Photography Tips

How to Shoot Street Photography with Renowned Photojournalist Peter Turnley

Two kinds on Coney Island - Peter Turnley New York Street Photography Workshop

Coney Island

My photography has felt a little uninspired lately.

When I travel it’s easier. A new place, new people, I burst with motivation. But at home in New York City, a place I’ve lived and gotten used to for over 15 years, I go blank. In hopes of igniting a spark of creativity, I took a week-long, street photography workshop with famed photojournalist Peter Turnley, and I wanted to share the experience.

Below you’ll find an overview of the format, key lessons I learned, highlights from the week and my thoughts on the experience as a whole.

Silhouettes on the west side - Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop\

Hudson River

Peter Turnley 

New York is filled with photography workshops, I chose Peter’s because I admire his work and versatility. As a former photojournalist for Newsweek, his powerful images of war and social injustice earned him 43 covers and world acclaim. But his pictures from years spent roaming the streets of Paris and Cuba show that he’s also adept at capturing romance, mystery and a sense of beauty in everyday life. In short, his photos inspire me, and I think that’s essential when choosing a photographer from which to learn.

A little Asian girl playing in Times Square - Peter Turnley New York Street Photography Workshop

Times Square

Daily schedule overview

9:30am to 12:30pm

I was one of 10 participants of varying skill levels and experience. Most hailed from the States but there were also photographers from Uganda, Canada and India. We met every morning at 9:30am for lectures, discussions and photo critiques in a hotel conference room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  Peter screened documentaries, videos and slide shows featuring his life and photography, then led discussions about technique, framing, composition, and how to approach people on the street.

Man and woman sitting on a bench - Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop

Hudson River

He also shared other photographers work such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by most to be the father of street photography, and Lene Marie Fossom, a severely anorexic artist whose portraits of Syrian refugees resonated with Peter.

12:30pm +

After our morning sessions, we photographed the city on our own. Peter escorted us on two group excursions to Times Square and Coney Island, though we shot separately once we arrived.

There were no specific assignments other than to find moments, interactions and people we wanted to photograph and then select up to 30 of our best images for review the following morning.

To help those new to New York, Peter provided a list of locations such as Harlem, Chinatown and Grand Central Terminal, that are typically filled with people, visually interesting and a hotbed of interaction.

Men in doorway in Chinatown - Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop

Chinatown

Critiques

Each morning, Peter went through our selects as a group, screening them on a large monitor at the back of the room. He critiqued our work one at a time, starting with a quick run through of the images we submitted. Next he went through the photos he selected as the best, then those he didn’t, and why.  His most frequent remarks were about framing and whether or not he felt a connection to the image.

From the framing perspective, he nixed photos in which feet, heads, limbs or objects on the edges of the frame were cut off in a way he felt didn’t work. He talked a lot about backing up a step to let the frame “breath”.  On the flip side, he removed photos with compositions too far from the subject to inspire an emotional reaction from the viewer. “I would have stepped in more,” he’d say. “Maybe cranked (moved) right and really got in there.” A photo that found a balance between framing and connection (or at least came close) were added to his selects.

Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop

Harlem

During our critiques Peter was happy to answer all of our questions but overall he progressed at a pretty rapid pace, stopping now and then to relate a relevant example or story from his past.

At the end of the week we met late in the afternoon on Friday for a special celebration. Peter served wine as we watched a slide show he put together with his selection of each photographer’s 15 best images.

Visual consistency

Peter gave us enormous latitude in terms of what, where and how we photographed New York with two exceptions. He wanted us to commit to color or black and white and to stick with a single focal length. (I went with black and white  and my favorite lens for street photography, my Canon 35mm f1.4.)

The reason: he wanted our final presentations to have visual consistency.

Couple and a fireman -- Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop

Harlem

“Imagine if you were a writer and wrote one sentence in one style and the next in another, you’d lose the reader,” he said. “There’s no coherence, no flow. It’s the same thing with photography. If you’re using a zoom lens and changing the focal length all the time, you’re changing the perspective of your visual language.”

He explained that using one focal length would also challenge us to think more about our framing and compositions. “When you reduce your options you see better. When you have less choice, you work with what you’ve got.”

He wanted us to use our bodies to move in and around our subjects and not rely on the convenience of a zoom. The limitation would help us understand where our body needed to be in relation to our subjects to make the image we wanted.

