Step forward by stepping back

52from52 - Week 19

Picture info: ISO 3200, 35mm, f/1.8, 1/200sec, -1 Exposure step

Week 19 (12/9/2013 – 12/15/2013): Top of the Rock Observation Deck

Picture taken on 12/12/2013 at 5:15 PM

Picture description:

This week I finally got the chance to make a return visit to Top of the Rock.  My first visit was six months ago and was only two weeks after I purchased my Nikon.  Since my last visit I’ve often looked back at the pictures I took and thought about the many things that I could have done better.  I’ve learned many lessons over the past six months, in part because of this blog but also because I’ve immersed myself in photography.  Articles, YouTube tutorials and experimenting with different  techniques have been my main sources for learning.  One other source of learning that might surprise you is instagram.  I often flip through different hashtags looking for ideas of what to shoot or to see how people photograph certain subjects or places.  Instagram has photographers of every level ranging from the professional to amateur, and or dare I say serial selfie taker.  Before and after my trip I looked through the hashtag #topoftherock to see the kind of pictures people took during their visit.  Besides the selfies and couple pictures I noticed that nearly all of the pictures looked identical with the exception of changes to the sky or filter the person used on the picture.  After seeing how people have been over-sharing the same picture I knew that I had to find some way to differentiate mine from the rest.

During my visit even though my goal was to take an original picture, I couldn’t help myself from taking the classic Top of the Rock picture.  I found myself taking the same kind of picture over and over again partially to make sure I got a good one, but also because in person it’s just that hypnotizing of a view.  After about an hour of scanning the horizon for a unique view I came to the conclusion that from my vantage point there really was none.  It didn’t matter where I aligned the buildings, I had already seen that picture, or one very similar, shared countless times.  At that moment I decided to take a step back from my coveted position to see what new perspectives I could find.  Within a matter of seconds I was rewarded for my decision.  After stepping back I saw that all the people taking pictures were casting silhouettes in front of the very same view I was just photographing.  I spent the next couple of minutes wading in and out of the crowd to try and get the a picture that met my satisfaction.  Eventually the 20 degree weather got the best of me and I decided to call it a night.  On my way home while thinking about my night, I realized the valuable lesson that I just learned.  It’s very easy to get drawn into taking the obvious picture. The only way my photography is going to continue to improve or “move forward” is if I regularly remind myself to take a “step back” and find a new perspective on what’s right in front of me.

Photography Concepts:

Although I used the previous section to talk about avoiding the obvious shot, it doesn’t mean the classic Top of the Rock pictures aren’t good ones.  For the purpose of this blog I wanted to challenge myself to get something unique but it leaves the question, how do you take a good picture at Top of the Rock?  As I mentioned earlier I often look back at the pictures I took during my first visit and dwell on what I could have done better.  Let me share with you some of the lessons I learned between my two visits in terms of taking pictures at Top of the Rock.

Example of the classic Top of the Rock Pic

Example of the classic Top of the Rock Pic

The first thing you have to ask yourself is what kind of picture are you looking to take?  Do you want take pictures of only the buildings or are you planning on featuring yourself or friends in the picture with the buildings in the background?  Knowing your subject is important to so you can determine the time you’re going to go and where you should set up shop once you’re there. Let’s start with talking about taking pictures of people.  If you’re taking pictures that will feature yourself or your friends the location is less critical but the time that you arrive is important.  In this case you’ll want to go about an hour before sunset this way you have time to take nice pictures in softer light and without flash.  In my opinion flash is the worst when taking pictures at Top of the Rock.  Unless you’re an absolute pro and know how to compensate correctly flash tends to wash out the city backdrop, which is one of the main reasons you’re at Top of the Rock right?  In order to feature the cityscape behind you, don’t use flash, especially if you’re taking pictures on the 68-69th floor behind the glass.  Once you find a nice location play around, take pictures of you subjects looking out towards the buildings or doing some forced perspectives (google it).  If you want to get more original, take pictures of your subjects from a distance.  Perhaps have your subject stand looking out towards the city and snap your picture focusing on them through the busy crowd? As was the theme of this blog, once you take a step back you’ll be surprised what new perspectives you’ll see.

