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Stories Behind the Scenes: New York Photography Workshop

New York Workshop Group Photo 1
Image: (left to right) Cassandra, Paul, Deborah and Grant

After a year of planning our first ever overseas photography workshop got underway in October, and it was incredible.

I want to tell you some of the stories from behind the scenes of our New York photography workshop and share some of the amazing photos I and the rest of the group took. It was a great opportunity to spend 5 days taking photos of Brooklyn and Manhattan with no distractions, no work calls, no house chores – just pure photography. Bliss!

Travelling to New York

The excitement got to me when I first started to pack for the trip. I wanted to take everything with me, but I also had to be practical. The routes we had planned for each day weren’t particularly gruelling or long, but a heavy camera even over a short distance can cause aches and pains.

I packed the most essential camera equipment in my main camera bag. I took 3 cameras with me just in case something went wrong with my primary camera or somebody else had an issue. I probably overpacked lenses, there were two I didn’t use all trip (18-55mm kit lens and a 30mm macro), but it was better to be safe than sorry I thought.

All my cables, accessories, tripod, and other bits went in my suitcase and survived the 3000-mile flight. There was no issue putting the camera through the security x-ray (some photographers worry about this). You do need to put all your batteries in your carry-on though, and not in your suitcase.

The flight from Manchester was delayed an hour, but it gave me time to check over the routes, triple check the subway directions and make sure I had everyone’s contact information. We’d set up a WhatsApp group with everyone attending so we could all keep in touch during the week.

I landed in New York the night before the workshop started. Navigating the AirTrain and subway system was easy I thought and very cheap too. We were staying near the East Village, not far from Union Square Station.

It took me about an hour to unpack and then repack my camera bag ready for the next morning.

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Meeting the Group for the First Time

Image: It took about 40 minutes before one of us was asked to be a photographer for tourists!

I always like to be the first to arrive on any iPhotography photo walk, just to familiarise myself with the starting location, plan out any introductions and look out for any potential problems (especially if it’s a new location).

We had 4 other photographers booked to join me on the workshop – Deborah, Paul, Grant, and Cassandra. They’d all been to New York previously, but not for a long time, and if you’ve spent a little time in the city, you know how quickly it changes. They were such an excited, friendly, and chatty group I knew within minutes they were all going to get along.

Though I hosted a little onboarding video call a few weeks before for us all to meet ‘virtually’ it’s totally different from meeting in-person. We all met on the corner of Washington & Water St, in the shadows of the iconic Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn.

Image: DUMBO

Day 1: Brooklyn & Chinatown

Our first day started down at DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). You’ll recognise the famous shot of the Manhattan Bridge from Instagram or the movie poster for Once Upon a Time in America.

It’s a beautiful location which captures the styling of New York’s traditional architecture and love for huge feats of engineering. The problem is though, like with many parts of New York, it’s really popular! Even turning up at 9:30am we were surrounded by tourists wanting that iconic selfie for their Instagrams.

This is why, like I said before, I turn up early. With all the tourists gathering I had to assess possible places to shoot to avoid the crowd where possible. We spent a good hour moving criss-cross and down the street taking different images and climbing on things to get the right angle!

Image: Cassandra found great viewpoints by standing on street furniture!

At the end of Washington Street is Main Street Park which is a beautiful vista point to take in the skyline of Manhattan, a wider view of the Manhattan Bridge as well as Brooklyn Bridge to the south. We wandered the park under the perfect blue sky and warm temperatures.

There was a great jet ski display happening on the East River that Deborah took brilliant photos of while Grant tried out some long exposure shots of the river rolling onto the rocky shoreline.

Cassandra couldn’t help herself capture images of the beautiful flowers that were hidden around the park. After a little while of walking I gave the group their first challenge – take 5 photos of the Brooklyn Bridge at different angles and focal lengths.

