Danny Schaefer on Being a Young Street Photographer


All images by Danny Schaefer. Used with permission

Danny Schaefer, more than many other current young street photographers out there, is someone that we consider to be a well kept secret of a shooter. When I met Danny earlier this year on a photo walk with Eric Kim, I discovered a very humble, smart, and artistic man that would soon be leaving the New York area to go all the way to the west coast. We’ve chatted a bit since until he recently showed off his latest portfolio of work to me on Facebook.

Danny possesses a special skill that is tough for others to attain: he can not only capture excellent images but also carefully select and curate them for a portfolio that he keeps on Tumblr. And did we mention he is only 20 years old? Not many people have this much clarity at an age like that. In fact, Danny is now the West Coast Social Media Consultant for Leica.

Daniel Sawyer Schaefer is a photographer and cinematographer, born and raised in Los Angeles surrounded by a family of writers and filmmakers. His interest in photography began while documenting live theater and moved to street photography, documentary, and portraiture, where his drive to create images that capture narrative naturally unfolded. Featured at 18 by the LA times Framework photoblog, now twenty, Schaefer has studied in New York City at Parsons school of design, and now SACI Florence as the recipient of the International Consortium Scholarship. Schaefer works as a freelance photographer and cinematographer, studio lighting specialist, on top of being the social media consultant for Leica Los Angeles.

Danny had the time to answer a couple of questions about street photography and about having a vision.

Phoblographer: Many people looking to get into street photography have a major fear of getting close to others to capture an intimate image. How do you do it or how did you get over that fear?

sciocchi e saggi

Danny: For me, street photography blossomed out of photographing my friends in high school, since about halfway though junior year, I’ve never left the house without a camera in hand.

After the initial annoyance of my fellow students with my ever present lens, I started to see how much they lit up when presented with a photo of themselves that they felt truly showed them in a way they were proud of. I saw just how powerful seeing oneself in such a positive light could be.

This feeling became infinitely more rewarding when applied to people I came across in the street, their reactions untainted by their pre-disposition to the lens in my hand, the moments when captured carefully, gained an incredible honesty, and inherently more powerful narrative element.


Phoblographer: What do you usually shoot with? Do you feel that your gear helps you to get the images that you get or can you do it with any camera?

Danny: I tend to photograph with one of three setups

For me, equipment choice has always been incredibly key in the way I photograph, each lens, body, and film, offering a unique visual vernacular from which to draw from.

I tend to prefer more compact combinations, compact cameras and rangefinders primarily.

All of my images shot during my time here in Florence are shot on a 35mm lens, full format sensor digital combo. 35mm gives me the perfect breath of space to shoot street, allowing me a good sense of scene, but the DOF control I need if I’d rather isolate my subject.

When subject is more important to me than scene, I tend towards a 50mm, which I typically use for vertical shots and portraits, I can never seem to settle the frame of a 50mm horizontally.

For the days where my wallet is wide enough to accommodate my perfect setup, I grab a few rolls of 220, and take my beloved Yashicamat 124G out for a spin. Medium format in either 6×6 or 6×7 will always be my preferred setup, but with the growing cost of film, it’s becoming more and more difficult to fund the habit.


Phoblographer: What first attracted you to street photography?

Danny: I’ve always enjoyed meeting people, interacting with anyone who catches my eye in the street. This paired with the photographic instinct to work toward narrative images, the combination works perfectly.

I tend to think of myself as a documentary photographer, I prefer to choose projects that take time, and allow me to build a relationship with my subjects that allows me access to images other photographers may not have had in the past. Street photography is a lovely way to keep my reflexes keen, telling simple, single frame stories, that altogether in the end, tell a larger story.


Phoblographer: When walking around the streets of any city, we all sometimes go through stages where we hate anything that we capture. How do you get over the discouragement that often follows with this?

Danny: Whenever I feel like I’m falling out of sorts, I give myself small assignments throughout the course of the day, constraints to work within that force me to remain creative. Sometimes it’s as simple as limiting myself to a specific lens for a week, or shooting only color, not allowing myself the simplicity of Black and White. At the moment, one such assignment has taken shape during my time here, any time I go out for less than half an hour, say to walk between my apartment and the grocery store, I don’t allow myself to frame, I can only shoot from the hip.

Phoblographer: To you, what makes for a great street photo?

Danny: For me, nothing is more powerful than a simple, effective frame that tells a distinct story with it’s capture, but still leaves enough to the imagination that the viewer is left pondering the possibilities for a long time afterward.

Phoblographer: Who are your favorite street photographers and why?

