Shooting Spree

There are just two more classes to go in the “Digital Photography Shooting Workshop” course that I’m taking at New York University with the noted street photographer Joe Holmes, who happens to be one of the most relaxed yet effective instructors from whom you could ask to learn photography.

It’s been enormously fun and I’m still learning loads every session but… thank goodness it’s coming to a close, because meeting twice a week is kicking my ass. The class has been spending six hours a week together, half spent on Wednesday evenings and the other half on Saturdays. But this past week, I had to redo an entire shoot on Tuesday night, and, in a selfless and unpaid bit of overtime, Joe extended our mid-week class by about ninety minutes to teach us some night shooting techniques. Now, I’m up early on a Saturday and preparing to leave for the first of these last two classes — we’re meeting out at Coney Island to take photographs at the annual Mermaid Parade. If I’m not exhausted enough already, I’m sure to be by the time I’m back from Brooklyn.

Shot by the River

This past Wednesday, after our regular, three-hour critique of the photos we took during our shooting session the prior Saturday, the class headed out to the South Street Seaport area of lower Manhattan, tripods in hand, to shoot just beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. We walked to the boardwalk along the East River and spent some time getting the hang of extended exposures and focusing with very little light.

Below: Six from six hundred. More or less all of the good shots from six or so hours of field photography from this past week. More at Flickr.

I’m not sure if I came out of it with any particularly winning photographs, but it was a fun excursion. In a bit of relief from all the heat we’ve had in New York lately, there was a nice, comfortable breeze along the water’s edge, and it was interesting to note how the South Street Seaport area had changed after the Fulton Fish Market left a few years ago. You’d never know there had been a huge, teeming seafood market there since practically forever. It’s all gone now, and I only wish I’d had my Nikon D70 camera and what modest photography skills I have now when I visited it 2004.

We didn’t finish our nighttime shooting until 11:00p, so I was completely beat by the time I got home, and again still when I woke up to go to work the next day. The whole class has been more intensive and time-consuming than I anticipated: in Saturday’s session, we spent three hours in the crowded July heat of Chinatown, shooting along East Broadway. I don’t know, maybe at the outset I had some vague, unformed idea of this class as being primarily studio-bound, wherein they’d just wheel street scenes past me while I sat back in a recliner, sipping soda and taking photos in the comfort of air conditioning.

It’s Chinatown

I took several hundred photos in Chinatown, mostly of people, and most of them on the sly, without asking permission of the subjects beforehand. I even had one guy chase me down nearly a full city block, cursing at the top of his lungs for even pointing my camera at him — I never even managed to snap a picture — and threatening to do bodily harm to me. It was a little nerve-wracking, but not nearly as rattling as I thought it would be. I recovered fairly quickly and resumed my undercover shooting, a mode of picture taking that I’ve discovered I really like.

Below: The eyes have it. This is probably my favorite shot from Chinatown, both for the expression and the natural and clean silhouette.

One thing I wanted from this class was a primer on how to take photographs of people out on the street, and Joe has been very helpful in giving pointers. Mostly though, I’ve discovered it all comes down to nerve, to being brazen enough to fire off a shot without asking, and just hoping that the subject doesn’t notice or doesn’t mind — and also hoping that the shot comes off successfully, since you usually only one get one chance. None of this takes teaching so much as it takes enormous amounts of practice. Plus, the capacity to quickly thicken your own skin against the potential ire and rejection of the people you want to photograph helps in no small way, either.

Man and Child on East Broadway


Did I mention it takes practice? Lots of practice, apparently. Almost none of the several hundred shots I took on Saturday came out successfully at all when I reviewed them later that day. Extremely frustrating. Ultimately, I decided I had to go back to Chinatown on Tuesday evening and shoot more photos; this time I had the advantage of the kinder sunlight at dusk, but the disadvantage of many fewer people on the street.

Still, I snapped another two hundred shots or so, and most of them felt like better pictures, at least as I reviewed them in the camera. When I got back to my computer and pulled them up at full size on my screen, I saw many of the same problems I had seen on Saturday, which was again frustrating. But I also saw some some incremental improvement, and I was able to select a marginally greater number of acceptable pictures from the whole lot. The experience made me start to look at the distance between my current skill level and my desired skill level as measurable in thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of shots. I have a ways to go yet.

  1. your eye for expression is really improving! i love photography but have just come to the conclusion that i don’t have the time to put in all that extra effort that’s involved with getting the-great-shots. it does take lots and lots of practice! i’m glad you’re taking the time to really improve your skills.

  2. One’s ratio of “keepers” to frames shot doesn’t necessarily improve with practice. Since going digital, it’s not unusual for me to come back from trips with more than 3,000 exposures. I keep or print, what, 50-60 of those, max? Practice gets you keepers that you’re increasingly happy with and which require less post-processing.

    It’s great to see you so immersed in something so shareable, Khoi. Your enthusiasm in these posts is contagious.

  3. So glad you took the time to write about your experiences with the class. Sounds like it was truly good use of time. I know what you mean about South Street. Seems like the NYC I left 8 years ago is all but gone, but that’s all the more reason to keep shooting now. You never know what will be here tomorrow.

  4. Crossing the boundary of surreptitionsly snapping photos of people is one of the true joys of street photography, I think. I mean, we’d all like to think that we can just post up on a corner and voila, instant art. But somehow, there’s a quickening of breath, a violation that takes place in the decisive moment. I’ve backed down at least as many times as I’ve powered through that moment. Ultimately, that’s what makes it fun though. Every good shot on the street is a win over both the will, and the craft.

    Keep banging the shutter. Glad to see it.

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