What the hell? How Jonathan Higbee shoots these impossible street photos

Photographer Jonathan Higbee has a number of projects on the go, but it’s his “Coincidences” collection in particular that’s been winning him many fans around the world.

Each of these delightfully quirky images show real — or one might say “surreal” — moments that prompt the viewer to take a moment to fully process the composition. Entertaining and captivating in equal measure, Higbee’s images reflect an unquestionable talent born from a sharp eye that views the world in a unique way. Waiting several months in the same spot to capture at least one of his shots, he clearly has plenty of patience, too. Digital Trends asked the street photographer about his work and how he goes about capturing these extraordinary images.

jonathan higbee photographer with an eye for the quirky facebook
Jonathan Higbee/Facebook

Digital Trends: How did you get into street photography?

Jonathan Higbee: My job as a travel photographer required me to move to New York back in 2009. Immediately as I arrived, I felt absolutely compelled to begin making street photography. A passion for celebrating daily life’s routine, mundane, obvious aspects while trying to be more present has kept me shooting the streets ever since.

What equipment do you use?

I’m a bit of a gearhead! I enjoy tech and gadgets and wear the proud “first adopter” badge proudly, so my kit varies wildly. My go-to camera is the incomparable Leica Q, though I’ve started tossing a Leica M10 and 35 Summicron ASPH in my bag to play with a different focal length. When it comes to street photography, Leica is the standard-bearer for good reason. The rangefinder system combined with lenses that make zone-focusing a breeze, in my experience, is unparalleled when it comes to nailing focus in challenging conditions. And I’m one of those people who swears that there’s some magic sauce in the images produced by a Leica. So, though there may be great cameras that are a bit smaller, I always keep the pocketable digital Leica CL and the new 18mm TL in a pocket or a bag, so I’m never caught without a camera that produces great image quality.

I love shooting analog as well, in a variety of genres. My favorites for 35mm are my Contax T3, Yashica T5, and, of course, Leica M6. As far as medium-format goes, my Hasselblad Xpan + 30mm is considered my second-born child (after my dog!). The panoramic format of the Xpan inspires so much creativity, and produces a jaw-dropping cinematic look that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate on digital cameras.

What do you love about doing street photography? Are there any downsides?

I love that making street photography feels like a constant collaboration with the living, breathing city.

Street photography is a way of life, a philosophy. It’s about so much more than shooting the streets, and I’m passionate about every aspect of it. I particularly enjoy the extra artistic freedom and room for conceptualism that artists find more in street than in any other candid genre. I love that making street photography feels like a constant collaboration with the living, breathing city. Its emphasis on exploring the humanity of strangers is also a strength.

On the flip side of all of this is the perennial threat of confrontation. Whether it’s with the authorities or a bystander who passes in front of the lens, negative (often violent) encounters are not unusual. As a reserved, sometimes shy person to begin with, this looming risk is difficult to dislodge from my mind.

How often do you manage to get onto the streets, and how long would you be outside for on a typical day?

If I don’t get out to shoot at least four days of the week then I grow irritable and depressed, ha ha! I prefer the bold and bright light of mid-afternoon, so I’ll typically shoot for two to four hours while the sun is at its highest.

Coincidences Jonathan Higbee

Your Coincidences collection is particularly striking. In the images where you include a mural or ad, what’s the longest and shortest amount of time you’ve had to wait to get the shot?

On average, each image in this series took roughly a week to make. Wall Street, however, took nearly four months, the longest I’ve waited yet. I returned and waited at least three afternoons a week in that time period. Each week I’d make a photograph that would have satisfied me for portfolio use. But I knew that I could do even better and find a moment that told the story I was interested in telling. So, much to the dismay of a hot dog cart salesman who I had to regularly stand near for the perfect angle, I kept coming back, month after month, until this scene unfolded. The second I captured it, I knew I had the shot. That’s a rare but exhilarating feeling.

On average, each image in this series took roughly a week to make. Wall Street, however, took nearly four months, the longest I’ve waited yet

The other end of the spectrum is this photograph in front of a Sephora. I was walking at a snail’s pace through Times Square (sometimes the crowds there prevent anything faster). Immediately, I noticed this story unfolding before my eyes as I approached the beauty chain storefront. When this kind of thing happens — when I strike gold “without trying” — I switch into a kind of trance where I have no sense of self. Everything just happens naturally by intuition. I photographed this story from every angle possible before the customer moved away, and knew that I had successfully captured a story I had long hoped to tell.

With some of your images, it seems like you have to be super-quick on the shutter. How often do you miss a great shot, and does it bug you for long?

