Photographer Spotlight Series: Joel Zimmer

Joel Zimmer is a Brooklyn based photographer and when he's not out taking photographs he's working in Manhattan as a software developer. He takes photographs of what he see as he walk through the city, with a focus on capturing specific moments as he experiences them. He shoots everything from typography to street art to the city’s inhabitants.

If you want to support his hobby, he also has photos available for sale.

1. How did your involvement with photography begin and thinking back to when you first started, is there one bit of advice that you wish you were given that you think would have been valuable as you grew both your work and yourself as a photographer?

Before I started my 365 project, I wasn't sure that I was interested in photography. I had mostly used throw-away cameras until then and I just wasn't a person who took pictures regularly.

My dad had gotten into digital photography a few years earlier and gave me some basic pointers on composition. Once I started to understand how he worked with his camera I became interested and he gave me one of his extra Nikon lenses. After the lens sat around in my apartment for 6 months, I decided to get the Nikon D90, which had just been announced.

All of the sudden, I had this amazing camera that I didn't know how to use and I started to take pictures every day to learn how to use it. I couldn't stop shooting. It evolved into my current 365 project, which is now in its 5th year.

One important piece of advice that I wish I was given would be something along the lines of the Ansel Adams quote about your first 10,000 photos being your worst. When you start out taking pictures, you'll need to understand that every shot of yours isn't going to be a masterpiece, but as the other saying goes: practice makes perfect.

2. I know you have a penchant for carrying both a film and digital camera with you during photographic outings. What would you say are some of the biggest differences from when you shoot digital and film and is there ever a mental strain on your part when deciding which format you may want to capture a subject or scene?

For the daily shots that contribute to my 365 project, I always shoot with a digital camera. By doing so, I can process my photographs within a day of shooting them and can upload them. Film is much more interesting to me because of the way that each different film stock adds tones and texture to the subject.

I tend not to overthink which medium I'll use to capture a particular scene, but I do have some ground rules when it comes to shooting film:

The film I'm using has the strongest influence in determining whether or not I'll make a photograph. You can't change the speed of the film once you've started the roll, so trying to make a shot in unfavorable conditions isn't always the best plan.

  • As a result of this, I'm more hesitant to shoot in adverse lighting conditions since my hands tend to be shaky at low shutter speeds. I tend to be more forgiving of motion blur in my film work. I feel like the texture that I mentioned above allows film to show motion in a more interesting way than digital.
  • I shoot film to slow my photography down. Rather than rushing through a burst of frames using a digital camera, I like to think about how the subject of my frame will look with the film I'm using. All of my film cameras require manual focusing and some involve manual metering as well. After investing that much time to set up and execute a shot, I find that the product is much more interesting.

3. You've been developing a “365 project” since September of 2008, so it's clear that you a strong regard and commitment towards personal projects. What have you learned about yourself during the time you've been executing the project and is there anything as exciting that we can look forward to from you in the New Year? What else do you want to accomplish as a photographer?

I was caught off guard by my long-term commitment to this project and how much it means to me. There are very few things I've committed to this much in my life (in fact, this is the longest running body of work I've ever undertaken). I've learned that it's remarkably easy to build a habit - do something consciously every day for about a year and you'll feel like you're missing something when you don't do it.

I've learned that I gladly identify as the guy who always has a camera on him, that people can learn a lot about you by the photos you take, and the way you can make things look interesting.

In terms of future looking projects, I'll be focusing more on the storytelling aspect of my photography. I'm also planning a series of neighborhood-centric field guides for exploring the city with a camera.

4. You know I can't interview you without asking what's in your bag as far as photographic equipment or pretty much anything that you feel assist you with doing your creative work?

Photo gear of Joel Zimmer

Of course. My day to day bag is a Timbuk2 Messenger (size S) with a ONA Roma bag insert. I use a Nikon D7000 and these days I have either a 24mm f/2.8 or a 50mm f/1.4 on it with a circular polarizing filter on it, I feel like that really helps the sky’s color pop, and adds just enough contrast to make photos really pop. I am carrying a film camera too, which is one of a Nikon F3 (with a waist-level viewfinder), a Nikon FA, or a Yashica-A. If I am using the Yashica, I use the Gossen Digisix GO 4006 Light meter. I also normally tuck a pack of gum and a Kindle in my bag, just for good measure.

My digital darkroom consists of Lightroom 4 along with the fantastic filters from Visual Supply Company, which I love for the way it represents colors in my work.

5. You photograph and share a lot of work daily all of which has been very well received and featured online on sites like The Atlantic, The Consumerist, Gothamist, Jezebel, Curbed, and For the Love of Brooklyn. Could I make this question even more difficult when I ask of you to share one photograph that holds special significance to you and give us some backstory on it.

This was a particularly tough question given that I had in the neighborhood of 8,000 photographs to consider. When you consider that number in comparison to some other photographers, it isn’t much, but when you try and pick one picture, it gets really hard.

Favorite photograph by Joel Zimmer

This shot was taken in TriBeCa in Manhattan one random summer day after work. I tend to wander, and this past summer found me heading up the west side of Lower Manhattan for no reason other than the fact that I hadn’t spent much time there. This shot was made with my Nikon F3 using Kodak Portra 400. I was originally drawn to the BAST tag in the lower left corner of the frame. As I was setting up the shot, I noticed this girl and sort of pulling her dog across the street, and repositioned my shot so that she’d be in the center of the frame. I thought I took it without her noticing, but she clearly did, and I captured a hell of a look on the frame.

I love the expression in this shot - of the dog and girl pulling against each other while the girl is clearly paying attention to me. The colors in this shot are classic Portra - heavy on the reds and yellow tones in the best way possible, and I love the sharpness of the bricks in the background.

It also taught me about stealing moments on the street like that - while a shot like this would have been really difficult to stage, I feel guilty for not asking her to take the shot (tho, admittedly, I don’t’ know how it turned out until it was developed much later)

As a final note, I’ll say how great it is to review old shots - there’s so much memory that comes with experiencing old shots - remembering how you had to crouch or how cold or hot you were when you made a shot can bring so many things back. Every photographer out there should go and review their old work, it’s a great exercise.

To read up more on other photographers in the Spotlight Series, check out the dedicated page.