Photography in New york
A landscape photographer’s experience in Manhattan
As a landscape photographer, I find nothing more beautiful than a magnificent desert sunset, the late evening sun dropping beneath a barren horizon while the sky turns myriad shades of gold and red and blue. The solitude is part of the splendor; you can almost hear the sky as it turns from twilight to night. Seeking out these spots to photograph is part of the wonder. Discovering a scene that features nothing but God’s creation is awe-inspiring indeed.
This brings us to New York City. Life in the city is nothing like the desert. Congested, fast-paced, loud, and edgy, the Big Apple will keep you on your toes. You have to be alert or you will get run over. It’s expensive, overpriced, and if you don’t know where you are going, you will get lost. It is a world of its own, but, just like the desert, it is magnificent and captivating. The lights are hypnotic, the architecture is awe-inspiring, and the taxi-drivers are of another world. When I was at Page, Arizona, surveying the spectacular Horseshoe Bend, I marveled at the size of the canyon. Likewise, as I perused the canyon-like avenues and streets of Manhattan, I was no less captivated by the sight and sounds of the city. Manhattan will invigorate and energize the human spirit. This is not by choice; if you refuse to become energized on these city streets, you will not survive.
Photography in the city was very similar to landscape photography. Everywhere I went I took my camera. My cargo shorts and camera over my shoulder screamed that I was a tourist, but I didn’t care. The camera never left me.
The shots above were taken on the 67th floor of the Rockefeller Center, known as the Top of the Rock. It offers one of the most iconic views of the city, but many tourists choose to go to the observation level of the Empire State Building. After all, it offers a view that is significantly higher than the 67th floor view of the Rockefeller Center. My daughter wanted to go to the Empire State Building. I think it was partly due to tradition, partly due to Cary Grant and “An Affair to Remember,” and partly due to Tom Hanks an Meg Ryan and “Sleepless in Seattle.” I told her I would take her to the Empire State Building on our next trip to the City. I wanted to go the Rockefeller Center for one reason: Views of the Empire State Building.
This is part of what being a photographer requires. You have to have a plan. It can be loosely structured, but there has to be a plan. I researched what views were like from both buildings, and both were spectacular. But I wanted to photograph the Empire State Building, and you can’t do that when you are on top of the Empire State Building.
I went with my family and in-laws from Washington D.C. We all got tickets to go to the Top of the Rock. There were nine of us all together. We purchased eight tickets for a single trip to the top. And then I got mine. It was called the “Sun & Stars” ticket. It cost more, but it included one trip during the daylight hours, and a second trip that would occur during the evening and night hours. As a group, we arrived at the Top of the Rock around 2 p.m. Mid-afternoon. Harsh sunlight. Deep shadows. The views were amazing, but they weren’t made for photography. I snapped a few images, but mostly I surveyed the situation and figured out where I wanted to be when the sun went down. I tucked that knowledge away in my memory bank.
Acquiring that knowledge may not seem like a big deal. But it was. When we arrived at the observation floor, I noticed there were huge panes of glass, maybe ten feet tall, designed to keep people from throwing things off the building, or jumping. Maybe there are other reasons, but the glass kept me from photographing freely. There was a gap between the inch-thick panes, and I put my camera between them as best I could in order to capture clear images. Not ideal, but still, it was okay. I may have roamed the top deck for 15 minutes or so before I noticed that there was another deck above me. It was much smaller, but one floor higher, and there were no panes of glass. I guess that was because if you jumped off the 68th floor observation deck, you would only fall one floor to the deck below and suffer nothing worse than a sprained ankle. I went looking for a way up. There were no signs indicating another level, but eventually I found a door with a wide stairwell leading up. And there I was, looking over the City, unimpaired and free, nothing between myself and the glorious skyline.
Tripods are not allowed on the observation level. During the day, that was not an issue, but at night, it would be. I did not want to boost my ISO up to high levels because I wanted to keep the digital noise at a minimum. What I needed was a place to brace myself. Something solid that I could rest my elbows on allowing me to steady my camera. I found it. There were several concrete pillars that the railing were attached to. They were about waist level and perfect for the photographer looking for stability.
The nine of us left the Rockefeller Center and we wandered the streets of Manhattan. The family was going to a Broadway show. My wife had always wanted to see “Phantom of the Opera,” and she was taking my daughter. As for myself, I was going back up on the Rock, looking forward to nighttime views of Manhattan. I arrived back on the observation deck about an hour and a half before sundown. The deck was not crowded. Maybe 20 people at the most. I wandered around for a while and then made my way to the second deck. A young couple was taking selfies at the perfect location – the same spot where I had determined I could go and shoot without glass barriers while stabilizing myself on a concrete pillar. They lingered for a while, and then left. I moved in.
I waited for an hour for the sun to set. The lights began lighting up the city, and the Top of the Rock began to get crowded. Finally, the light was perfect. There was still detail in the sky, the building had not yet gone totally black, but the lights of Manhattan were bright and defined. Keeping my ISO at 400 (not the lowest setting, but still virtually noise-free) I snapped pictures like a madman, my elbows providing stability as they rested on the pillar. At one point, I looked up across the deck, and it was jam-packed with spectators. Some were holding their cameras up over their heads, trying to get a decent image of the night city, but they were not able to approach the edge of the building. It was too crowded.
This is where people say I got lucky. I was able to find a spot at the edge of the building. Luck? Not at all. I scoped the area out, arrived an hour and a hafp before sundown, and claimed my spot. I did not move once. I didn’t have a drink, because I did not want to take a bathroom break. That spot was mine, and I was not giving it up. And I got my pictures.
This is part of being a photographer. You can’t stumble into a great picture with any type or regularity. Every now and then you might get lucky, but if you want consistency in your photographs, you have to plan it out and make sacrifices. No Phantom of the Opera, but I got my shot.
The photograph of lower Manhattan with the pilings in the foreground was shot from Brooklyn Park. On the subway earlier that day, I asked a man who looked like a New Yorker how to get to Brooklyn on the subway. He told me where to get on if I was at Times Square (which is where our hotel was). He told me where to get off the subway (Clarke Street Station, Brooklyn) and he told me how long the trip would take. I took the subway that evening, shot my photos in Brooklyn, and arrived back in Times Square around 11:30 that night. A great adventure in New York.