Photographing New York City from the Top of the Rock

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New York is a beautiful city.  It is immense, exciting, vibrant and at times overwhelming.  As a photographer it can often be hard to capture the enormity of a place like New York, and one of the best ways to do this is to find an elevated platform to shoot from.  Thankfully these platforms are common in many major cities:  Vancouver has the Lookout.  Seattle has the Space Needle.  London has the Shard.  Paris has Montparnasse Tower, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Arc De Triomphe.  These platforms provide the photographer with  great options to see and photograph the beauty and grandeur of a city.

New York City offers us two main viewing platforms:  The Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock (found atop Rockefeller Center).  Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, many people choose to go up to the top of the Empire State Building because it is so iconic.  The viewing platform at the top of the Empire State Building is a great experience, one not to be missed, but when you make a city skyline shot of New York City you want the Empire State Building IN your photograph!

The Top of the Rock is located atop 30 Rockefeller Center, occupying the 67th, 69th, and 70th floors of the tower.  The 67th and 69th floors have outdoor terraces surrounded by transparent safety glass, while the 70th floor is completely open air.  The experience is curated extremely well for photographers, however, as there are slits cut in the safety glass that you can position your lens through.  Tripods are not allowed, but it is easy enough to brace yourself against the railings or glass to stabilize your camera.  There are no time limits or restrictions on how long you can stay, allowing you to arrive early before sunset and shoot well into blue hour.

Before we get started talking about an evening spent shooting the New York City skyline I’d like to mention that this blog post is part 5 of a 5 part series featuring photography from New York City:

With that said, let’s get started…

When I go to the top of one of these viewing platforms I try to time it so I am on deck 60-90 minutes before sunset.  I feel this provides me with the best opportunity to capture a variety of interesting images because I can shoot through the changing light from sunny blue sky, through the sunset, into the post sunset blue hour, and finally deep into night.  These are popular places though,  and they often have long lines so it is best to pre-purchase your tickets if you can and arrive early to leave yourself plenty of time to find your spot and start shooting.

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When I arrived at the top deck this was the view I first saw.  It is an amazing skyline that puts the Empire State Building on full display, but also has the Brooklyn Bridge, Freedom Tower, and the Statue of Liberty in the background.  It is everything you would want to see in a New York City skyline shot, and I knew it was only going to get better as the light changed.

This photo is taken looking to the south, but you can walk almost all the way around the viewing deck so I wandered over to the north side to see what the view looked like.  It was quite nice too:

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Looking north from the Top of Rock gives us a commanding view of Central Park.  I loved this view, grabbed a few images, but quickly realized that the money shot I was after was definitely going to be taken looking south.

Both of these photos were taken with the Fujinon 10-24mm f/4 lens on a Fuji X-Pro2.  This is the equivalent of 15-36mm on a full frame camera, and is a perfect focal length to capture skyline shots like this.  If you have a wide angle lens and are coming to places like this you definitely want to bring it.  Don’t despair if you don’t have a wide angle lens, however, as you can always shoot 2 or 3 frames with a 35mm or equivalent lens and stitch them together in post.

I knew I had an hour or so before the sunset was going to look its best, so I put the Fujinon 55-200mm telephoto lens on my camera and started looking around.  I already had a few frames of the city skyline with a beautiful blue sky behind it, and nothing was going to change until sunset.  To fill the time I love to put on a telephoto lens and start hunting around the city.  I’m looking for interesting compositions, interesting architecture, little detail shots.  Working your way around a city with long glass while you are waiting for the sunset is a great way to spend some time, and I was able to grab a few frames like these:

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I especially enjoy shooting these detail shots as sunset approaches and the beautiful golden light comes in from the side of the frame.

The sunset this evening was truly beautiful, with the sky erupting in colour as the sun got lower and lower.   Remember to keep shooting through these changes.  Always edit when you are on your computer, not while you are in the moment.  You are better to keep shooting through the changing light and give yourself as many options as possible in post.    Here are a few frames as the sunset progressed this evening:

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Now, there is always a period that happens once the sunset is fading where I slow my shooting down for a bit.  The sky often still looks beautiful during this time, however there are few lights on in the buildings so the photograph looks unbalanced to me.   Here is an example of what I am talking about:

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Those city lights will come up though, and your sky will keep getting darker and darker which saturates the rich blues.  There will then be a short period of time where the city lights will balance with the sky, and you can grab a frame or two like these:

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This is definitely when the no tripod rule can come become “a thing”.  There is a very low quantity of light during the few minutes where everything is balanced like this, and you really need a tripod to capture these scenes properly.

In lieu of having a tripod, however, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Use stabilized lenses.  The image stabilization in the Fujinon lenses I use easily buy me another 3-5 stops of shutter speed when I have to shoot hand held in low light.
  2. Crank your ISO!  Sure, it would be perfect if we could always expose these images at ISO 100 or 200 to maximize how clean our file is but we usually need tripods to do this.  In lieu of that, use your ISO to maintain an acceptable shutter speed to prevent image blur.  I am very comfortable shooting at ISO 1600 or 3200 with my Fuji cameras if I have to.
  3. Have clean technique:  Elbows in and braced.  Proper breathing when you take a shot.  Brace against something.
  4. Use your camera’s timer to trip the shutter, so you don’t shake the camera by pushing the button.

One final important thing many people forget is to put the camera down when it gets much darker than this.  Once your blue hour is gone you already have the great photos in the bank in my opinion, so just take the time to enjoy everything with your eyes.  Breath it all in.  It is magical to see a city at night like this.

Once you are back on your computer at home, edit through your images with a critical eye.  Maybe you shot 100 or 200 frames.  Keep 10 or 15.  Learn to edit your work to only keep your best frames.  From the 2 or 3 hours I spent atop the Top of the Rock I will probably add 2, maybe 3, images to my travel portfolio.  Work hard in the field to give yourself a lot of options, then edit and edit to the point where you are only showing your best work.

For me, I think this was my favourite image from the shoot:

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I love the colours, and I love the dichotomy of old and new that you can see with the Empire State Building in the front, the brand new Freedom Tower in the middle, and the classic Statue of Liberty in the back of the frame.

IN CLOSING…

With a little pre-trip research and a bit of time you can almost always leave a city with a trophy skyline shot that will look beautiful on your wall at home.  I have to say though that as much as I love capturing an image that I am happy with, I especially love the process we have talked about in this blog post:  Getting to the destination, exploring my options, finding my shot (or shots), and then patiently shooting through the changing light.  It is a perfect way to spend a few hours.

I hope you enjoyed this series from New York City.  It is a remarkable place to spend time as a photographer, and should definitely be on everyone’s list if you love photographing cities.

Until next time!

Cheers,

Ian

10 thoughts on “Photographing New York City from the Top of the Rock

  1. Debbie Teague says:

    Great information about photographing New York. I’m going before Christmas and my question is can you use a tripod anywhere? We are going to most of the places that you went to. I just go the new
    Fuji XT2 and planning on taking it with the lens that you took.
    Thank you
    Debbie

    • Ian says:

      Hey Debbie!

      You can’t at Grand Central, or up the Empire State Building or the Top of the Rock. Having said that, there are so many other great places to catch night time shots where it is perfectly acceptable to use it that I brought a small one.

      Cheers,

      Ian

  2. Peter Mak. says:

    I love you photo’s, brings back memories from when i was there.

    I hope i can get some beautiful shots like yours when I come back in 2018.

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