Matthew David Powell: Daniel Clarke, Williamsburg Waterfront

The Image

Matthew David Powell

Williamsburg Waterfront, Brooklyn, NY USA

Time / Date:
7:00PM / May 25, 2014

The Technical

Camera Body: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon 50mm f/1.4G

Camera Settings:

Shutter Speed: 1/1600
Aperture: f/1.6
ISO: 125
Focal Length: 50mm

The Story


My goal for this portrait of Daniel Clarke was to tell the story of individual and deeply personal self-reflection. Working from a very intimate and connected place, under really stunning atmosphere, it allowed him to trust and work from real emotion. My background as a photographer who works primarily in the streets has definitely fueled my desire to create photographs that are driven by storytelling, and my goal is to create work that makes someone think or feel something, that leaves a lasting impression. The technical and preparation, while important, always seem to come secondary.

The Scene: 

We created this image near sunset from a pier in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looking west. The light was calm and the shadows almost purple. Without giving a lot of verbal direction, I allowed him to take time and really go to an emotional place in his head. What the image reveals is a lifetime of feelings. In his own words, he’s described the image: “This shows a lot of what I’ve struggled with. Happiness and sadness, failures and accomplishments.”


Gear wise, I like using the 50mm 1.4 for portraiture, because it allows me to keep a pretty much 1:1 relationship with the person I’m working with. It positions me close enough that they feel like they are a collaborator in the making of the image. I’ve worked with 85mm and don’t like the sense of distance and compression. 50mm just feels more real and relatable. In general I prefer small fast primes over zooms. Camera wise, the D800 is an amazing tool, it’s my go to body, crisp and clean, and easy to work with. That said, I’m not much of a gear head. My general philosophy on camera kit, is that the camera and lens are only tools, it’s good to have great tools, but greater and more important to have great ideas, more/better equipment doesn’t make your photography better per se. I prefer simple, uncomplicated setups that let the real magic happen in the viewfinder, not in the controls. I almost always prefer natural/available light.

Making the Shot:

When it came to making this shot, I wanted to spend enough time with the subject to gain enough trust and availability to access real emotional work. When we arrived at the location the light as still pretty harsh, so we walked and spoke a bit, about things such as dreams and ambition. When the light dipped low and created this dreamlike almost purple light, we went to the end of a pier where there was a clean, clear background, and I worked to capture the connection we’d been sharing. I’ve found that the frames that hold the most magic are usually made in the moments in-between the times a subject feels a photograph is being taken, it’s where the real person shows up. Compositionally, I wanted the image to feel close and connected, intimate, but with enough clear space to let the story ‘breathe’.

Editing & Processing:

My workflow is pretty simple, I try not to spend more time in front of the computer than I need to. This image was downloaded from the D800 into Lightroom 5 and a custom base preset was applied, (it’s loosely based on a VSCO Portra 160 base, with a bunch of additional adjustments for colors, ca, shadows and contrast, a mix i’ve perfected and tweaked over the years.) It gets the color and feel to a nice starting point, then can fine tune from there. I don’t try to mimic ‘film’ per se, but I do try to get out of the ugly ‘digital’ looking color palette. I’m usually less concerned with ‘realistic color’ and more interested in setting a mood that supports the story I’m telling in an image. I finished this image with little fine tuning in photoshop to balance out the contrast.

Looking Back:

I chose this image because it’s a great example of the type of portraiture I’m the most interested in creating at the moment, work that lets you go a little deeper than you usually go. I feel it’s a nice compliment and extension to my street photography discipline, working to keep that same depth and unscripted feel with individuals. I felt it really succeeded in expressing my style, and telling a great story.


I’d say the best advice I could give on creating my style of portraiture, or really photography in general, is to stay connected and curious. Portraiture is a journey that you are taking with someone, I’ve found it’s very important to be present, open and receptive to the feelings someone feels and how they express those emotions. To that end, I feel I’ve made my best work when I create from a place of being an insider, conspiring with others to feel and express. When you can make the camera disappear, for both you and the subject, thats when the real magic happens.

The most important thing I’ve learned on my journey as a photographer is to always be creating, and make a lot of mistakes. It’s from those mistakes that you learn what not to do, and also clarifies what it is you want to do. Over time you find your voice and narrative, but think in those uninspired or creatively blocked moments, it’s vitally important to keep creating. It will inspire new and better work.


I find most of my inspiration by going out and “seeing” the world around me, everyday situations are really pretty remarkable when you take a moment to stop and appreciate them. I feel grateful to live in New York, where the energy of the city fuels my own. My greatest drive for making images is the desire to be understood, to express myself in a way that I haven’t been able to in words. I strive to make work that is dense and layered, the more time you spend looking at the details in a frame, the more questions you’ll have. If my work sparks a conversation, makes someone think or feel something, then I feel I’ve succeeded.



About the Photographer

Matthew David Powell, grew up in South Eastern Idaho, and by way of Utah and San Francisco has called New York home for the last 12 years. An avid photographer and urban explorer, his work has a steady thread of New York running through it—our people, our places, our challenges and our successes. Telling the story of what it’s like to live here, now. (bio photograph by Richard Burrowes)

Twitter: @mdpny
Instagram: @mdpny

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