge struts in Budapest, Hungary

Inside one of the locks on the River Danube

Quick Shot: One for the Birds

Pigeons: "Flying rats".

These poor birds have the unfortunate reputation of being a pest. They are pre-disposed to a life of shooing and picking at leftover crumbs. But as much as we overlook pigeons, they can actually be really pretty..... in the right context. 

During my travel through Austria, Hungary, and Germany, I established a micro-quest to create images with pigeons as a prominent theme. As I photographer I love to photograph the things we often overlook, and pigeons became a fun little photographic project for that journey. 

So today I present a series of images on pigeons -- it's one for the birds -- and maybe you'll see a little beauty in that bird. Or you'll shoo it off. Whatever.

Photographed with the Leica M Monochrom and Leica Noctilux f/0.95 lens. (PS- I might be the first person to use that lens to prominently feature birds. It's not exactly a 'birding' lens!)

Everyone else in the Hero's Square of Budapest was photographing the monuments. I was pre-focused and pre-composed waiting for the birds to take off. After a few long minutes of pigeon watching, they finally jumped into flight. Best yet - their flight path worked perfectly with the direction that dude in the statue was pointing. Winning!

Not all of my pigeon watching and timing was as successful as that first shot. In this case, these pigeons had their feet glued firmly to the rooftops in Bratislava. But the leaning and not level roof dotted with birds still makes for an interesting image.

I think this is one of the most ironic images I've ever made. This is some fountain in Austria, and this pigeon was just chilling at the feet of the eagle / hawk thing in the statue. The expressions are priceless.

No patience here - just luck. This is why I always carry my camera turned on - I turned around just to see these birds flying over the dome. Sadly some power lines were in the way, but it adds and interesting element to the image still.

Quick Shot: Half Punt

I usually don't intentionally shoot a photograph with the idea of making a sequence or composite, but this was one of the rare times where I wanted to focus on half of the subject. I was standing on a bridge over the River Cam in Cambridge, England, watching a couple rowing a punt toward me. I decided to shoot the punt in half - IE one image for the woman in the front with lots of negative space, and a second image with the man in the back with more negative space. I thought it would be cool to have this as a pair of prints hanging side-by-side, and I think it worked out really well.

Here are the two prints merged together into one photograph.... just the way I'd hang it up in my house. 

Shot with the Leica SL and 50mm Noctilux f0.95

Quick Shot: Peek-a-Boo

A great photographer once told me "you'll take better pictures if you carry a camera"..... turned out it's good advice. Most photographers will stash their camera on a public bus, but I had my camera out and ready incase any moments arose. And sure enough, a moment arose.

This little boy had been sitting on his mom's lap, but turned around to peer over the chair right as I readied the camera. I cropped the photograph to tell the story how I saw it.... a little boy playing peek-a-boo.

Shot with the Leica SL and 50mm Noctilux f/0.95.

Quick Shot: I Know This Scene?

Every time I develop a roll of film, I rediscover my love of film. If I had taken this photograph with a digital camera, I probably would have deleted the photo. But with film, there is so much contrast. Such strong blacks. The long shadows catch my eyes. I'm lost..... my eyes can't decide what is happening, but I know this scene. It's familiar, but different. I KNOW this scene?

This is the heart of street photography. This is me capturing an ordinary moment and making it different..... putting a spin on commonality and challenging what you think makes for a great photograph. It's not straight. It's not colorful. It breaks EVERY rule of photography, but I love it.

Shot on the Leica M7 + 50mm Summilux with Adox Silvermax film.

Quick Shot: Following My Lens Through London

Street photography is all about making impulse decisions. You get a split second to try and capture a natural human moment before it disappears, never to happen again. There are no do-overs in street photography.

On Saturday I took my Leica M7 35mm film camera with the 50mm Summilux f/1.4 and a roll of Ilford FP-4+ for a walk in downtown London. My goal was simple - see what came in front of my lens and take 36 photographs. When carrying my digital camera I will be more liberal with my shots as I am only inconveniencing a few electrons if I mess up, but film isn't so forgiving. I get 36 exposures and its up to me to make them as great as I can.

After developing the roll and scanning the images, I am left with 11 "keeper" shots - a great ratio of shots to keepers! These are straight scans with no editing. As you'll see, a lot of interesting things found their way in front of my lens yesterday.

En route

En route

Conversation

Look right and wait

Empty train station

Tube station

Shopkeeper's window

Down

Reflected icon

Drizzles

Scribbles

Riding

First Day with the Leica SL

Thanks to the Leica Store in Mayfair (London), I didn't have to wait long after posting my Leica SL First Impressions to actually get my own. Leica was also kind enough to setup the camera and charge the battery for me so that I could take it shooting in London after purchase.

Like with any new camera, it takes some time to learn the buttons and figure out the 'ins and outs' of the controls, but it was the perfect day to put the camera through its paces. After starting with a walk through Soho, we walked to the Tate Modern and a Christmas market in that area before finishing with a nighttime stroll to Big Ben and Westminster. I had a chance to shoot in a bunch of different environments, including some nighttime and low-light, to really test several aspects of the camera - and I am SUPER impressed! In fact, as I downloaded the files into Photoshop last night, I kept saying "holy cow" and "wow" as I looked at the raw files; these are some of the nicest images I've ever seen come from a camera. Incredible dynamic range, sharpness, and detail. 

Stay tuned for a formal full review, but in the mean time, here's a sneak peak of my first day with the Leica SL.

Quick Shot: Hidden London

I have been working on cleaning up my laptop's hard drive for the next photo adventure, which will be a BIG one and unearthed several shots from London that were hidden in the depths. They are all interesting photos with some cool stories, so let's explore what lingers in the dark corners of my folders.

An old church in downtown London was converted to an outdoor park after burning down

A classic outside the Portobello Street Market

Back entrance to the Apollo Theatre

A construction project silhouette against the bright white clouds on an overcast London afternoon

Keeping with the construction theme - some scaffolding raising up from Soho into the grey skies