The challenge itself was designed to test a photographer’s creativity and ability to find more than the expected shot of an iconic landmark. It’s easy to take the widest shot and walk away but I wanted the group to look at the smaller elements and capture something different from others would do. And they did great, I even saw Grant lying down on the grass to take some shots too – that’s dedication!

Image: DUMBO

After a quick drink at Luke’s Lobster Cafe, we walked around to Brooklyn Bridge Park and took some shots of the Manhattan skyline before moving to our last shooting spot in Brooklyn which was the Old Pier 1 – a very famous place for cityscape photos in New York. We all cracked out our tripods and ND filters to try out some slow shutter shots.

By this time, we were all getting quite hungry, so we hopped on the F train from York Street back over the river towards Chinatown. A little stroll through Chinatown and we found TADA a Korean restaurant serving some confusing dishes – fried chicken, rice and….macaroni!? I tried my best with the chopsticks but eventually I had to ask for a fork – have you ever tried to eat micro-macaroni with chopsticks?

Image: Lunch at TADA

Once we were refreshed, we headed along Bayard, Mott and Mulberry streets taking on the next group challenge – 5 photos of strangers. It was great watching the group take to this so well, none of them were portrait or regular street photographers but no one failed in the task and some of their shots were incredible. I’ll share some of them in another blog about Chinatown soon.

From Chinatown it’s only a short walk up Mulberry Street to cross into Little Italy. It’s amazing how the culture and vibe quickly changes from one block to another in Manhattan. Little Italy was noisy, animated and sociable. It was mid-afternoon, all the cafes were filling up and lots of street entertainment. I think it was a great way to end the first day of the workshop.

Everyone was pretty exhausted by this point, but it was a fantastic first day where we tried a lot of different styles of photography and tested ourselves as photographers.

Day 2: Downtown Manhattan

The next morning our mission was downtown. Starting off in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan and ending up at the famous Ghostbusters HQ building in Tribeca.

Despite problems with the traffic and subway everyone made it safely and we started our walk through the park towards the financial district. Being amongst these huge buildings gave me an indication to the main problem we’d have throughout the week – though the sky was bright, and the light was strong it didn’t reach the street level much.

This meant that our exposures were all going to have to be set carefully. If we exposed for the sky all the time, the street level could look underexposed and if we exposed for the street shade then the sky would be blown out.

Image: Looking for shots on Wall Street

We all had to be careful with our compositions. I talked to the group about deciding how much sky we needed to include in our shots. If we could avoid it and fill the frame with shaded areas, it would make balancing exposures much easier. Fortunately, there was so much going at street level that not including the sky all the time was easy.

After passing along Wall Street we walked across to the Oculus which sits just outside the World Trade Centre memorial site. The Oculus is a beautiful wing-like structure that houses the subway and underground marketplace. We took a few shots of the incredible symmetry before heading downstairs to Gansevoort Liberty Market for lunch.

Image: The Oculus

We all went for a classic New York pizza (though Deborah opted for a yummy burrito). And it was a proper NY portion pizza! I couldn’t finish it! Filled up on pizza and burritos we (slowly) walked through the World Trade Centre memorial in the shadow of the new One World building which looked stunning in the bright autumnal sunshine.

After half an hour or so we headed west towards the North Cove Marina and Rockefeller Park to shoot some cityscapes of New Jersey. I liked these less touristy areas of the city. I think it’s here that you get to see real New Yorkers living their lives, working, and walking their dogs. It feels like you’re living in someone else’s world – and New York is a completely different world from what I’m used to.

Image: The Pizzas were HUGE!

The penultimate location of the day was the Staple Street Skybridge, a cross-bridge linking two buildings of a former New York hospital.

But nowadays it’s become a little bit of an Instagram hotspot for capturing the traditional architecture of the city – but despite its online popularity there were no crowds and we had it all to ourselves. There was a beautiful blue Vespa sat nearby that we made the most of to include as well.

