The Joy of the Photo Walk

I haven’t shot a single portrait since the Covid-19 crisis began.

There’s been one upside to this Coronavirus mess: I’ve rediscovered my love of the photo walk. Working from home was turning my legs to jelly, so in June, I committed to walking as much as possible, camera in hand. I’m now up to about 60 miles per week and looking to take it higher.

(This is a screenshot of my FitBit App. There are about 2,000 steps in a mile.) A photo walk combines two of my greatest passions: photography and walking around New York City. But you know what’s really important? Photo walking also reinforces a sense of play. Instead of pigeonholing myself as one kind of photographer, I just play. I’m a portrait photographer:

And a street photographer:

And a landscape photographer:

And a photographer of found objects:

All at once. Every picture in this article happened because I took a walk with my camera in hand and had no expectations. Not a single photo was planned; I simply recorded what was in front of me.

Work Those Legs

I’m getting a hell of a lot of exercise. To me, a real walk only starts five miles in, and I’m now determined to beat my personal record of 24 miles in one day (more on this below). It’s a can’t-lose proposition. Even if your pictures suck, at least you get some exercise and fresh air. You didn’t sit home staring at Instagram or binge watching some lame reality show.

My Photo Walking Roots

I’ve always been a big walker. But in 2011, things really picked up. To unwind after work, I’d get off the subway two stops early to walk the rest of the way home. Then it became five stops early. Then 10. Eventually, I got a FitBit, which took my obsessive personality into overdrive. I immediately began walking 60+ miles a week, armed with my camera. On the weekends, I’d take the train from my home in Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan to do street photography. And then I’d walk 15+ miles home, taking pictures along the way.

I also found photo walk inspiration from two photographers. The first was Ken Rockwell, who once wrote about walking from the top of Manhattan to the bottom. I thought that cool as hell, and I’ve since taken that trip myself many times. The second was New York Times photojournalist Todd Heisler, who published a photo essay about his 30+ mile walk around the perimeter of Manhattan. I’m in training to do my own version of that this year.

Photo Walk Essentials

I’ll talk about cameras and lenses in a minute. If you’re serious about taking epic photo walks, your feet and nether regions are what really matter. Nothing will ruin a long walk more than sweat. So you need good moisture wicking socks and underwear. My feet love my cheap Uniqlo socks. And my ExOfficio Give-N-Go Boxer briefs keep my happy place happy. ExOfficio is very pricey, but trust me: they’re a massive upgrade from your Hanes tighty whities. If you can’t pony up for new stuff, then bring a change of socks and underwear with you. A switch will make you feel brand new. When it comes to actual photo gear, I keep things simple. I bring one camera, one lens, and one filter, plus some knickknacks like lens cleaners.

Most of the time, that means:

And my gear always goes in a backpack. I’ve always found messenger/shoulder bags to be a major pain on long walks: something my friend Chris Gampat has experienced too.

Sustenance and Survival

Aside from my photo stuff, I bring:

Water is always key on a big walk, because dehydration will sneak up on you really fast, even in the winter. By the same token, I minimize caffeine intake to avoid bathroom breaks. This is a major consideration in Covid-era New York City because there are fewer places to heed nature’s call. Don’t laugh! The average public restroom here looks like the Death Star’s trash compactor.

As far as food goes, I’d like to pretend that I bring energy bars and trail mix like any sensible fellow. But here’s the reality: I mostly run on on bagels, empanadas, and pork buns. That’s how you can walk 60 miles in a week and not lose weight. So if you’re looking for sensible advice on food, you’re reading the wrong article.

Beware the Backhanded Compliments and Insults

“I wish I had time to do things like that.”

“You seriously just walked around all day? For no reason?”

That’s the type of stuff I usually hear when I tell people about my extended photo walks. I pay them no mind. Because adults forget the joy of doing things just to see what happens. They want a specific outcome or goal for everything. The photo walker accepts that anything — or nothing — can happen on a walk. The journey is the destination.

Be Like Jay Maisel

Jay Maisel was one of my first photography heroes. I love the way he turns the randomness of everyday life into interesting, quirky, and beautiful photographs. In this mini-documentary, he says it best:

“There’s nothing I’m not interested in shooting. I’m open to whatever’s out there because I have no agenda. The joy of going out and not knowing what you’re gonna shoot is a wonderful adventure.”

In the same video, Gregory Heisler adds:

“His work is as purely and simply about the joy of seeing as it can be. It’s just about absolutely appreciating the fact that God gave him eyeballs to see stuff.”

So how can you be like Jay Maisel?

Well, you just photograph every damn thing that looks remotely interesting. Remember that photography is not just about making and taking pictures. It’s also about the joy of seeing all the interesting things around you.

Be a Tourist in Your Own Town

People will spend thousands of dollars to fly around the world for a little adventure. But you can find it right outside your door. Have you ever actually walked across your whole city? Are there any neighborhoods you haven’t explored? Why not take one day out of your life and just see what’s out there? Things look and feel different when you’re on foot instead of in a car.

How Long a Walk Should You Take?

Most people can walk way farther than they think. If you’re in good health and reasonable shape, you should be able to walk 10 miles without much trouble. If you’ve traveled to any major city, odds are you’ve walked that much or more in a single day. I’d start with a five mile walk and see how you feel afterwards. And obviously, older and less mobile people should make adjustments as necessary. Then, just build up as you see fit.

But…What’s the Point?

You may be asking “what’s the point of spending my whole day walking around taking pictures?” Well, you might just feel a great sense of accomplishment when you go way further than you could have imagined. And of course, you might see kids waving at you from a train:

Or one of your sister’s high school classmates getting married:

Or a flash going off in someone’s wedding shoot:

Or a sky on fire:

Or a splash of color:

Or a girl blowing bubbles while her hair is being done:

Or a kid singing and playing guitar while wearing an Incredible Hulk costume:

Or this cat:

Or this cat:

Or a fellow shooter:

Or an accidental piece of abstract art:

Or a skateboarder flying through the air:

Or a bumblebee:

Or an angel in the snow:

Or a kid at the water’s edge

Or a piece of history:

Or hipsters playing polo on bicycles:

Or a sad, lonely pigeon:

Or a house of mirrors:

Or a Dad being a Dad:

Or a tribute to a lost brother:

Or a tugboat at work in the early morning:

Or clouds:

And you might meet more interesting people than you can imagine:

What Are You Waiting For?

Get up and go!

Editor’s Note: This is a syndicated blog post from OnPortraits. It and the images here are being used with permission.