NYC Street Photographers Reveal How to Get the Perfect Shot

On September’s first chilly night in Hoboken, commuters funneled off the Midtown ferry, young families strolled along the pier, 20-somethings jogged along the water. In the backdrop, Manhattan towered over.

Peter Alessandria, a street photographer, set his DSLR camera and telescope-like lens on a tripod, ready to shoot (and chase) the Harvest Moon expected that evening. Slowly, and then all at once, a blinding moon burned through New York City’s sky, topping the Empire State Building like star on a Christmas tree.

Those on the pier followed Alessandria’s lead and stopped to take their best shot. Soon after, photos of the full moon over Manhattan crowded any given Instagram feed, leaving most of us wondering why our same pictures lack that wow-factor. Who’s behind all the spectacular-ness? How are they doing it? 

We shadowed three NYC street photographers with Instagram accounts so epic that they now make a living from their work. Their tips: It doesn’t matter if you plan or not; balancing light and dark is key; and becoming an expert in the sun, moon and clouds can help get the perfect shot.

Javan Ng, a frequent contributor to @NBCNewYork on Instagram, told us it helps to know what the people want. “If I post a photo of an iconic building, it’s always a hit,” he said.

He also said photographing buildings can be “quite boring,” which is why his page offers a variety of New York life in real time.

Yellow Bus at Union Square Market 1 - NBC
Javan Ng
Ng spent a near twenty minutes waiting to capture a pedestrian walking through the photo’s light and dark “sweet spot.”

Originally from Singapore, Ng built an Instagram following of 46,000 in three years, just after moving to the city and leaving a job in corporate communications to take up photography.

He goes to different boroughs every day to capture new places with his DSLR camera. Ng uses Adobe Lightroom to edit photos on his iPhone on the go and post his work to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Jennifer Khordi, who shoots strictly during sunset and sunrise hours, said posting in real time is crucial.

“I don’t hold onto anything,” Khordi said. “I post right away.”

But Khordi, who left her job as a technical writer a month ago to pursue photography full time, plans her famous shots long in advance (the ones with lightning striking the Empire State Building or a rainbow crowning Manhattan).

She drives around for hours scouting places to shoot the skyline and studies weather patterns and cloud percentages to pinpoint the exact location necessary for the best possible shot.

Jennifer Khordi red moon
Jennifer Khordi
Social media users speculated whether or not Khordi’s blood orange moon shot was real or photo shopped – it’s real.

“It’s about understanding the time between the moon rising and the time it’s going to take to cross a particular landmark.”

She and Alessandria are admins on a Facebook group for New Jersey photographers. Members use the platform to share techniques and support.

She recently set up at Empty Sky Memorial in Liberty State Park at 6 a.m. to shoot the sunrise over the skyline. Another photographer recognized her and praised her work. They hadn’t met before, but Khordi said, “We all know each other.” 

Alessandria said the NJ photographers group has a lot of camaraderie and a touch of competition.

For example, two years ago Niagara Falls froze over during a polar vortex.

“I woke up on a Friday morning and said ‘I’m driving to Niagara Falls,’” Alessandria said. “I froze my ass off but I was the only one who got those shots.”

As an attorney in Los Angeles, photography was Alessandria’s hobby. But then the financial crisis struck in 2008.

“I lost my business in a matter of months,” he said.

He moved back to the East Coast (born and raised in Queens) unsure what to do next. He continued photography as a hobby, but in the last three years has turned it into his full-time job. Now he does commercial and corporate photography, shooting everything from cosmetic products to office headshots, as well as fine art photography such as his well-known Empire State Building photos.

Ng’s Instagram following is so large that he makes a living by selling prints of the photos he posts to Instagram. He’s also hired as a photographer by people who discovered him on social media.

Some of the NYC strangers find themselves in Ng’s photos and contact him directly. “The most amazing one that I took was one for a wedding,” he said.

On a walk through Central Park, he snapped a black and white photo of newlyweds giving their first kiss just after saying “I do.” A small group of friends and family stand on the cobblestone walk to the right of the altar. 

“The groom actually contacted me, he said, ‘My friend saw my photos on Instagram.’” Ng emailed him the high-resolution image to print.

Ng has shot around the world, from Brisbane, Australia to Milan, Italy, and at home in Singapore. His favorite city to photograph is Venice, Italy.  

For Khordi, she’s already shooting her dream location. “I love New York,” she said. 

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