Mark Willis, Dancer at Coney Island - Peter Turnley Street Photography workshop

Coney Island

Lessons Learned  

Behave confidently and take control

Walking up to a stranger to ask for a photo can be frightening. Peter’s advice was to behave confidently and take control of the moment. If you act as if everything is fine a person usually responds in kind. If you act timid or as if you’re not sure what you’re doing is right, it only makes sense that someone would be wary. “Why would someone trust you if you act as if you’re doing something wrong?”

While I don’t have a lot of issues approaching strangers when I travel, I do get intimidated in New York. I took his advice and vowed not to let my fears distract me or talk me out of asking for a photo. I approached people confidently (whether I felt it or not), and it worked. The more I did it the easier it became.

girls in bathing suits at Coney Island - Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop

Coney Island

Share your photos with your subjects

Peter is very generous with his photos and always offers to send a copy to the people he photographs. He keeps a stack of business cards in his pocket and he hands them out liberally, asking people to email him if they want their picture.

In past I’ve never sent photos unless I was asked, and now I regret it. Using his example as a guide, I began to offer people their images and I found it instantly brought down any walls they might have had because we both benefited. It made photographing them infinitely easier and enjoyable and led to some great conversations. Seventy-five percent of the people I shot emailed me within a couple of hours.

I’m going to print a nice-looking cheap card with my name and email address on it to use just for street photography.

Baby at Coney Island - Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop

Coney Island

If someone says no, try to change their mind

This question is not unique to this workshop but it became a subject of contention in one of our morning meetings. What do you do if you ask a person if you can make a photo and they say no. Do you still take it?  I’ve always been of the mind that you do not.

Peter, who admits he rarely takes no for an answer, said he tries to change their mind. He tells them why he’s interested and is strong in his conviction that it’s a good idea and it typically works. Conversely, he also said that people on public streets really don’t have a right to say no and you should do whatever you think is right. Make the shot if you want it.

Hmmm..

As a conflict photographer, I get how Peter would have this opinion. As a journalist, sometimes taking an unwanted photo is necessary to bring an important story to the world. Though it makes no sense really, I have more wiggle room in my ethics for a journalist making a shot on behalf of exposing a truth.

I do not agree it’s right when the reality is that you simply want a picture. My rights as a photographer do not override those of another human being just because I want something.  It’s not as if people can avoid going out in public.

Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop -474420170622

That said, after our discussion I decided that next time someone said no I would try to change their mind. I told a woman I thought she was beautiful (which was the truth), and she immediately said “Ok.”  I told a couple I thought they looked adorable (another truth), and they let me make the above. Leason learned. But If they continue to say no, I drop it.

(What are your thoughts on the subject? Please let me know in the comments below.) 

Photograph on a regular basis 

During the workshop I shot 3-5 hours a day. I won’t pretend I loved everything I did, I didn’t. But as the days passed, I felt more in sync with my camera. Since I’m not independently wealthy I can’t dedicate 35+ hours a week to photography and still pay my bills, but I can put a higher priority on making images.

Father playing with toddler daughter -Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop

Coney Island

Consider a single focal length

I won’t belabor this point since I discussed it above, but it was an important takeaway from the experience.

Find a project 

A really great narrative takes time. That’s true whether it’s in writing or on a wall.  I’ve listened to many photographers speak about their personal projects and how much they loved them and how they were a catalyst for growth. For some, a project even led to professional opportunities. Peter encouraged us to find something we could sink our teeth into and develop over time. “Do something that’s close to home and makes you happy, you’re more likely to finish it.”

Finding a project of my own is on my list of to-dos.

Two men in Times Square - Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop

Highlights of the week

At the end of the week Peter invited New York Times photographer Todd Heisler to our morning get together. He shared his award-winning photography including images he made in 2006 for a special feature called Final Salute. The story focused on U.S. Marines killed in Iraq and the impact on their families when they were returned home. Both beautiful and heart wrenching, the photos earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

Another highlight, though it had little to do with photography, was on the second night of the workshop, Peter hosted a dinner at El Paso, a delicious Mexican restaurant in East Harlem. A huge fan of Mexican cuisine, I was in heaven. I highly recommend it.

Two lovers in Times Square - Peter Turnley Street Photography Workshop

Times Square

Final thoughts 

Overall, the workshop was helpful.  I feel motivated to shoot more regularly and to come up with a personal project that excites me. Two big pluses moving forward.

I would have loved at least one private review of my images with Peter. An opportunity to ask more thoughtful questions about my work, my abilities and next steps. I had one-on-one meetings during my Santa Fe workshop two years ago and I wrongly assumed it was the norm. In future, I’ll ask up front.

Group critiques are good but I can’t go as deep as I’d like because there’s a sense of urgency to get to the next person and not every question is meant for a public forum. I also feel private meetings are more honest and can go beyond the broadstroke critiques a group setting engenders.