Making successful street photography rests entirely on timing. It’s vital. My Coincidences work is entirely reliant upon timing. There have been countless instances where I’ve screwed up the timing, and being too slow to change a necessary setting or angle and completely missing a scene. Sometimes timing literally gets fumbled when I’m just a half-second too late in lining up all the elements for a juxtaposition. This happens, sadly, once every couple weeks, I’d say.

Coincidences Jonathan Higbee

It’s never been easy for me to overcome my knee-jerk emotional reaction to missing a shot. It’s actually something I’ve been working on lately. There have been scenes I’ve missed that stick with me for several days. A recent one involved a beautiful geometric pattern on a tourist bus that really worked well with passing cyclists. There’s an irrational sense of loss, of grief, and of shame that I struggle with. It’s not healthy, and I’ve made some progress with turning it all into water under the bridge.

Could you pick out one of your favorite shots from your collection and say why you chose it?

My favorites change with the season, it seems. Right now I’m particularly fond of Pink Wall #1, which I made recently in Los Angeles. This location was overwhelming — crowded with tourists like me — but I felt like a kid in a candy store. So there’s a bit of an emotional connection to being able to get this shot that is still reverberating in my skull, but my affection for it is really mostly about the color story, the story story, the composition, and the mood. I think it’s a great balance and representation of my body of work as a whole.

Do you ever lose motivation for doing street photography? If so, how do you pick yourself up again?

Gear has the power to motivate you to make street photography even when you’re not especially feeling it.

I don’t really experience a loss of motivation, thankfully. Photography flows through my veins at this point, there’s no way to stop it. I do quite regularly confront creative block, which is frustrating because I’m certainly motivated to shoot but just completely blanking out. What helps me is to not get too worked up about it (I used to give myself a guilt trip and pressure to perform, which backfires) and work on a different project for a while. Sometimes the different project isn’t even photography related. What really ignites the flame again is going to a new neighborhood to photograph. It’s not always possible to go somewhere new, but when it has been feasible, it has never failed to demolish that creative block into dust!

What does the future hold for you in terms of street photography? Do you have any new projects planned?

Right now, I’m really focused on making what I’ve long considered to be the apex of Coincidences a reality. So, in the near future you’ll see the series released as a book and tour as a solo show — should all the stars align. It won’t be the end of this work, but it’s a great milestone to give it some breathing room and allow me some bandwidth to begin new work — “new” being the key word. I plan to start working with unconventional new technologies and other experimental tools to find other ways, other angles from which to tell the story of being alive. I don’t know where street is going next, but I want to be a part of it.

Coincidences Jonathan Higbee

Aside from experimenting with avant-garde tech and ideas, I’m also exploring video art. I’ve been interested in video ever since I’ve been interested in still photography, but initially found film to be intimidatingly complex. I’ve finally given myself the space to learn this craft. Currently, I have a few street-related video project ideas that are starting to take shape and can’t wait to debut.

Can you offer some tips for street photographers who are just starting out?

New street photographers are often told that the gear doesn’t matter. It’s absolutely not true. Of course, you cannot rationally expect your camera alone to instantly transform your work into brilliant art. That’s impossible, but who knows what inventions lie ahead? Still, your gear matters significantly. If whatever you’re using to make photography — whether it’s a DSLR, old analog point-and-shoot, smartphone app, whatever — doesn’t excite you to begin with, that’s not good. The right gear should really excite you to go out and shoot with it. Gear has the power to motivate you to make street photography even when you’re not especially feeling it. So in that way, gear totally matters. You should absolutely be excited to get out on the streets! Also, the right gear will have the ability to “disappear” after you’ve used it a bit. After being excited to use it, you should then understand your camera or phone app so intimately that you can make photographs without even thinking about the mechanics of it.

Oh, and another piece of advice: get a map of your city’s best public bathrooms before you head out for a long day’s walk.

Where can we see more of your work?

My website features all my current projects, as well as touring dates, print sales, news, and more, so it’s a great one-stop shop. I’m very active on Instagram, so please follow me there.


How Huawei and Leica made a camera phone so good, we ditched our DSLR

What makes the Leica-designed Huawei P20 Pro camera so good? We traveled to Leica’s HQ in Wetzlar, Germany to hear it from the source. In short, it took a lot of experience, technology, and passion.

These point-and-shoot cameras make your smartphone pics look like cave paintings

If your smartphone camera just isn't giving you the results you're looking for, maybe it's time to step up your game. The latest and greatest point-and-shoot cameras offer large sensors, tough bodies, and long lenses - something no phone…

6 pro tips for taking amazing portrait photos with the Huawei P10

To really show us what the P10's Leica camera and its Portrait mode can do, a pro-photographer taught us how to use it. We learned plenty. Here are the best tips for perfect portraits and selfies.
Smart Home

A.I.’s humorous side: The funniest things to ask Alexa

Amazon's Alexa voice assistant has a wide repertoire of funny responses, jokes, and hidden replies that you can have fun with. Here are the best funny things to ask Alexa, and examples of what her responses are.

