MATTHEW NORDHAGEN :: PHOTOGRAPHY

A LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHER IN NEW YORK CITY: LESSONS LEARNED IN URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY

November 26th, 2021

I am a landscape photographer by hobby but have always held an interest in urban photography. Over the years I’ve made attempts, but those attempts did not produce anything of relevance. I visited New York City with family in October 2021 and I used that opportunity to take a more serious approach to urban photography. While I had some vague ideas about how to take photographs in a city, I wasn’t confident that I knew enough to make this attempt more successful than my past efforts. In landscape photography, I’ve been conditioned, and have the luxury, of using exposure settings that favor low ISO and shutter speed settings. In my limited experience, this approach does not work well in urban photography simply because there isn’t often the benefit of time. I began to prepare for my trip by asking two simple questions: what lens should I use and what exposure settings should I start with? I figured that if I could try to find a working answer to both questions, I would at least be further ahead than some of my prior attempts. Post-vacation, I feel that I was more successful than before, but I did learn some lessons along the way. I’ll share the answers to those questions and what I learned here.

LESSONS LEARNED #1: CHOOSING LIMITATIONS OVER FLEXIBILITY

I have a Fujifilm XT-3 and my two main lenses are the Fujinon XF 16-55mm f2.8 and the Fujinon 55-200mm f3.5-4.8. For this trip, I wanted a compact camera system that I could easily handhold and take in and out of a camera bag quickly; neither of these lenses fulfill that requirement. Fujifilm primes were the next choice but which of them to choose was difficult. At the very least, I knew that a 50mm prime would likely be too narrow, but I also wanted to avoid going too wide. I don’t particularly like the angle of view offered by wide-angle or ultra-wide-angle lenses. On the other hand, there are benefits of having a wide-angle focal length for urban photography. After considerable decision fatigue, I settled on renting the Fujinon XF 27mm f2.8 (2021 version). It has minimal distortion, a comfortable angle of view, and the aperture ring adjustment on the lens. Paired with my XT-3, this certainly made for a compact setup and this one lens approach seemed like a good idea creatively at the time, but while walking around New York City, I encountered my first lesson learned: having flexibility in focal length is a greater advantage creatively than having self-imposed creative limitations.

When researching prime lenses, I convinced myself that limiting myself to single, approximately standard, prime lens would act as a motivator to be more creative in my compositions. In practice, it simply limited opportunities. It is true that I could have had prime lenses that covered other focal lengths, but the opportunity to take a photograph was often brief, so there was no time to consider swapping lenses on the street even if I had them, not to mention impractical in many situations. If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would choose a zoom lens and sacrifice some portability and compactness in favor for flexibility in composition and greater accss to opportunities.

LESSONS LEARNED #2: IT’S BETTER TO HAVE CAPTURED THE IMAGE THAN NO IMAGE AT ALL

After some trial and error, I set my baseline exposure setting to f8, ISO 400, and 1/150th second shutter speed. This allowed me to maintain a reasonable depth of field, with an ISO versatile enough for most daylight situations, while maintaining a shutter speed that would let me capture consistently sharp images. Since the XT-3 does not have IBIS, shutter speed was priority, so in situations where I had to bias my exposure, I often favored ISO. It was surprisingly difficult to remove myself from the habits developed in landscape photography – maintain the lowest ISO for the cleanest image and greatest dynamic range – and accept that it is OK to use high ISO settings. Obviously, there are some limits as extended ISO ranges can be largely unusable but keeping it within standard ISO ranges – 100 to 3200 – all modern mirrorless cameras are highly capable of producing great images. What helped me reframe ISO as a tool rather than a limitation was to remind myself that it’s better to have captured the image than no image at all.

LESSONS LEARNED #3: EXPANDING YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Stepping outside of my normal photographic routine had some unexpected benefits. First, it made me aware of some habits that needed to change – see Lessons Learned #2 above. Second, it gave me some additional knowledge and experience that I might be able to use again at some point. I think music is a good analogy here. As a guitar player, I am primarily a blues player, but I don’t listen primarily to blues music. I might learn a useful technique for guitar playing from an artist who plays jazz, or an approach to music arrangement from an electronic music producer. How these two influence one another may not be obvious at first, but it’s often in practice where you find yourself implementing ideas that you would not have had otherwise. I think the same can be said for photography. While urban photography in New York City is quite different than the landscape photography that I typically do, it exposed me to new ideas that might benefit my landscape photography later.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Taking a break from landscape photography and spending time focusing on an entirely different genre of photography was a nice change of pace. At times it felt like I was learning the fundamentals all over again and while I made mistakes, the process and experience was beneficial. It certainly doesn’t feel like I failed, in other words. Whether these lessons learned have any value, I’ll leave that up to you to decide. For me, I captured some images that I’m proud of and learned some new things along the way. I would call that a success.

Images from New York City can be viewed in my Portfolio.