Lastly, I realized I want to find a mentor. Someone whose work I admire that can guide me and help me grow. I’m tired of working in a vacuum. Easier said than done I know, but I’m going to work towards that goal.


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An inside look at my street photography workshop with renowned photojournalist Peter Turnley

An inside look at my street photography workshop with renowned photojournalist Peter Turnley

 

An inside look at my street photography workshop with renowned photojournalist Peter Turnley

 

55 replies »

  1. Very interesting article! About asking before shooting: don’t you feel that people change their attitude if you ask? Have you asked everyone in the photos above? Your photos seems very natural, we don’t have the feeling that people knew that you were going to shoot! I live in Tokyo and if a ask, people say no first… And if they say yes, they strike a pose. So, I decided not to ask but I don’t feel confortable about that…

    • Hi Marcela – Yes, I asked everyone in the photos except for the people in the doorway, the one where everyone is in silhouette, and the photo with the fireman. In the first and last circumstances, I was walking by and saw the scene out of the corner of my eye and just took the shot before the moment was over. Those two pics were the only ones I took. For the boardwalk by the river I stood there photographing as people walked by. It was clear to anyone walking on the path what I was doing. Those that didn’t care walked in front, anyone who didn’t walked behind me. The two gentlemen on the park bench knew I was there. For all of the other photos, I saw people that looked interesting and ended up spending time them. In answer to your second question: for a short period of time they do pose. I either wait them out or say, go about what you’re doing. It doesn’t always work, they may be too self conscious. It depends on the person and the situation.

      • It’s a good way to think and it shows respect to people. Your photos are beautiful and show great stories, so, it’s a good way to go I guess. Well, I’ll try…

      • Thank you very much for your kind words about my photos. I really appreciate it.

        Re: your photos–It doesn’t come easy so don’t be hard on yourself. Baby steps. Try to photograph one or two people this weekend and let me know how it goes. 😁

  2. SUSAN, I’m so happy you took the workshop, I remember when you were thinking about it and wrote me. I have to say, to me, this is the best work I have ever seen from you (well those Africa photos are good too), I love your black and white! I’d love to hear more one day, I’ve had friends take the NYC workshop and love it. I finally figured out a project. Not THE one but something I’m happy with. xx

    • Thanks so much Nancy. Was your workshop in Cuba a lot different? Glad to hear you’ve found your project. Very exciting!!

      • Hi Susan, some of your moments made me giggle because he coached us the same way. I think of Peter so often. So much stuck in my head. I haven’t done the NYC workshop, so I can’t compare the two. I did attend the critique session in NYC last year (a friend was a participant). Sounds like you got a lot out of it, wonderful.

  3. Great article with some very useful tips and your shots are just fantastic, you chose right going for the black&white, somehow with these shots it’s so much more powerful! Good luck on your future projects!

    • Thank you! I agree, I like the black and white as well. Something about street photography that just feels better in black and white.

  4. I enjoyed reading your piece. I think the biggest challenge for me is to come up with a “project”. My attention span is too short and I go from one thing (or one trip) to the next. I would have loved to read about your experience with Tim Allen as I am heading to Mongolia for his workshop this week. If there is anything you can share, let me know.

    • Hi there- I have a few articles on the site that speak to the trip. Tim is not unlike Peter except with a real edge to his personality. He will get you great access and Mongolia is extraordinary. Ask what you need during the process. He’s better responding than proactive. I thought it was a great experience… But nothing is perfect. Have a fabulous time and let me know how it went when you get back. Also, it can really chilly there so make sure you have layers.

      Re: project: I hear you… I’m struggling to figure out what will interest me enough to dedicate a lot of time to. 😁

    • So true, Barbara! Thank you for taking the time to read and share this piece. I’m so appreciative. 😁

  5. What a fun experience and I love doing black and white – it really is a wonderful way to present something completely different and I just did a post recently in black and white so this is appropriate. Your images turned out well and yes it really does pay off to talk to your subject, get them comfortable and not take any rejection – I loved your way to infusing flattery and humore to get this done – kudos to you for getting these beautiful images.

    • Thank you very much for saying so. I really appreciate it. Glad you found the info helpful. Do you like to photograph?

