“Leaving Your Comfort Zone”
by Brian T Adams
Hello everyone. My fiancée and I recently went on our first trip to New York City. What a fantastically chaotic place. From all the sounds and sights akin to those in the movies to the chaotic guy on the subway yelling to the cosmos some sort of declaration that scared the hell out of everybody, New York was nonstop. And we loved it.
I wanted to seize the opportunity to photograph a new and foreign place. Yet, this time I wanted to do something different. I almost exclusively find myself trying to photograph landscapes and the occasional structure; sometimes with success, many times not. The more I am consumed by photography in general, the more I realize that a great many of the most iconic photos ever made are of people. For me, the idea of shooting a photo of a complete stranger, up close and personal, couldn’t have been more uncomfortable and awkward. Despite experiencing mild to moderate nausea at the thought of sticking a camera in the face of a stranger, I was determined to come away with some photos of people.
Within the first five minutes of being off the subway in Manhattan, I realized it was not going to be as easy as I had somehow convinced myself it might be. Perhaps I was just initially overwhelmed with it all. Eventually I concluded the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. So, my first bite would be with street performers. I figured I’d give them a little dough and I’d take a couple of photos in exchange…I couldn’t have been the first person to have done this. Looking back, this was the perfect approach to help me get comfortable confronting somebody with a camera.
While I enjoyed this approach, I needed to get a little deeper. Eventually, I just started walking up to people and asking them if I could take their picture. The first couple times I did this, I could hardly keep the camera steady I was so nervous. Oddly enough, though, nobody ever said no. In fact, some people’s reactions were down right hilarious if not absurd. A couple of guys thought I was joking, one looked around in nervous fashion as if caught up in a prank and then fixed his hair when he realized I was serious. Another person, who was sitting on a bench at the time, quickly stood up and immediately got ready; clearly this wasn’t his first rodeo. Eventually, I was taking pictures of random people without saying a word. They weren’t necessarily portraits or even up close, but many times the subjects knew I was taking photos of them and they didn’t seem to object.
To be fair, I have to admit, my nerves got the best of me many times. A lot of the close up pictures I took – even after asking – didn’t come out. Most were because I miss focused (shallow DOF) or had a poor composition. For some reason, I tended to want to put people’s heads in the lower half of the frame instead of the upper half. At least I found out something I need to work on. Keep in mind that I would usually only take one or two of a subject and then move on without looking at the image and some others were shot with film. I didn’t want to waste people’s time so, either way, each shot was a commitment. If nothing else, though, it helped me get more comfortable wielding a camera in public.
Ultimately, I left New York with some photos I like, some epic memories, and a new outlook. I absolutely want to get better at people photography. I had serious doubts about trying a whole new approach to photography. If anybody has been thinking about trying something different with their approach to photography, from my limited experience, it’s worth. If nothing else, it helped me interact with many people I wouldn’t normally have had I not taken their photo. Go out and get uncomfortable.
Fuji X-E1 with 35mm f1.4, Canon 5DMKII with 24-105 f4 (great all around lens, nice bokeh on the long end, and I wanted a wide lens for buildings and stuff), and Canon AE-1 Program with 50mm f1.8 FD mount (a $28 powerhouse of a lens). I shot a roll of Acros 100 and a roll of Ilford Delta 100. Most shots with the Fuji and AE-1 Program had a B+W 2 stop ND so I could open the lenses up. I know that’s a lot of gear, but I don’t have a wide lens for the Fuji and I’m not totally ready to commit an entire trip to film (I also wanted to see how airport Xrays would affect film). There was never a time where I was carrying all that at once. I usually only had one camera at a time with me.
Wishing everyone happy shooting,
Brian T. Adams
The first group is from the Fuji X-E1
This second group is from the Canon 5DMKII
The third group is from the Canon AE-1P
Very well done, shooting strangers is something that I still can’t seem to come to terms with but you did really well.
