Capturing the energy and changing moods of the Big Apple has challenged generations of photographers. But for local pros such as Nicole Bengiveno (, it can offer a welcome change of pace. A staff photographer for the New York Times, she was assigned to do a series for the paper’s LENS column, with one image running each week over the course of three months. Her theme? “The Essence of Atmosphere.”

Inspired by Impressionist paintings and intrigued by physics, Bengiveno sought out the things we don’t really see unless they’re captured by a camera. She spent time wandering the streets and thinking about space, time, motion, and light. She sought out places she felt encapsulated these elements, and tried to paint the motion and energy she found there.

Although she could have achieved a similar look with software, Bengiveno took a more traditional approach. “To capture the image in the camera feels more like photography, rather than postproduction, which seems more like graphic art to me,” she says. “I love the challenge of the pursuit.”

Here’s how to shoot a masterpiece en plein air, wherever you live:

1. Stalk The Light.

Bengiveno rode buses and subways looking for places to roam around, then returned when the light was right. The magic hours of sunrise and sunset are often best to blend artificial and ambient light. “I watched for things that we take for granted, like shadows, reflections, or spots of reflected light bouncing off a high-rise building,” she says. Other times she took advantage of the weather: City streets become darker yet more reflective after a rainstorm.

2. Seek Out Motion.

Bengiveno was naturally drawn to places where people are on the move. In New York, Grand Central Terminal during rush hour is a prime candidate, and that’s where she shot the image above. She found a spot near the train station where people would pour out onto a street illuminated by signs and other lights. Remaining unobtrusive, she used a handheld Canon EOS 5D with a 16-35mm f/2.8L Canon lens set to 28mm.

3. Shoot Slow And Low.

Blur from both camera motion and subject motion gives the image its painterly feel. The exposure varied from moment to moment, so Bengiveno bracketed her shutter speeds, shooting in shutter-priority mode. She found that exposures between 1/30 and 1/8 sec struck the right balance between form and focus. This is a situation where a low ISO (she used ISO 100) works to your advantage: It requires more light for exposure and makes longer shutter speeds possible. The trick is to capture a moment when the forms suggest motion while maintaining identifiable-though impressionistically blurry-shapes.

4. Go With The Flow.

Bengiveno held the camera steady and shot alongside the tide of commuters. She maintained her general composition and focused on different people that came into the center autofocus point, snapping over and over. “I concentrated on the composition staying in tune with how things were flowing. This can be risky because there isn’t any ‘do-over’- just ‘try-again’ and ‘keep working it.’ I probably crossed the street a dozen times,” she says. “I’ve been composing photos for years and striving to get the image tack-sharp, so it was refreshing to allow for blur and accidents.”