From a bad battery to a crash, Virginia Tech’s automated car beat all challenges

Eight colleges across America were chosen to compete in a three-year challenge to build an autonomous car. Sponsored by General Motors and SAE, the AutoDrive Challenge offers college students the chance to create a Level 4 autonomous…

From picking to pollinating, agribots are pushing farming into the future

Farming is becoming increasingly challenging. To deal with environmental pollution, labor shortage, and other major issues, agricultural scientists are turning to robots and AI.

Microsoft is digging itself a hole by giving away free Surface Docks

Microsoft is giving away a free Surface Dock with the purchase of a Surface Book 2 or a Surface Laptop. If you have a Surface Book 2 15-inch, however, that free gift might turn you off.

The best mirrorless cameras pack all the power of a DSLR, minus the bulk

Mirrorless cameras offer a lot of photography firepower, inside a compact body. Explore the best mirrorless cameras, from the pro-level to the beginner-friendly shooters, in this guide.

A wealth of rich tunes: Here are the best songs about money

There may not be as many songs about money as there are songs about love, but it's a close second. If you're looking for a skrilla-inspired playlist, check out our picks for the best songs about money.

When you're ready to shoot seriously, these are the best DSLRs you can buy

For many photographers the DSLR is the go-to camera. With large selection of lenses, great low-light performance, and battery endurance, these DSLRs deliver terrific image quality for stills and videos.

What is portrait mode? How tech helps smartphones capture a better you

Several years ago, portrait modes started showing up on phones and quickly became one of the most popular ways to capture selfies, profile pics, and more. But how does portrait mode work, and how much difference does it make?

3 simple things you can do to step up your selfie game

Taking a selfie might seem simple enough, but there's more to it than meets the eye. Here are three elements to keep in mind the next time you take a selfie to share on social media.
Smart Home

The Brava Oven uses light – and seemingly magic – to cook. It changes everything.

The creators of the Brava Oven knew that there had to be a better, more efficient way of cooking, and they set out to find it. The Brava, which cooks with light, was born, and their invention will turn everything we know about cooking…

18 Lightroom keyboard shortcuts you can actually remember

Keyboard shortcuts make quick work of sorting and even editing photos, but they're often tough to remember. Here are 18 of the most helpful Lightroom shortcuts, whether you intend to use them in MacOS or on your Windows-based PC.

The magic hour creates magic photos. Here’s how to capture dreamy stunners

The golden hour, a.k.a. the magic hour, is a special time for photographers that happens twice a day. Here are some simple tips for making the most of this time to capture stunning portraits, landscapes, and the like.

With flip-out lenses, the Vuze XR transforms from 360- to 180-degree VR camera

The Vuze XR is a compact, dual-lens camera with an integrated handle and a neat party trick: The back-to-back lenses can flip forward to transition from 360-degree two-dimensional video, to 180-degree three-dimensional video.

Here’s how to turn off camera shutter sound on your Android phone

That clicking shutter sound on your Android phone can get annoying if you like to take lots of pictures. Fortunately, you can disable it. We will walk you through how to turn off the camera shutter sound on your Android phone.

Ditch the smartphone, this is the camera you want in your pocket

Fujifilm's XF10 offers premium image quality in a portable form factor that may just be enough to get smartphone shooters to pick up a real camera. It's also Fujifilm's cheapest premium compact yet, at $500.

Brother’s new INKvestment Tank printer is made for people who hate buying ink cartridges

With a new ink cartridge design, Brother's new INKvestment Tank printer can run for up to a year before the cartridges need replacing -- ideal for users who want convenience and cost-savings.

Here are 5 free alternatives to Photoshop for all your photo-editing needs

Photoshop is a capable program, but it's also expensive. Lucky for you, there are plenty of great alternatives out there that allow for a range of versatility, without requiring you to break into your bank account.

These might be the best photos shot with an iPhone in 2018

The iPhone Photography Awards (IPPAWARDS) announced its official winners of its 11th annual global competition. Each one was selected from thousands of entries spanning over 140 countries around the world.

Here are the best Amazon Prime Day photography deals (updated)

Amazon's biggest shopping day of the year is here, and if photography is your hobby, there are a few deals for you. From action cameras to accessories and photo-editing software, here are some of our favorite Prime Deals in 2018.
Emerging Tech

AirSelfie’s second-gen selfie drone with better flight time is now available

The second-generation AirSelfie drone more than doubles the original's camera resolution from 5 to 12 megapixels, quadruples its internal memory to 16GB, and adds 50 percent more flight time.