Example of a unique Top of the Rock Picture

Example of a unique Top of the Rock Picture

What about the settings to use or not use when taking pictures of people, other than flash?  One option is to use the smallest aperture your camera will allow which will give you nice background blur and permit you to use a low ISO.  The negatives of this is the exposure of your cityscape background might be overexposed.  The solution, shoot your picture in such a way that you’ll be able to only edit the background later to correct the overexposure (don’t forget to shoot in RAW to enable this).  Option two in terms of aperture would be to use a small aperture which if you took my advice and came close to sunset, is going to force you to use a high ISO.  The negatives, you’ll have a grainer photo but the positive is you will have a more detailed cityscape background.  If you’re only looking to share this picture on something like instagram a high ISO image is fine.  Even with the wide aperture you still might have an issue with overexposure for the background so compose your picture accordingly.  The last setting I mention is try to use a focal length of 50mm+, I won’t go into detail about why but if you want to know why check out the video below from one of my favorite YouTube sources.

Now let me talk about what to do if you’re looking to take pictures of the buildings.  First, I recommend going to the 70th floor and trying to lock down a position in the center area where you don’t have the bottom floors jutting into your picture.  Getting this prime location is even more important if you’re using a wide angle lens.  Just like shooting people, I think the best time to take pictures of buildings is right before and during sunset but you can go any time especially if there are nice mid-day clouds.  For now I’ll talk about what to do at sunset.  Going at sunset or at night really forces your hand in terms of camera settings.  Unlike taking pictures of people, when you use a small aperture there aren’t many positives.  Your plane of focus is going to be narrow even with the buildings being far away.  What’s going to happen is one building might appear in perfect focus while the others are a little blurry.  You can still take a good picture using small apertures but if your goal is to get a crisp image that you can blow up on perhaps a canvas,  I don’t recommend using small apertures.  What are your options then?  Option one, you can boost your ISO but this is going to still leave you with the problem of not having a crisp image for enlarging later.  Option two, bring a tripod and shoot with a small aperture and slow shutter speed.  This seems simple right? Well tripods are not allowed at Top of the Rock but there are ways around this rule.  As you can see in this week’s featured picture people bring tripods.  The key is to bring one small enough to fit in your bag, and one that has a small leg spread so it can sit on top of the cement pillars.  This is also why getting a good location is critical, there are a limited number of cement pillars and or locations that can facilitate the use of a tripod.  I’m not going to go into the all settings specific to tripods because if it’s pretty simple, small aperture, low ISO, slow shutter.  Two things I will recommend though  is use the multiple focus point setting which will grab more buildings in focus, and underexpose your image.  One thing not to do, which believe it or not I saw someone do, don’t use flash while you’re shooting buildings on a tripod.  Maybe I’m missing something and if I am please comment and correct me, but I don’t see any positive in using flash on a tripod when you’re not taking pictures of motion or people.

ISO 2500, 35mm, f/7.1, 1/40 sec, no tripod

ISO 2500, 35mm, f/7.1, 1/40 sec, no tripod

These are some of the lessons/tips I’ve learned from my two trips to Top of the Rock.  I still haven’t gotten what I would consider a great classic Top of the Rock picture, but that’s mainly because I haven’t brought a tripod or wide angle lens.  I think I’ll take at least one more trip in a few months and try my hand using more than just my 35mm lens and perhaps a tripod.  Until then I hope the lessons I’ve learned and shared so far help you shoot some great pictures at Top of the Rock, have fun and remember take a step back!

Big Head Focal Length by CameraRecToby:

‘Tis the Season

Picture info: ISO 100, 35mm, f/1.8, 1/100 sec

Picture info: ISO 100, 35mm, f/1.8, 1/100 sec

Week 18 (12/2/2013 – 12/8/2013): Bryant Park, New York City
Picture taken on 12/7/2013 at 4:46 PM

Picture description:

It’s hard to top New York City during the Holiday season.  Everywhere you turn there are festive window displays, giant Christmas trees and glowing lights filling the night sky.  If you’ve been reading my blog from the beginning you might remember my week 2 post, “A Day of Reflection” where I visited Bryant Park.   As I said in week 2, Bryant Park is one of my favorite locations in New York City.  One of the best things about Bryant Park is how it transforms throughout the year with each season.  During the winter months the center grass area turns into an ice skating rink with a beautiful panoramic view of midtown New York.  Surrounding the rink is a network of stores in in the form of tiny huts.  As you can imagine this winter wonderland attracts visitors from all over.  In case you didn’t guess by now Bryant Park is obviously where I got this week’s photo, but before I talk about my time in the park let me tell you how I ended up there.