Image: Staple Street Skybridge

Now I must admit the last place we shot was a place I’ve been wanting to go for years – the Ghostbusters HQ building. I have loved that film for decades and being only two blocks away from Staple Street meant I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. The building is now a working first station – Hook & Ladder No. 8.

Despite it being closed when we arrived, fortunately we did see the iconic Ecto-1 Ghostbuster car hurtle down 5th Avenue a few days later and I just about caught a very candid glimpse with my camera – amazing!

Image: Who ya' gonna call?

Day 3: The Chelsea Highline & Time Square

I knew the third day of the workshop was going to be fun as it totally changed the perspective of what we had been shooting previously. The highline is a converted overground railway line running through Chelsea to Hudson Yards.

It is a pedestrianised elevated platform which meant we could walk above the surface streets looking down at the world. The group took some brilliant shots looking down 14th and 20th streets and this is where I challenged them to shoot some frames in B&W. The bright lighting really helped this task as it was giving strong shadows and contrast on the buildings.

Image: Grant concentrating on his shots

I knew the third day of the workshop was going to be fun as it totally changed the perspective of what we had been shooting previously. The highline is a converted overground railway line running through Chelsea to Hudson Yards.

It is a pedestrianised elevated platform which meant we could walk above the surface streets looking down at the world. The group took some brilliant shots looking down 14th and 20th streets and this is where I challenged them to shoot some frames in B&W. The bright lighting really helped this task as it was giving strong shadows and contrast on the buildings.

Image: Being elevated on the High Line meant we could capture different perspectives of the streets below

Black and white photos don’t really work under all lighting conditions so the aim was to get the group accustomed to the type of lighting where you can see a clear separation between dark and light tones.

The highline did get busy in parts so you had to be patient to find a good shooting spot. The walk itself did throw up a few unexpected gems – being high up and snaking around apartment buildings meant we all got a good look at some expensive living rooms and gold skeletons! This is the joy of street photography – you never know what you’re going to see.

After coming off the highline we reached the Vessel – another new(ish) landmark of Hudson Yards. It is a multi-layered, open air, honeycombed structure plated with bronze copper panels which reflect beautiful colours under the right lighting.

Image: Inside, looking up at The Vessel

We took a fun group selfie, under a slightly unflattering blue light (we couldn’t change it) and headed to lunch – not before a quick look at the massive B&H photo store on 9th Avenue. This is a photographer’s paradise and I had to hold myself back many times. There was a stunning Leica camera for only $14,000! Bargain!

For lunch we stopped in at Olde City Cheesesteaks & Brew. We had a great time sitting at the bar, having a beer and cheesesteaks, and watching American Football on the TV – classic Americana. And shoutout to Grant for surviving the Ghost Pepper challenge with his lunch! Hot, hot, hot!

Our next stop was Times Square, which, as I’m sure you know, is the most touristy place in New York – if not the world! The ‘Naked Cowboy’ was still out in force, I saw him back in 2005 and he hasn’t changed – but he’s got a partner now too.

After a quick daily selfie on the red steps, we headed back east to finish our day at Grand Central station to practise our ghosting shots on the busy concourse.

Image: Ghosting commuters in Grand Central Station

Day 4: Central Park

Image: Paul & Cassandra discussing the shot

The weather was getting warmer each day, I could have done the whole workshop in shorts and t-shirts – but I didn’t want to subject the group to such knobbly knees!

Central Park was going to be the longest route of the week. Taking us in a loop from the south-east corner we pretty much saw all the hotspots and it gave us a chance to shoot nature and wildlife shots which was something we hadn’t tried in the previous days.

There were American Blue Jays, Terrapins, Cranes and American Robins all out on show in the beautiful sunshine. Given the size of the park there was always space to spread out and find our own spots to shoot. Though we did group together for certain shots, a lot of the time I let the group find their own ideas. I wanted to see their creativity and imagination blossom and end up with images that differ from each other.

Image: Lunch was straight out of Sex and the City!

