PHLEARN MagazineHow Manuel Pena Creates Drama Out of the Everyday

How Manuel Pena Creates Drama Out of the Everyday

There’s nothing more important for a street photographer than a sharp eye for a strong composition. That’s something New York’s Manuel Pena has learned through his experience documenting everyday life out and about in the city that never sleeps.

While Manuel enjoys venturing out on photo walks around New York’s boroughs, he comes across some of his most spontaneous captures during his daily commute to Industry City in Brooklyn. Toward the end of this commute one fortunate day, Manuel says he spotted a particularly interesting subject leaving the subway.

“I wasn’t there specifically to make photos, but I always have my camera on hand,” he says. “I’m a street photographer, so I also need my camera to be ready for anything.”

For this reason, Manual prefers to shoot in aperture priority mode – allowing the camera to take control over the ISO setting and shutter speed, depending on the selected aperture range. That way, he says, he’s able to focus more on framing the perfect composition.

“I mostly stay in f/8,” he explains, “and have a minimum shutter speed of 500, to freeze the image, and a max ISO range of 6400, to handle different lighting conditions.”

Camera & Settings

Sony a7 III

24MP Full-Frame Exmor R BSI CMOS Sensor, 693-Point Hybrid AF System, UHD 4K30p Video

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Zeiss 55mm f1.8

Aperture Range: f/1.8 to f/22, Zeiss T* Anti-Reflective Coating

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Using his Sony a7 III and the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lens, Manuel quickly snapped a shot as the woman he’d noticed headed up the subway stairs and turned the corner. Since he was underground, he says he used an aperture of f/2.8 – the camera set the ISO to 2500 and used a shutter speed of 1/500.

“I mainly use the 50mm focal range because it’s not too wide or too telephoto, and it really complements how I see the world around me,” Manuel says. “I got lucky, being in the right spot to take the photo, and my instinct took over.”

While Manuel admits he didn’t have much time to spend crafting the ideal composition, he knew he wanted to shoot horizontally to capture the full context of the situation.

“Cameras are only tools,” he says. “It’s great to have the latest and greatest, but there is no better tool than the mind’s eye. You must continue to refine your craft by shooting every day.”

With his image captured, Manuel applied his typical simple post-processing in Adobe Lightroom CC Classic – a program he says he knows like the back of his hand. In his usual limited style, Manuel made minor adjustments to the shadows and highlights and the blacks and whites of his shot.

“I don’t spend more than five minutes on any photo – most of the work should be done when capturing a moment,” he says. “It’s usually a good photo when you don’t have to do much afterwards.”

The end result is a dramatically composed, somewhat mysterious image that highlights the beauty of a simple routine – the everyday shuffle from work to home and back.

“I’m very happy to capture a fleeting moment and make something beautiful out of something very ordinary,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for anything more of this capture.”

To see more of Manuel’s creative take on life in New York City, follow him on Instagram or visit his website to order prints.

Jessi Gowan

Jessi Gowan is an award-winning writer and photographer who specializes in rural landscapes and fine art abstracts, with a focus on form and composition. Her photography has been included in a variety of publications, as well as in exhibitions in Canada and the United States.

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