How and Where to do Street Photography in New York – a Detailed Guide
When one thinks of street photography, New York is often the first place that comes to mind. While street photography can and should be done in all types of places, there’s no denying that New York is a Mecca for this genre, and every street photographer should experience photographing here at some point in their life.
New York is diverse. There are 8.5 million energetic people of all types and backgrounds living here with another nearly 2 million commuting each day, all interacting and bumping into each other on street corners.
Each neighborhood has its own look and flair to it, from the buildings to the people living there. In certain areas of the city, you can walk a handful of blocks and feel like you are in a completely different world. The amount of inspiration is seemingly endless.
While New York is one of the most photographed places in the world, so much happens here that unique moments are around every corner. The iconic moments are incredible and hard to beat of course, but you’ll find the longer you explore and photograph here, the more unique, special, and nuanced moments that you will come across.
As a lifelong New Yorker, street photographer, and certified tour and history guide, here are both my favorite tips for capturing the people and spirit of the city and my favorite places.
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How to do Street Photography in New York
What Camera and Lens is Best for New York?
You can do street photography with any camera and lens. Even cellphones work great for many situations. This being said, some equipment will make things a lot easier for you.
I highly suggest using a mirrorless camera. If you don’t own one you can rent one for free for the day from the Fujifilm Wonder Photo Shop near the Flatiron building or from endless camera rental shops around the city. Mirrorless cameras are small, inconspicuous, and light, which will make the endless amount of walking so much easier. I suggest Fuji cameras, such as the Fuji X100 or X-T line (to read further see my article on The Best Street Photography Cameras).
Use one or two prime lenses and that’s it. I strictly use 35mm and 50mm lenses and they are perfect for street photography. They are light and their focal length is perfect for busy streets where everyone is close. But most importantly, by using a prime, you will become attuned to the specific focal length that you are using. This will speed you up and allow you to shoot in a much more spontaneous way, which is ideal for fast-moving street photography.
Quick Camera Settings
Take your camera off of auto mode. It may work well for cityscapes, but it will screw up for fast-moving street photography scenes. Instead, I highly suggest using your Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority Modes (I use AV mostly).
The light in New York changes so quickly because of all the tall buildings that there is rarely a time where you will not be photographing in multiple types of light. One side of the street will be sunny, the other side shady, and even on overcast days, certain areas will be much darker than others. This is why shooting in full Manual is tough (but possible). Aperture or Shutter Priority will allow you to have enough manual control, but allow the camera to do enough work so you don’t have to constantly change your settings, or think about your settings much.
The next step is to look at how strong the light is and set your ISO – and raise that ISO up! On sunny days, I shoot on ISO 800, overcast days 1600, dusk into the evening I’m at 1600 or 3200, and evening is 3200 or 6400. Newer cameras can handle these settings well, but older cameras you may want to lower that slightly. Don’t worry about the added grain/noise. It will still look great and the sharper shots you come back with will more than make up for it.
Next is to set your aperture. I prefer to have as much of a depth of field as possible. Since everything moves fast and there are often multiple interesting subjects at different depths, this will help to ensure that more of your scene will be sharp, even if you should miss the focus by a bit.
I typically start around F8 (sometimes F11 if in the bright sun for a while), and move my aperture to lower numbers as the sun starts to go down.
The final step is the shutter, which your camera will be choosing. When shooting in Aperture Priority mode, you need to pay attention to the shutter speed that the camera is choosing. I typically try to stay at 1/250th or anything faster during the day, and I’m fine with 1/125th or 1/80th and faster during the evening. These numbers will help you freeze the motion in people. If you notice your shutter speed going below those numbers, you can just raise your ISO or lower your Aperture to gather more light.
What if You Get Caught?
Now that the boring technical stuff is out of the way, it’s time to talk about general tips for approaching street photography.
New York is one of the easiest places in the world to do this type of photography. People are used to seeing cameras, standing out, and they’re typically in a rush. This makes it very easy to not stand out too much.
That being said, you may have people stop you occasionally. It’s fairly rare, but it happens. In these cases, just be open and honest about what you are doing. I will tell people that I’m just capturing the streets and people of New York and I thought they looked fabulous. Flattery works great. Offer to send them the photograph. If they seem uncomfortable, offer to delete it. You legally don’t have to, but we’re doing this because we like people, and it’s probably not the best shot of your life anyway, so diffuse the situation.
If it’s the best shot of your life, just run away.
Finally, it’s important to also state that you should be smart about who you photograph. People who look angry or like they might have some mental instability are probably not worth photographing. That’s up to you of course and I’m not out to make any judgments, I’ve seen street photographers tastefully photograph nearly everything, but you will up your chances of getting in an altercation. So be smart about who you choose to photograph.
This tip is the key. How you present yourself out there is going to allow you to get away with anything.
First, you don’t want to look directly at your subjects. This will make them instinctively notice you. Instead, just make it look like you’re noticing the background behind them. You don’t have to go overboard with this. I tend to just make it look like I’m spaced out and don’t notice the people at all, just looking over their shoulders. When you do this well, people just think you’re photographing something behind them.
