“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York!” The theme song of Scorsese’s film New York, New York by Frank Sinatra became an instant hit in 1977. The song implies that New York is the place to be. Indeed, in the past, the city has attracted many people, among them (jazz) musicians, fashionistas, businessmen, or just the common guy, all looking to pursue their ‘American dream’. It is one of those cities everyone must have visited at least once in their life, there is no way around it. It has been called ‘the center of the world’ many times, as it houses the United Nations headquarters, one of the main hubs in the financial world, and Times Square, also dubbed ‘crossroads of the world’. It is a meeting place for scientists, artists, world leaders and traders. It is this city I will be shortly visiting, for the first time, as a prequel to a scientific conference in Atlantic City afterwards.
I was in doubt whether to bring my photography gear to this trip. I only had three full days to spend in New York, and I wanted to see most of the city, so there would be little time in preparing and taking great pictures. In the end I just grabbed the bag with me, since I would have regretted otherwise. I had the following gear with me all the time:
- Canon EOS 1100D camera body (very basic model, crop sensor, only usable up to ISO 1600),
- Canon EF-S 18-55mm \(f\)/3.5-5.6 (no IS),
- Canon EF-S 10-18mm \(f\)/4.5-5.6 (with IS),
- Canon EF 50mm \(f\)/1.4 (no IS),
- Canon EF 70-300mm \(f\)/4-5.6 (no IS).
This is all I could carry comfortably. I brought no tripod, because I just wouldn’t have had the time to take proper pictures with it. The following pictures have been only slightly edited in Adobe Lightroom; click on them to get a large version. If you have any comments or tips, you can leave them at the bottom of this page.
We arrived in the afternoon and immediately went for a walk in the city center of Manhattan. Our hotel1 was close to the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and Grand Central station. One of the first pictures I took, was one of the Chrysler Building. I had to get used again to shooting in manual mode: maybe I should have used an aperture of \(f\)/8 or \(f\)/11 to get the building in the background nice and sharp, but I liked the result nevertheless.
42nd Street is perhaps the most scenic street in the whole of Manhattan. It passes by the Chrysler Building, Grand Central station, Bryant Park and Times Square. We briefly went inside Grand Central, its main hall being a popular and iconic poster subject. I wanted the people to be slightly blurred by motion, so I had to go up to a shutter speed of 1/4. I used the ultra wide angle lens with IS, and held it as firm as possible. On the screen of my body the image looked sharp, but now I notice it is slightly unsharp.
Further down 42nd Street, Bryant Park had already turned into a winter wonderland. Cosy and wooden Christmas shops and a spacious ice rink filled the park with a wonderful atmosphere. For the following picture, a shutter speed of 1/30 was enough to capture a slight motion blur of the ice skaters. I used the ultra wide lens to be able to get both the skaters, the rink and the buildings at the back.
Between 42nd and 47th Street, at the crossing of 7th Avenue and Broadway, Times Square rises and shines bright. Over the top, center of capitalism, surreal, even magical. No street lanterns needed here, as it is illuminated day and night. From the steps of the TKTS booth, you have a mighty overview of the place, like you’re holding all of capitalism in your hand.
We continued towards the Rockefeller neighbourhood, a place with its own kind of atmosphere that is difficult to describe. It is a modern place with rather high buildings, it has some small parks and water ponds, the famous Christmas tree was still covered in scaffolding, but the ice rink was already open to the public. One of the most well-known American broadcasting companies, NBC, also has its headquarters in one of the main buildings over there. The GE (General Electric) Building rises above all other in the Rockefeller center. You can go to its top to witness a magnificent view of the city; maybe we do that on another day. I was pushing the limits of my camera here. I used the highest usable ISO (it can go up to 6400, but then there is more noise than image) and the widest aperture of my wide angle lens, and still I had to use a shutter speed of 1/30. A tripod would have come in handy here.