My favorite image (and best executed on all levels IMHO) here is of Mendes. The expresion, the way you filled the frame – I think it’s a really well done exposure. Great experience for you in NYC. I try to get down there once a year as it seems to be a city with the most approachable people (yet I still panic too). Very nicely written, very nicely shot.
thanks raymond. it’s close to my favorite from the entire trip, although i probably couldn’t pin a true favorite overall. maybe it’s the entire experience of meeting him and talking to him that skews my opinion of it. could be it’s my first attempt/success of making an actual portrait. i can’t wait to go back.
I always wondered, how does Louis run his gig and make money? Do people pay him there and then he mails them the images later?
believe it or not, he shoots polaroid film in that big speed graphic of his. you pay him and he gives you the photo mounted in a little frame/folder deal made of construction paper. he told me he averages about 100/day @ $20/photo. if that’s true, he’s got a pretty sweet racket going.
Awesome shots. I love the last one, but all are great.
thanks chris, that guy had a pretty funny reaction when I asked him for a photo. i was especially pumped when i got the film scans back and saw that it came out.
Wow, wonderful shots! It must be a real rewarding trip!
Just curious…where is the location of the rooftop from the group two (taken with your Canon 5D)?
I was thinking of taking photos of Empire state building, but not from the ground.
I enjoyed your photographs and thank you for sharing your works! 🙂
that was taken from the top of rockefeller center. if you want to actually see the empire state building in all it’s glory, then i highly recommend this vantage point!
I like the water mark
Caution: Photographing strangers is addictive. Every face tells a story, and there are 7 billion stories to photograph.
Nice work Brian – especially sharing the emotion of taking candid shots in the city. I always find it to be a growing experience – and you really brought that home.
My favorites for look and feel are from the Canons (both)
thanks! while my priority in the photography world is to progress in the landscape arena, i had a great time photographing people in NY and would definitely like to get better at it. that little ae-1 program is just a hoot to use. love that thing.
Tourist snaps to be honest.
Very accurate feedback as I was, in fact, a tourist. Thanks.
Wow great shots. As I read you post and nervousness about shooting I wasn’t expecting much in terms of people shots – but those are great! Inspiring.
cool! hopefully somebody will be inspired to try something new with their camera!
just wanted to leave a quick thanks to everybody for all the nice comments!
Some great shots. As a landscape photographer the one thing that takes me out of my comfort zone is photographing strangers so I admire anyone that can do it as well as this. Thanks for sharing.
i can’t put into words how awkward i felt at first. never did get over it entirely.
I’m not usually into street photography, but you have some nice shots there. The guy with the large format camera (Speed Graphic?) and the firetruck one are great.
thanks! i wouldn’t call street photography my top passion either, although i find it pretty exciting. i would also say that there’s probably a difference between my images and true street photography. either way, i’d like to get better if for no other reason than to be more well rounded so no matter where i’m at i can come away with at least one image i like.
Great story – your description of your anxiety about the whole process is really refreshing. Street photography often has a ‘macho’ feel about it (“smash and grab” even sometimes) but your approach has an honesty about it. I’m also surprised to find myself liking the images where the subject is aware of the photographer, which again goes against some of the accepted wisdom of street which favours the candid approach. Very thought provoking overall.
thanks colin. i really debated with myself whether i should try an actual “street” photography approach while i was there or to try a more up close approach. street photography was never really an ambition of mine when i initially got into photography a while back, although i’ve really gained an appreciation for it over the past few months and really like a lot of work that’s out there. i think i got a few that could be looked at as “street” from a purist sense, but that wasn’t my intent. i’m glad too because i think i would have been a little disappointed if that had been my goal. my approach allowed me to talk to some interesting people and grab some images that i’m happy with.
Beautufu, beautiful! Well done shots, congrats!
I’m sorry, did you say you were new to shooting people on the street? Hard to believe that! You have a great eye for catching the worthwhile moment, and that’s one of the best captures of Mr. Mendez I’ve ever seen. Nice story and images, thanks for sharing it all.