In the beginning of the week I wasn’t sure what to photograph so I threw out a status on Facebook to get some ideas.  One of the suggestions I got was to capture the “hustle and bustle” of holiday shoppers, thanks Laura!  After getting this suggestion Bryant Park and its “Winter Village” instantly came to mind.  Since I pass the park during my commute to work I stopped in on the way home to scout for a good picture.  After briefly walking around I found what I thought would be a great angle for a long exposure.  The picture I had in mind would feature the Christmas tree centered between the store huts and shoppers in the foreground.  The reason I had a long exposure in mind was so I could get all of the shoppers in the foreground to blur as they moved around.  With my picture planned there were only two more questions I needed answered, could I use a tripod in the park, and could I fit everything in the frame of my 35mm lens?  I got one of my questions answered the next day after emailing the company that manages Bryant Park.  The tripod was permitted; I just couldn’t use it on the ice, too bad right?  The last question wouldn’t be answered until I got on location with my camera.

This brings me to the day of the picture.  Let me give you some advice, if you’re ever in New York City during December; don’t walk up 42nd street unless you want the full tourist experience.  I usually avoid 42nd street but for some reason I decided to take it after getting out of port authority, bad move!  I literally felt like I was an extra in the Walking Dead.  The streets were so packed that you couldn’t move any faster than at a zombie pace.  I fought through the crowd thinking it’s okay I’ll have space once I get to the park, wrong.   When I finally got to the park I was greeted with an even larger crowd than was on 42nd street.  I knew this might be a problem for my picture but I remained optimistic until I got to my spot.  Once I fought my way to my planned location it was time to answer my last question, will everything fit in frame…and the answer was no.  As you can imagine this was very disappointing, but I couldn’t give up so I starting thinking how I could still get this picture but from another angle?   I started walking around, and then while I was standing in front of the tree it hit me.  Just like in my last visit to Bryant Park, why not use a reflection to capture my subject?  Look closely at the Christmas ball and you’ll see the reverse angle of my original picture.   Now it’s your turn, try to capture a creative reflection shot!  When you do use the hashtag #52from52_wk18 and post it on Instagram.

Photography Concepts:

There wasn’t really anything tricky about capturing this picture from a photography technique standpoint.  This week’s picture was made mostly via creativity which is less of a concept and more of an attribute that each individual photographer possesses.  This is why I threw out the challenge for people to take their own reflection shots, I’d like to see them and see how your creativity is displayed.  All that being said even though this week’s picture wasn’t too technical I can still briefly talk about the picture I was originally going to take and some of the lessons I learned.

Original Picture Idea

Above is picture from the position I originally planned to take a this week’s photograph from.  As you can see it took a portrait composition to capture the tree and the crowd in one frame.  I could have taken two pictures and stitched them together via photoshop (definitely a future blog subject) but I didn’t know if that would work well with a long exposure.  I also could have tried to get my long exposure from this portrait composition but I wasn’t happy with the way the stores were getting cut off.  There was also one more issue with my long exposure idea that I didn’t learn until after the fact.  Dealing with a crowd of this density doesn’t really provide the look I was going for when using a long exposure.  Of the pictures I did take via long exposure, I learned that at 30 seconds the crowd disappeared and just blotched out the area they were standing in.  Even when I took shorter exposures (4-10 seconds) the crowd’s density still didn’t allow you to clearly see these were people I was photographing.  Below is an example of a 5 second exposure .  This concept of using long exposures to capture the movement of people is something I’m going to experiment with more in the future so stay tuned.

Picture specs: ISO 100, 35mm, f/4.5, 5 secs

Picture specs: ISO 100, 35mm, f/4.5, 5 secs