When leaving the Rockefeller center and stepping onto the pavements of 5th Avenue, for a brief moment only, you believe being in some European city. There is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a church in complete gothic revival style, towering 110 meters high. With this, it is almost as high as the monumental cathedral in Antwerp in Belgium (just around 10 meters short), which seems incredibly high when standing in front of it, but now Saint Patrick’s cathedral almost disappears between the surrounding buildings. Now I was really struggling to find manageable exposure settings, and I am very thankful for the wonderful image stabilization in my lens. I did quite some perspective correction here in post-processing; therefore, due to the aperture of \(f\)/4.5, the towers of the church are not that sharp.
On the way back to the hotel, I wanted to capture the statues of Grand Central station together with the top of the Chrysler Building. The only problem: I had to zoom to around 40mm to be able to capture it. The kit lens was clearly no option. The only lens with IS was my wide angle one. So the only choice I had, in the end, was using the 50mm, go and stand across the street, and open up the aperture all the way to \(f\)/2. Luckily I was positioned quite far away from both the statues and the Chrysler Building, so they both ended up being quite in focus. Still the image is a tad unsharp…
The next day it was raining cats and dogs. Nevertheless we went out early to visit lower Manhattan. We walked across Brooklyn Bridge, through Ground Zero and Wall Street and saw the Statue of Liberty only slightly through a pack of clouds and mist. Since my camera is not sealed, I didn’t dare to take any pictures.
On the third day it was still cloudy, but at least the rain had disappeared. We decided to go for a walk on the famous High Line. It is only open to the public for around five years now, but it is already a star attraction (at least according to Lonely Planet) in the city. In a very succesful setting of concrete, wood, planted wilderness and hipsters, one is constantly walking at approximately four meters above street level, which gives you unique views of the city and the passing traffic below.
When walking back towards 5th Avenue, we passed by Madison Square Garden, where I took the following picture. A typical scene in New York: lots of pedestrians, buildings, billboards, and little food trucks.
When we stopped at the Empire State Building a bit further down the street, we saw a huge crowd standing on the sidewalks of 5th Avenue. It was November 11 that day, celebration of World War I’s ending, but called Veterans Day here in the United States. Hundreds of military personnel, fanfares and army trucks were all going north on 5th Avenue in a magnificent parade. American flags, little and big, could be bought at almost every corner. I deliberately did not increase the ISO for the following picture, as I wanted a slower shutter speed to get slight movement in the flags.
We turned our backs to the crowds and went for a walk in Central Park further up north. At first the sky was still overcast, as it had been all day, but soon the sun came through, which revealed the magical autumn colours in the park. The combination of peaceful nature and very dense groups of buildings in a single picture, is something you can only find here in New York. I took up the ISO to 400 as we’d been in through a darker area of the park before I took the following pictures, and I forgot to lower it again…
When approaching the heart of the park, you come across Bethesda Terrace, which is the background setting for many Hollywood motion pictures. At this point, the sun came through completely, and we sat down on the benches around the fountain to enjoy the sun’s warmth and light. Two Chinese (Korean?) people were taking their wedding pictures around the fountain. I took my ‘spy’ 70-300mm telephoto lens and took quite a nice picture of the couple from a distance.
For a short period of time, the sky was almost completely cleared of clouds. On our way to the Strawberry Fields memorial, I took the following picture of one of the most iconic apartment buildings in New York: San Remo. The plants in the front are quite soft, so perhaps I should have closed the aperture a bit more.
At Strawberry Fields soms street musicians were expressing their sympathy for the late John Lennon, who was shot in this part of the park by Mark Chapman (who was apparently holding a paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye at that moment). The memorial itself is a sober round mosaic with the word Imagine. In the corner of my eye I saw some hippies smoking weed. At this point in writing this story, I notice that I get ‘strange’ ISO values out of my camera (e.g. 125 and 320). I’m sure I only used 100, 200, 400, … but never these intermediate values. I should investigate this.
At the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, a popular spot for runners and joggers, we took an exit at the east side of the park to take a quick look at the famous Guggenheim building. I wanted to go inside to stare up into the main hall, but there was a security check almost immediately after the entrance. As we already did the MoMA yesterday, when it was raining, we decided not to go in, as we had still a lot more to see.
