If you want to take photos of New York, make sure you include trips to Chinatown and Little Italy. These are two of the best places to visit in Manhattan if you want to experience the culture and traditions of countries 5,000 miles apart on the globe, but only 50 feet apart in New York.
We spent part of our iPhotography workshop in Chinatown and Little Italy to allow us to practise our street photography and learn how to photograph strangers in a close environment.
Street photography is one of the most popular forms of photography when you’re in New York. The huge concrete jungle engulfs the people that call it home. Everyone is so busy and preoccupied with their day that they rarely stop to take notice of the tourists – this is an advantage if you’re a photographer planning to visit New York.
I always want to push myself as a photographer and do things I’ve not done before or get better at the things I enjoy doing. I love photographing people, normally that’s in a studio setting, but trying it a different way and photographing strangers out in the streets was great fun as you never know who you’ll encounter, what they’ll do and how the shots will look.
When we were in Chinatown, I issued a challenge to our group of workshop photographers;
…take photos of strangers. They don’t have to be looking at the camera, nor do you have to include their faces…
I specifically added the caveat of not including their faces as photographing strangers can feel quite uncomfortable for photographers who haven’t done it before. I wanted to slowly embed our group into this idea – but I was SO wrong.
They all went full throttle at the idea of photographing strangers in Chinatown. They were bold, brazen, and happy to walk around the streets seeking out different subjects. It was amazing to see their confidence to take on something they don’t regularly shoot in a new place – but I think the fact that native New Yorkers see tourists as ‘background noise’ really helps.
The locals didn’t react, confront, or stare at us, they were too busy themselves and must have seen people like us a million times before. It meant we didn’t have to hide in the shadows and shoot on long lenses, we stood out on the street corners and waited for interesting looking people.
Chinatown in New York is spread across a wide area, but the heart of the community is around Bayard, Mulberry, Mott and Elizabeth streets. This is where the streets are narrow, with constant shop deliveries, mixed with busy restaurants and outdoor markets.
There is an energy and focus about the people that is all geared around work. Though nearby Columbus Park was filled with people taking some leisure time the main streets were bustling with hurried faces and constant conversation.
Wherever we turned there was someone in the middle of working; shifting boxes, stacking merchandise or cleaning windows – you got a clear picture that the community works as one. There is a good supply chain and a process to everything. It’s well-rehearsed, with no empty shops, or quiet cafes – they only have what they need, and it’s all regularly used.
I think by taking the time to watch and breathe in this understanding of a location it helps photograph it more accurately. Sometimes the culture and traditions are so obvious it just hits you between the eyes, but other times its worth wandering the streets and looking for repetitive subjects and consistent colours to build your shots around.
While New York’s Chinatown is all about work and function, only 50 feet across Canal Street you’ll find a completely different world in Little Italy. While it’s only a small community spanning out from Mulberry Street, it’s a true taste of what life in Italy is like.
There is music, dance, singing, conversation, and an overall urge to be social with people you’ve never met before. This partly made street photography in Little Italy a little harder, though the characters are more energetic, they were also more aware of the people around them.
We didn’t have any odd looks or confrontations, but I certainly felt a bit more ‘exposed’ as a photographer taking photos in Little Italy.
I think this feeling came from the layout of the narrow streets. Whereas in Chinatown you could be hidden in the constant passing of strangers, in Little Italy you were forced more into the middle of the street as the sidewalks were taken up by the outdoor cafes and seating areas.
This meant that we were in the light shooting into the shadows, therefore we had to be selective with what we shot given where the light was falling. It was very busy and didn’t take long to walk the main street, so we turned around and wandered back. We got a different perspective walking the other way, it gave us more time in the same location and a chance to see things we didn’t notice before.
Like the red and gold tones in Chinatown, Little Italy was awash with strong greens and whites, and we wanted that to come across in our photos.
We had an amazing time doing street photography in New York around the streets of Little Italy and Chinatown, and it’s taught me several things that I wanted to share with you.
1. Take time to breathe in the location; what kind of vibe does it give?
2. No one cares about you or your camera, so don’t be scared.
3. Look for interesting characters, don’t just photograph anyone.
4. Shoot a little wider in case your subject moves left of right suddenly.
5. Use a faster shutter speed for quickly taken shots and moving subjects – 1/640th or faster for example.
These photos of New York from Chinatown and Little Italy were just the first part of our workshop trip.
Look out for the next stories from our adventure. If you like the idea of joining us on an iPhotography photo walk or workshop keep an eye out on our dedicated booking page to find out when the next event is.
Photo walks are perfect for photographers of all experience levels. They give you the opportunity to meet new photographers, share tips, get help, and better understand your camera and what makes great photos.
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