If I really need to be candid, I will aim my camera up at a building behind them, keep my eye through the viewfinder, and make it look like I’m just looking around until I capture them, then bring my camera back up and away from them before removing it from my eye.
When you photograph someone, taking the camera away from your eye right as you do is the main tipoff, so it can help to move the camera away before doing this or waiting until they walk through the scene.
Also keep in mind that with a light lens and small camera, I often just shoot so quickly that people barely notice even though it’s pretty obvious.
Try Street Portraits
If you’re uncomfortable with street photography, street portraits are an incredible way to feel better about what you are doing. Pick a busy place and stop a handful of people and tell them you think they have a great look to them and would love to do a quick portrait.
And make sure to actually spend the time to get a good portrait of them because you’ll want to take their info and send it to them.
Even the people that say no will typically just be in a rush, and you’ll be making the day of the people who say yes. It’s highly flattering to have someone want to take your photo, and it will show you that we’re not trying to do anything bad out there.
Pick a Busy Corner
You are of course going to do a lot of photographing while walking around, so always make sure to walk slowly and pay attention to your surroundings while walking, but even better, stop yourself occasionally in great locations.
Waiting is one of the best things that you can do for your street photography. Pick a busy corner, an area with interesting potential, or an area with great lighting, and just wait for the street gods to rain luck upon you. The more you do this, the more lucky moments will happen in the perfect spots.
The bonus to this is that people will be entering your personal space instead of you entering their space. This allows you to get much closer shots in a much easier manner. It’s a great strategy no matter how experienced you are, but particularly if you are nervous about street photography, this is a great method to start with.
This tip is easier said than done, but try to get closer to your subjects over time. You will notice that your photos will start to improve as you can make out more details and nuances in each scene.
The closer you are, the more intimate the moment will feel, and your viewers will start to feel like they are on the street themselves and part of the moment.
Facial Expressions and Gestures
A main goal of street photography is to share feelings and ideas. We’re trying to show something interesting about our subjects, the place, and ourselves.
There are those special moments that will happen over time and you can’t explain what they will be or when they will come. But you can try hard to capture these feelings and ideas regularly, and that is by showing those emotions on the faces of people.
When photographing people, I would much rather a deep and interesting facial expression on an ordinary person than a regular photo of a flashy person. One of these options will make you feel something. So really look for people who are wearing their emotions on their sleeves, so to speak.
Or in their bodies. Look for interesting gestures, ways that people are holding themselves.
Get rid of your preconceived notions
People have a lot of preconceived notions about what they want to photograph when they come to New York. Of course, you should try to take those photographs when you can, but it can help to free your mind and just walk. The city is often much different from what you see on TV shows or Instagram.
Open yourself up to what New York will present to you, and I think you will come back with more interesting photographs.
Imperfections and Uniqueness
Speaking of Instagram, the medium and algorithm behind it have the effect of tricking people into thinking a certain look is what makes a good photograph. Straight lines, graphic images, perfect views, strong colors, that’s what stands out with the algorithm. But those images all look the same and are a dime-a-dozen.
We’re looking for real, unplanned, and fascinating moments. And those moments aren’t perfect. They’re often messy, off-kilter, just strange in some way.
Embrace the imperfections. Sometimes they’ll screw up an image, but often they’ll make it that much better and will help the moment feel real. As long as the moment is interesting enough, the imperfections should just become a welcome aspect of the moment.
Street Photography at Night
New York is fantastic to photograph at night. The city sparkles, the light is gorgeous, and interesting things happen.
While most of the areas that you might think about exploring at night are incredibly safe, it is still a big city, so do your research, be smart about it, and think about taking a friend along if you don’t know the city well.
I will typically raise my ISO to 3200 or 6400 depending on where I am and use Aperture Priority with a very low number such as F2.8 or F2. There is usually just not enough light to shoot with any other settings. I also will often turn my exposure compensation (+/-) to -1 to make sure the scenes feel like they were taken at night, but that is a personal preference. From there I pay attention to my shutter speed and try to ensure that it is over 1/80th or 1/125th of a second.
The next, and most important step, is to seek out the light sources. If you don’t seek out light, you just can’t do street photography at night in the city – it’s too dark. I will search for bright storefront windows, the lights of lampposts, neon signs, anything I can find, and I’ll wait there for a subject to enter the scene and be illuminated by the light.
If you are shooting while walking around, make sure to walk on the interior side of the street. You want to place yourself in between the storefront light sources and your subject, so you can capture the side of their face that’s illuminated.
You can read a more detailed article about Photographing New York at Night here.
Street Photography without People
Street photography goes far beyond just capturing images of people. The idea of a street photo is to capture an image that has a feeling, idea, or a spirit to it that lies just beneath the surface. Cityscape photography is about capturing gorgeous photographs, but street photography is about capturing scenes that are unique and meaningful.
So make sure to keep an eye out for the backgrounds of the city that go beyond the iconic. You will notice a lot of them once you really start looking.
