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

Photographing Grand Central Terminal

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I think the thing I love the most about traveling and exploring new places is how it puts me in touch with history.  It is hard to describe the feelings I had when I stood in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where Anne and her family hid from German occupation during World War 2 for two years before being betrayed and taken away to the concentration camps.  I held my breath when I stood at the top of Notre-Dame Cathedral one morning, looking out across the rooftops of Paris towards the Eiffel Tower.  Construction on Notre-Dame began in 1163.  853 years ago.   Amazing.  At Pearl Harbor in Honolulu I looked down at the wreck of the USS Arizona, which still leaks oil into the ocean to this day.  The bombing of that ship in 1941 brought America into World War 2.  A few hours later I stood on the deck of the USS Missouri,  in the exact spot where Japan surrendered  in 1945.  It is moments like this that keep me motivated to travel.

New York City is iconic, known the world over, with a history all its own.  Grand Central Terminal is definitely one of the quintessential landmarks in this remarkable city, and I’d like to share part of a photo essay I shot there on my last trip.  This post is part four of a five part series featuring photography from New York City:

The roots of Grand Central Terminal go back to the Grand Central Depot, which first opened in 1871.  146 years ago.  This was followed by the Grand Central Station in 1900 and the Grand Central Terminal in 1913.  The Terminal occupies 48 acres, has 44 platforms, 67 tracks and over 750,000 people pass through its doors daily.  Yes, 750,000 per day.   The structure also houses restaurants, shopping and other assorted businesses.  It is a stunning piece of architecture.

Given its importance in the story of New York, I knew that I wanted to create a photo essay of the terminal that evoked its history and that had a timeless feel.   I chose to shoot the series in black and white, using the Acros film simulation processed with rich blacks, to try and create a cohesive series of photographs of the terminal.  All images in this series were shot with the Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fujinon 10-24mm lens, except for the close ups of the clock and the chandelier which were shot with the Fujinon 55-200mm lens.

Each photo can be clicked to view large.  I hope you like them.

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Fujifilm gear pack for New York City

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Hello again!

In my last blog post I shared a photo essay of New York City from my recent trip.   In future posts we are going to look at many more photos of New York, but right now it is time to talk gear.  And,  by talk, I mean totally nerd out.

This post is part two of a five part series featuring photography from New York City:

For many photographers the question of “what gear do I bring on a trip?” is the hardest one to answer.  For me, it all starts with pre-trip research.  Photography is a huge part of my travels, and I want to come back with a photo essay that lets me show the beauty of the places I visit, adds substance to my travel workshops and presentations, and provides content for several books that I am writing right now.

I will often start by sketching out a list of locations (and/or things) that I know I want to photograph.  For New York, that list included:

  • The New York City skyline from The Top of the Rock
  • Grand Central Terminal
  • Chinatown
  • Freedom Tower and The National September 11th Memorial and Museum
  • The Brooklyn Bridge
  • The Manhattan skyline from DUMBO
  • The Statue of Liberty
  • Central Park
  • The Bronx Zoo
  • The Empire State Building
  • Times Square
  • Radio City Music Hall
  • Rockefeller Center
  • The New York subway system
  • Street photography

This list, compiled from things learned on previous visits, general awareness of New York, and internet research, gives me a starting point for figuring out what gear to bring.  Once I have a rough list I think about breaking it down into categories of lenses.  I will often speak with other photographers and research focal lengths to do this.   Eventually I will have a list of locations or shots that require wide angle (if any), mid range, and telephoto (if any).

I then ask myself if I can get away with just a Fuji X100t for the trip, which is always my go to.   In this case, however, my shot list broke down as follows:

  • Wide Angle:  Skyline from The Top of the Rock, inside Grand Central Terminal, inside the 9/11 Museum, and shooting up on many of the buildings.
  • Mid Range:  Almost everywhere.
  • Telephoto:  Detail shots from Top of the Rock, The Bronx Zoo, and The Statue of Liberty.

Three lenses it was, which is actually a heavy gear pack for me when I am traveling by plane.  Time to start choosing:

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For wide angle I had the choice of the Fujinon 16mm f/1.4 lens, or the Fujinon 10-24mm f/4 zoom lens.

One is fairly wide and very fast, while the other is extremely wide and, while only having a minimum aperture of f/4, is optically stabilized (and Fujifilm’s OIS is very good).

Grand Central Terminal was the determining factor here:  I knew I needed an extreme wide angle to shoot the terminal so it came down to the 10-24mm.  While I would be shooting in low light at f/4 or higher, the OIS meant that I could handhold at slow shutter speeds to compensate.

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My midrange choice was easy… the Fujinon 35mm f/2 lens.  I chose this lens for the following reasons:

  1. It is one of my all time favourite street photography lenses, and I was going to be doing a LOT of street photography.
  2. It is small, and easily portable.
  3. It fit nicely between the long end of my Fujinon 10-24mm lens, and the wide end of whichever telephoto lens I brought (50mm or 55mm).
  4. It is weather resistant.  This is important as New York is famous for its flash thunderstorms in the summer.  Sure enough, I did get caught in one of these while I was mid span on the Brooklyn Bridge on foot!

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I’ll put this right on the table:  I hate bringing telephoto lenses on vacation.  If the trip isn’t a safari or doesn’t involve specific needs like aerial photography or certain landscapes it is always my least used lens.  Telephotos also tend to be the heavier lenses in your bag.

With this in mind my decision was easy, though not the way I would prefer to go.  I brought the Fujinon 55-200mm f/3.5 – f/4.8 zoom lens.  This is a great lens at its price point, but the Fujinon 50-140mm f/2.8 lens is simply incredible.  Sadly, it is also my largest and heaviest lens so it was instantly out of the running given that I would be walking 10-12 hours per day.

This lens would only be used to pick out detail shots from Top of the Rock, at The Bronx Zoo, and to get a shot of The Statue of Liberty.  The rest of the time it would live in the hotel room.

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Here is my whole kit.  In this photo you can see:

  • The Ona Prince Street messenger bag
  • The Fuji X-Pro2 with the Fujinon 35mm f/2 lens on it
  • The Fujinon 10-24mm f/4 lens
  • The Fujinon 55-200mm f/3.5 – f/4.8 lens
  • Accessories including extra memory cards, extra batteries, a cleaning cloth, a 10 stop ND filter, and a remote shutter release
  • A charger for my camera batteries
  • An external batter pack with a cable for my phone
  • My iPad
  • An SD cable to import photos onto my iPad for backup purposes

Everything fit in the Ona bag for carry onto the plane, and once I got to the hotel room the iPad, SD cable, charger, and usually the Fujinon 55-200mm lens lived in the room.

And there you have it, my rationale for how I packed my gear for this trip.  I had all focal lengths covered, I had a weather resistant option, and everything fit into a small shoulder bag that did not weigh me down.

Traveling with mirrorless cameras is a beautiful thing.

What will I bring the next time I go to New York?  That is an easy question to answer now that I have the images from this trip:  I will only bring the X100t (or, preferably, its successor).  When I travel back to a location for a repeat visit I usually have the “trophy” shots already, so I focus on the people, the life on the streets, and the little detail shots.  For these purposes the X100t is all I need.

I hope you enjoyed this walk through of how I selected my gear for this trip.  Next up we are going to look at my favourite thing:  Street Photography;  and, believe me, New York did not disappoint!

Until then,

Ian