Danny: As far as street photographers are concerned, I absolutely adore the work of Matt Stuart. He has the incredible gift of capturing images that are visually and technically fantastic, but also just downright hilarious. Comedy is an aspect of photography usually reserved for silly props in well lit studios, but when those instances are captured truthfully, and spontaneously, they’re all that much funnier to me.

Castello Sonno

Another photographer whose work has influenced me greatly as well is William Eggleston. My first year of photography was exclusively black and white, and then I was handed a copy of his incredible monograph, Chromes. Since then, I’ve worked almost exclusively in color, Eggleston’s work taught me to look at the mundane around me, observing the minute details that made a scene unique, looking at color not as an obstacle, but as an element that could make a simple image carry incredible weight.

Phoblographer: What are you favorite cities to shoot in and why?


Danny: As a photographer, the bulk of my work has been done in Los Angeles and New York City.

Both are fantastic for completely different reasons, the bustling crowds of the NYC subway, the costumed characters of Hollywood Boulevard, and everyone in between.

Firenze offers a new, very lovely challenge. The tight, winding streets, shafting light, and of course inherent language and cultural differences make for a very unique visual combination.

Phoblographer: Every photographer has a major scary moment in their photographic career. What was yours?


Danny: I tend not to think of any of my experiences being scary at this point. There are definitely a handful that could have ended much worse, but overall they have all left me in one piece, so I have nothing to complain about.

If I had to choose, it would have to be a late December night shooting long exposures for my project “Beacon” down on the lower east side of manhattan, under the Brooklyn bridge. A teacher had been incredibly kind, and lent me a camera that is truly one of the gems of the photographic world, the simple, effective, and incredibly expensive, Plaubel Makina 670, which at current was latched to a tripod, making exposures between 30 and 50 minutes.

4 AM, and I was a tad peckish, so I had bought myself a 20 piece chicken McNuggets and a McFlurry, which I ate slowly as I sat on an overturned trash can a few feet from the camera. I sat there licking barbecue sauce from my fingers, as a man lumbered up the bike path. Suddenly stopping in front of me, he drew a small swiss army knife from his pocket, and shakily demanded my wallet. I handed him what was left of my starving artist bank account, about thirty dollars in crumpled ones and fives, with a broccoli rubber band wrapped around them.

He then pointed at the Plaubel, and told me to take it off of the tripod.

Now here comes the part where I act like an idiot.

I made my living at this point, by buying, repairing, and reselling used camera equipment, so I decided I would explain to this kind gentleman, just what was involved in selling cameras nowadays.

After a five minute conversation, somewhere between my mentioning the 10% value return, and police registered serial numbers, he lost interest in the camera, and I began to breathe a bit easier.

He took the cash from the broccoli band, kindly returning my school ID and debit card, left me with my camera, and my health, but took my McNuggets and McFlurry which he ate slowly as he continued along up the bike path, all the while my exposure remained blissfully unaffected.

Phoblographer: Lots of street photographers often shoot a subject once and never try to revisit that subject again. Considering the hive mentality of street photographers overall, why do you think that is?


Danny: I’ve always preferred building relationships with my subjects, even those I photograph in passing, if the moment seems right, I will approach them afterwards, and show them the image, I’m still a firm believer in printing my images, so if I can find a way to mail them a print, I’ll do it every time.

It was a while ago that I realized that in the end, these images are only mine to a certain extent. The subjects are just kind enough, aware or not, to allow me to document a moment of their time, and if I can get that moment back to them somehow, I will take that opportunity every time.

Phoblographer: Tell us about the story of your favorite photo that you’re sharing with us.

Danny: One of my favorite images I’ve made during my time here in Firenze, is “Duro” a young couple, getting a tad handsy in Piazza del Duomo in the city center of Firenze. If I have the time on my way home, I always like to pause, and slowly meander in front of the steps of the Duomo, surveying the hordes of tourists, and the true Florentines cutting through the crowds with serpentine efficiency.

While strolling through the square one afternoon, I spot a young couple, just a year or two older than myself at most, very publicly in love. They simply cannot keep their hands off each other, passersby either scowling cynically, or chuckling at their very visible attempts to undress one another.

The young woman paused for a moment, holding her phone in the air to document her admirer’s very active attempt to bury his face in her collarbone, and as he noticed her photographic attempt, he got even handsier, making her squeal, this time mildly traumatizing a passing group of elderly Japanese tourists.

I took the distraction of the passing group as a chance to get my settings solid, I held the camera low, focused close, and walked by, camera just above my waist, I took one shot, smiled at the girl, who smiled back, somewhat perplexed, before her boy spun her into a rather dramatic, but not particularly photogenic kiss. I took that as my cue to stroll home, and hope that the happy couple might eventually stumble across my blog.

Be sure to follow Danny at his Portfolio, Blog and Instagram.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.