Learn more about Street Photography – What is Street Photography – An Introductory, How-To Guide.
Where to do Street Photography in New York?
Before giving you my list of favorite locations to capture street photography in the city, it’s important to say that you should take some time to just get lost without a destination in mind.
Getting lost and exploring is one of the most fun aspects of street photography and you will find that you will capture some of your favorite moments this way. So schedule some time for some unplanned walking.
SoHo, Broadway and Prince Street, Greene Street
Spend an afternoon getting lost through SoHo, one of the most fashionable areas in New York that is always packed with people. The area is full of high-end fashion stores with gorgeous windows and the most beautiful cast-iron architecture in the world, which will create an endless variety of great backgrounds for your subjects.
Broadway and Prince Street is one of my favorite corners in New York to hang out on and people watch, and Greene Street is one of the most beautiful architectural stretches in New York with some of the highest-end brands in the world.
5th and 6th Avenue from Central Park to 42nd Street
5th Avenue is the highest commercial rent district in New York, an area made famous for its fashion by New York Times fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham. Hang out on the corners between 58th street and 53rd street for some of the best street corner photography in the city, passing both New Yorkers and tourists alike.
Make your way through Rockefeller Center and then cross to 6th Avenue on 47th Street, which is the Diamond District and one of the most fascinating streets in New York. 6th Avenue will have more New Yorkers while 5th Avenue will have more tourists. End in Bryant Park at 42nd Street.
42nd Street from the Port Authority, through Times Square and Bryant Park, ending at Grand Central Terminal
Start at the Port Authority to capture street corners of people commuting from all over the city. Walk east on 42nd Street taking a detour in Times Square (if that’s your thing, it will be packed). Make sure to pay attention to the vendors in costume as they are fascinating to photograph.
Next explore Bryant Park, shoot on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, one of the most trafficked corners in New York, and end up photographing people on both levels of Grand Central Terminal.
Subway photography is incredible in New York but is much easier to do with a small mirrorless camera that has a silent shutter. My favorite subway to capture is the shuttle (S), which goes one stop back and forth between Grand Central and Times Square, causing a stream of constant people.
Photograph the Times Square subway station, waiting in the middle as each shuttle train empties a full train of people towards you and then walking up and down the 2-3 and N-R platforms.
Coney Island (when it’s warm)
There is no place better to be in New York than Coney Island in the summer. Eat at Nathan’s or Totonno’s Pizza and then walk the boardwalk back and forth. Make sure to walk the length of the pier, to go into the open amusement parks to photograph, and to especially walk the beach (wear the right shoes).
The beach is the best aspect of Coney Island to photograph.
The Lower East Side and East Village on warm weekends and evenings
The Lower East Side and East Village have some incredible street photography opportunities. They have a mix of trendy New Yorkers and old-timers with a background of old tenement buildings and higher-end hotels and luxury buildings. The variety is endless.
Just make sure to go at the right times. These areas will be devoid of people during weekdays, but come alive on warm weekends and evenings when it is warm and people go out to eat, drink, and just walk.
Chinatown and Columbus Park
Chinatown is one of the few places in Manhattan that still has a majority of its original culture. The streets are gorgeous, colorful, and old. The people are very friendly with photography and there are great sites around each corner.
Visit Columbus Park and respectfully watch (and politely photograph) the people playing Chinese chess and Chinese poker. On weekends and warm weekends in the afternoon, there will be multiple bands and people doing karaoke as well.
After, walk a couple of blocks to Pell Street and the famous, curved, Doyer’s Street (nicknamed the Bloody Angle for its gang-ridden past), two of the most gorgeous streets in New York.
Washington Square Park and West 4th Street
Spend an hour on a warm day (or even a colder one) in Washington Square Park, which is always packed with a huge variety of people looking to relax. From NYU students, to old-timers, to skaters and bikers, to tourists, to musicians, there is a little something of everything here to photograph.
From there you can head over to the West Village and the West 4th Street subway stop, which is great for people-watching.
Downtown Brooklyn and DUMBO
Downtown Brooklyn is one of the busiest areas of Brooklyn, always packed with people from the streets to the subway stations. This is an area to just get lost and people watch.
Start at the Atlantic Avenue subway stop, where the Barclays Center is, walk along Flatbush Avenue to Fulton Street (Fulton Mall), and then walk west on Fulton until you get to Brooklyn Bridge Blvd. Then head towards the water to photograph DUMBO waterfront, one of the most visited areas in New York.
Williamsburg and Bushwick
The former home of the hipsters and now quickly turning into a more expensive and Manhattanized neighborhood, Williamsburg has a wide variety of subject matter to capture. It’s a fascinating and wonderful neighborhood.
Get lost walking around there and then take the L train to the Jefferson Street stop for some of the most beautiful street art in the city (and great people-watching). Put Roberta’s pizza into your GPS and walk to it for lunch. This will take you to the Morgan Avenue subway stop and the heart of Bushwick.
As a photographer and certified tour guide, I can take you around to some of the most interesting locations to photograph New York.
Read more about my private photo tours and street photography workshops.