We had to hurry, as we wanted to catch the sunset at the Top of the Rock I talked to you about earlier. We arrived at the building around 4PM, which is perfect, since the sun sets around 4:30PM here. Unfortunately there were no free tickets for the next hour, so we had to wait until 6PM to go up. Night pictures it is then. A lot of people were trying to take pictures, many of them trying to light up the city with their built-in flashes - auwtch! There are little options here for the photographer: either use a sturdy tripod with exposures of multiple seconds, or bump up the ISO (noise), open up the aperture (yes, a loss of depth of field here) and with the help of IS you can pull off with shutter speeds of a 1/10 to 1/5 of a second, with the danger of blurry images. It was going to be the last option for me. There is only one use case for flash in this situation, that is if you want to take a picture of a person with the city in the background; in that case, bring in a weak flash (maybe 1/8 of its normal power) to slightly light up the person.
On the fourth and final day, we decided to start our tour in the Flatiron district, and walk through Soho and Chinatown back to lower Manhattan. Unfortunately the weather was cloudy again, with a chance of rain, so again no ideal weather situations to take pictures.
The Flatiron Building itself is really a peculiar building. It stands at the corner of Madison Square park at a busy crossing of 5th Avenue and Broadway. You really have to be over there to experience how thin this building actually is. On the front, there is place for only one single window per floor.
At approximately 10th Street we encountered a very nice and quiet neighbourhood with these typical steps leading up to the front doors of the houses. The name plates revealed who lived there: lawyers, doctors, PhDs (really?!)… So this is where money gets you settled.
Further south we went into Soho, which has an atmosphere of its own. It was still early in the morning, almost all shops and bars were still closed, but this is clearly a lively and trendy spot. Famous for this neighbourhood, are the external metal emergency staircases, which you see almost everywhere.
When we reached the 9/11 memorial site for the second time on this trip. The new buildings of the World Trade Center - One World Trade Center being the tallest building in the USA: 541 meters! - surround the memorial site. There are two very big square reflection pools where the Twin Towers once stood. Water is constantly falling into these pools, and then into a seemingly bottomless hole in the middle. Around the pools the names of all 9/11 victims are engraved. I deliberately didn’t look up what these pools symbolize; they just make you feel humble and silent. As it started to rain slightly at this moment, I had to take the pictures in quite a rush.
We decided to go into the memorial museum itself to escape the wet weather. It costs quite a lot to enter the museum - I think it was $24 - which I find odd; I think everyone should have the right at all times to come down there (it is located mostly underground) and think, contemplate, reflect, heck even pray. Anyway, the museum experience is a mighty one, and worth the price. It takes you through the entire happenings of that unfortunate Tuesday in September in a setting of the original World Trade Center foundations. There is even a room decorated with portraits of all the 9/11 victims, and their names are constantly read aloud. On the other side you find a fire truck that was found underneath the debris, and of which the entire crew perished… There was little light in the museum, so again: high ISO, open aperture, IS, and slow shutter speed.
The now broken sphere that once stood between the Twin Towers is now placed in Battery Park, at the extreme lower end of Manhattan. From this park you have a view of both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. This time there was no mist, so I used my telephoto lens at 300mm to capture the picture below. The cranes in the background are a real pity, as they take back a lot of the grandeur the statue radiates. We didn’t have enough time to take the ferry. Since I was shooting at 300mm (eq. 480mm on a full frame sensor) the shutter speed had to be very short.
Going round the tip of lower Manhattan, following the Hudson river against the current, you notice how this area has been completely redesigned. New parks, a cycling and walking path along the river (the ‘Esplanadem’), and refurbished harbours. During the walk, you also have a magnificent view of Jersey City at the other side of the Hudson.
Our short citytrip had come to an end. The next day we would take the train to Atlantic City, with a short stop in Philadelphia, to attend the IEEE ICDM conference. New York was quite an experience, very different from the European cities I have visited. At first sight, the city is just a mix of geometrically organized traffic lanes and iconic buildings, but the squares, parks, museums and other attractions make the city worthwhile to be visited. Still I’m more a fan of London and Paris, for example, where history is breathing through every street.
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Pod 39, a very clean hotel equipped with bunk beds. The rooms are small, but quite comfortable. ↩