Agreed. That looks like a publicity shot. I love the little kid in the first shot, the cops, wow, they’re all just so much fun. I get so self-conscious shooting strangers, even though I live in a touristy neighborhood full of people wielding cameras. No one even notices me. This is a great demonstration of the beautiful images that exist for the taking in any city.
thanks a bunch! i originally grew up in the sticks, so being in the city is fairly foreign to me and i was never really into it. having recently gained interest in photography has really opened my view point on visiting big cities. i honestly can’t get enough. thanks again.
Great B+W shoots!
The write up was really well done and appreciated as so many of us “newbies” can relate ….
I really felt the Canon photos in this post, I thoroughly enjoyed them.
thanks for the kind words. that’s one of the reasons this site is so deluxe. new guys like you and me can have a place to post photos along with the veterans. so, thanks be to steve as well!
Excellent shots Brian. I especially like the one of the FDNY engine with the guy smoking inside. Those are the shots I go for: candid moments where the subject doesn’t even know I’m there, and if they find out, it’s too late, I already took the shot. When they see me taking the photo, I normally smile and wave and everything turns out fine. If they’re close enough, I tell them they should consider acting because they have a dramatic look, or something funny like that. Shoot first, ask later is my motto. But you’re right, street photography that includes people is usually more interesting than street photography with out people. Cameras like the X-E1 are great for it because they are so disarming and artsy looking. Thanks for taking the time to post such a concise article about a profound subject.
thanks nathan. i first noticed the fire fighter smoking when he was blowing smoke out the window. i thought it would be a cool shot so i waited and eventually got it. but, it was raining and there was no real light to speak of so you could hardly see the smoke. then i noticed you could really see the cigarette glow when he took a drag on it. i knew that was the one i wanted. so i waited again. felt like a total buffoon standing there in the rain watching this fire truck with my camera on the ready. either way, i’m glad i did. the fuji’s great…nice and subtle. i did have several autofocus issues with it; very frustrating. still not convinced it’s a forever camera for me, but it’s fun and makes great images in the mean time.
Really lovely photos! It’s funny that I just had a similar experience.
Gave myself a similar challenge yesterday, although I wasn’t as brave or as direct as yourself 🙂
This is hilarious, I go through the same experience all the time and think i am odd! thank you! i could even tell how you took each shot, and imagined the odd interaction!
it is funny looking back. there were a few people i just didn’t have the stones to ask…they were radical looking and i felt like i might get roughed up or something. they were probably super nice like everyone else though… lesson learned: the answer’s always no ’til you ask. or you could just go for it and see what happens i suppose (i’m talking portraits of course, not yer average random shot).
Nice work Brian! Just because you don’t mention it in the article, perhaps you were not aware. The photo of the gentleman with the large 4×5 press camera is Louis Mendes, a bit New York legend. Nice capture!
thanks! Mr. Mendes and the Naked Cowboy were the two people i was hoping to run into while we were there. never did see the naked cowboy. man, i was super nervous when i first saw him. i was pumped to talk to him/photograph him. we talked for almost 10 minutes. he took a picture of us. then i took a couple of him…one with the fuji, one on film (comp wasn’t as good though). i didn’t mention him above because i figured a lot of folks would probably recognize him. he’s a really nice/interesting guy. we ran into him right outside B&H.
It would seem he spends a lot of time outside B&H. Everyone seems to run into him there.
yeah, from what i’ve gathered he hangs out in front of b&h and adorama a lot.
Great article Brian, loved reading about your experience. I think it takes balls at first to go up to strangers and ask for to take their photo. A lesson for all of us.
thanks martin, it was borderline horrible the first few times. it got better though after several times and it was something i needed to get over.
Love’m all man, good work!
Brian ~ You shot like a PRO ~ Great Job !
I always asked if I can take your Portrait and that works very well with people.
thanks david, i appreciate it.