We made the most of the good weather and sat outside to eat at Le Pain Quotidien – an artisan French restaurant on the edge of Conservatory Water. It was an elegant place to eat (despite the noise of the nearby roadworks!) and set us up nicely for the rest of the walk.

As we reached the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, we headed back south but on the west side of the park passing by the American Museum of Natural History and the John Lennon memorial at Strawberry Fields.

Image: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir (by Cassandra Mark-Lynch)

It was a lovely and pleasant walk through the park, and I got to spend time with everyone chatting about their photography and looking at their shots. The workshop wasn’t designed to be a constant critique or chance to compare against others.

More so, it was a space to challenge ourselves in a new environment with constantly changing views and circumstances in quick succession to leave us with a varied portfolio and a better understanding of our strengths as photographers. While I offered ideas and advice where needed everyone seemingly found shots as we strolled without much issue.

Day 5: 5th Avenue and MOMA

The saddest day of the workshop was always going to be the last day. Everyone was getting on so well, sharing stories, recipes (thanks Cassandra!) and camera tips it was going to be hard to close the curtains on a wonderful week.

Our day began in Washington Square Park, which is the base of 5th Avenue. The challenge of the day was to shoot some pure street photography from the hip. It was something I’d tried out the day before on my walk back to my apartments and I thought it would be a great task.

We all set our cameras to continuous focus with a tracking mode, put the shutter speed up high and made our focal lengths as short as possible. Shooting from the hip is very hit and miss. It’s all about timing, but with not being able to look through the viewfinder you don’t know when the right time is. We turned on frame burst modes to give ourselves a better chance of success.

I directed the group to walk closer to the road and let strangers pass on our right-hand sides where we were holding our cameras and take shots indiscriminately as they passed. We chose our own subjects, looking for interesting characters, unusual looks and anything else eye-catching.

I knew it would take a little while for us all to get into the swing of things – but this is what happens when you’re doing a new style of photography. I explained we’d end up with a lot of missed shots, but it was the little successes that made it all worthwhile.

After a couple of blocks, we returned to ‘regular shooting modes’ and the next challenge was issued – 5 shots of yellow taxi cabs, street vendors and American flags. It really created a buzz – I could see everyone counting back how many shots they’d captured trying to keep track! They were looking in store windows, street stickers, and on advertisements for American flags.

Image: Panning on 5th Avenue

While the taxis were flying by, we added a twist to those shots by practising some panning techniques on top. This was something that not many of the group had done a lot of previously, but they all handled it really well once we got the best settings nailed.

As a treat on our final day together I took the team to a secret rooftop restaurant in the gaze of the Empire States building for lunch. It was a chilled little spot to relax before continuing up the avenue to MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) on West 53rd street.

Image: Lunch atop The Refinery Hotel

I’ve always been at odds with modern art. Some of it can be truly inspiring and thought-provoking, but it can also be a jumbled mess! Either way, we had a great time wandering through the exhibits trying to figure out what everything meant and how easy we all could become millionaires by scribbling on some canvas.

I think one of the highlights was the Dial-a-Poem exhibit where guests are invited to sit and listen to a random poem through an old rotary phone. The poem I heard made no sense, but Deborah on the other hand got something more X-rated apparently – so just be aware in case you visit!

New York Photography Workshop: Final Words

And as quickly as it started the workshop disbanded in the sculpture garden at MOMA. We said our goodbyes and planned to meet up again, virtually speaking, to look through the photos we took and chat about the editing process.

I’m keen that walks and workshops have a follow-up session like this as editing is a vital part of photography that we all need to be practising.

I am so thankful to Grant, Paul, Deborah and Cassandra for their time, passion, infectious enthusiasm, and friendliness. It made this workshop a great success and hopefully we’ll run more in the future.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in joining iPhotography on a one-day photo walk you can check out the upcoming events here.

Image: View from Top of the Rock (by Deborah McPhail)

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