The People of Brooklyn

Street Photography with Phil Vukelich

Written By: Phil Vukelich

A personal project for many photographers is a way to realize a specific artistic vision or build work around subjects they’re passionate about where opportunities are unlikely to come about through paid work. It is often a way to develop a portfolio and grow as a photographer. For me, a recent personal project has a different goal, more focused on personal development than on creating a photographic portfolio.

While I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly shy, approaching to strangers without what I perceive to be a good reason to speak to them has always been difficult for me. Photographing strangers on the streets of New York, where people notoriously lack patience, has been the perfect project to help me overcome some of those fears. Previously I took the Siros L monolight to the streets of lower Manhattan, but now with the Broncolor Move 1200 L I made the people of Brooklyn my portrait subjects.

To catch good morning light, I went out in the morning hours to a local transportation hub near my neighborhood. It’s a visually interesting place with a very New York feel under a stretch of elevated train tracks, and in the morning hours there are streams of people pouring into the train station which provides plenty of potential subjects to photograph. However, getting a New Yorker to stop even for a second on their morning commute turned out, unsurprisingly, to be quite difficult. When commuters did stop, they often would only have a few moments before they would need to dart to catch the next train. This being the case, the lighting had to be simple for two reasons – first, the smaller the setup the less intimidating my assistant and I would appear, and second, the light needed to work consistently as there was very little time to make adjustments.

The Move worked quite well for these purposes. With a mid-size umbrella with a diffusion sock (a modifier that is compact and easy to transport but still gives a fantastic light quality) and a single flash head the light was predictable, portable, and consistent. When I would have to make adjustments to the light output, using the Broncolor RFS transceiver to adjust the power straight from the camera made the whole process much faster.

For my assistant Jason, an incredible advantage of the Move system was the light weight MobiLED flash heads. This enabled Jason to hand hold the light on a stand with the pack slung over his shoulder for fast positioning of the light. And when we decided to set the light in place, an advantage of the Move over a monolight system is that the pack can be hung on the base of the stand to weight it down in place of sand, or, for an extra sturdy solution, the pack can be mounted to the stand with two superclamps and a pin.

Shooting under elevated train tracks, while providing an interesting backdrop, also lent itself to lighting with strobes. If a subject is well lit in ambient light but the quality and shape of the light is poor, adding flash to reshape the light will overpower the ambient light and either leave the subject overexposed or the background rather dark. While this can be fine for some artistic effects, it gives portraits a very obviously lit, artificial look, I was trying to maintain natural feel to the images, ideally so the viewer wouldn’t even know the portraits were shot using flash. Shooting under elevated tracks provided a darker environment for the subjects that I could use to re-create a pleasing light without overpowering the natural light.

Photographing strangers in New York has been a fantastic experience that reminds me why I love photography. With a small lighting kit and posed subjects, the experience becomes more than traditional street photography because I get to interact with the subjects more and start up a conversation.

Raised in eastern Washington state and attended the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, Phil earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in philosophy. There he developed a passion for photography.

Starting out working as a photojournalist and he developed a passion for editorial photography creating images for my student magazine. He fell in love with capturing portraits of interesting and unique people and learning about their stories in the process.

Check out more of Phil’s work at