      • I love photography :)! I am a beginner and I am enjoying my learning journey. My favourite things to photograph are landscapes. I would like to do some more street photography and even portraits in the future but I need to work on my confidence a little bit (asking strangers for a photo terrifies me). Maybe one day my street photos will be half as good as yours ;), fingers crossed haha. I look forward to your next post! 🙂

      • I’m glad you’re enjoying the journey. That’s the most important, right? Take baby steps. I know talking to strangers can be frightening but I’ve had fifty times more positive experiences than negative. Thank you for your kind words and I’m so happy to have you visit the blog. 😊

  6. I think your photos turned out great! I also like your stance on what happens if people say no. “I do not agree it’s right when the reality is that you simply want a picture. My rights as a photographer do not override those of another human being just because I want something.” – that seems very ethical to me, because while I do like taking pictures myself, I personally do not want people to take a picture of me.
    Here in Germany, the law says that unless you photograph a scene at an event, market, place with lots of people in the picture etc, you have to get an individual’s approval beforehand and can not simply take their picture.
    The crux of the matter is that no one seems to care about people taking pictures with their mobile phones, but as soon as they see a “proper” camera they become wary.
    A photographer at a photo workshop said that sometimes it’s worth to him to illegally take a picture of a person and then go up to them after the fact, show them the picture and ask if they are OK with it. if they say no, though, you have to delete it.

    • Thank you Kiki! I find that so interesting that Germany actually has a law about this. I wonder what was the genesis of this? Was it perhaps for celebrities and nagging paparazzi?

      • Actually, celebrity pics are allowed, both for the “common people” and the paparazzi. I believe it’s the privacy of the (non-famous) individual the law wanted to protect.

  7. Love the Times Square pix. Interesting question of what to do if folks say no. In the case of news, I say take it. 100%. For a hobbiest or commercial photographer, not so much. It’s absolutely legal, but impolite, and given how much of our privacy we relinquish daily in NYC, I say no.

    • Thanks a million, Sharon.

      Yeah… the question is a hard one. I can say that I would want to punch anyone that kept taking a pic of me when I said no. I really appreciate your thoughtful comment. I hope you return to the blog. 🙂

  8. I participated in Peter’s NYC workshop 2 years ago. You show some pretty nice work. Should be proud. I predominantly shoot in b&w and your images really click with me. Thanks.

    • Hi Alan -Thanks for commenting. From what I wrote, was your workshop similar? Curious to know if it changed over the last 2 years? How was it for you? And thank you about the photos. Very kind. 🙂

  9. I love these photos. That baby being thrown in the air is just precious and I am so happy to think that the parents have that shot.
    I am usually pretty bold, but when it comes to taking photos, I become shy. I don’t have a fancy camera, for one, and I fear it doesn’t look serious. I can’t see well, so I tend to take a million shots in hopes of getting a couple in focus (apparent only when I pull them up on my big desktop). So I try to just be anonymous. You are inspiring me to just ask. Your shots look so unposed (my other fear of asking is that people will pose).

    • I was very much the same way about walking up to people about photos, I think mainly because in my mind I don’t want anyone to do that to me! LOL.. I hate having my picture taken. And it’s hard not to rush it. You really have to talk to yourself in the moment. That’s what I did during the workshop. I would feel myself wanting to cut the moment short and then just told myself to keep going. Also, when I started engaging in conversation, it was easier because I felt less like a nuisance. I would try asking and see how it goes. Just don’t let your inner voice talk you out of it. Peter would say, if you let yourself get out of it, it will be harder the next time. Also, I don’t like when they pose either so you just have to wait them out a bit. It’s hard to maintain a pose, so realistically, they’ll fall out of it pretty quick.

  10. Susan: Loved your critique of this class..Very honest and helpful, as I too am looking for a mentor to get me out of a rut and into a growth spurt.

    • Hi jill- I’m really happy you found it helpful. I think workshops are great for getting the creative juices flowing..now just need to enhance that with someone I can count on.. 🙂

    • Tom! You are the best. It was fun and hard and my insecurities raged on this one so I appreciate the nod. Thank you so much. Have you done any workshops? Can’t remember if we discussed. xoxoxo

  11. I am not a photographer, but I enjoy looking at your work and reading your blog. This article was interesting and I think you got some great shots (in my amateur opinion). They each tell part of a story. Loved the black and white.

    • I appreciate all opinions and thanks a million. I’m so glad you found the article interesting especially since you’re not a photographer.

      I dig the black and white too! 😉

    • You know I was thinking the same exact thing. When I’m traveling, I often feel that a destination has to be in color because I’m trying to give people and idea of what it’s really like. However, when I shoot in NYC, the urban context feels better in black and white. And I feel a lot of the extraneous, colorful nonsense that’s in the city is removed which I like. Times Square, for example.

Would love to hear from you!