For a person like me, who loves New York City, from the glitz to the gutter, the challenge of this article is to limit a selection to just five locations for a “great” photo shoot. I will restrict my selections to locations you can get to without a permit or official permission and also try to appeal to tourists, as well as the bona fides who daily step along these streets. Sure, I could mention the Manhattan view you get from across the river as you spin out of the Lincoln Tunnel on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, or the sunsets you see looking back at the city from Rockaway, or even that neon-lit corner of Chinatown, but few people visiting the city on holiday will be going out of their way for those moments. Fortunately, these treasures and many, many others are still there for the intrepid and the insiders, but for the sake of this article, I’ll grab the fruit halfway up the tree.
Top of the Rock
Incredible views from the top of a skyscraper are a must-do, in my opinion, and the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building is well worth the time and expense. For an alternative, and to see the Empire State Building in its skyline context—and for a great view of Central Park—I recommend the view from the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The rooftop of this well-recognized address is a pleasant spot to relax, as opposed to the Empire State Building, which can be a bit cramped and crowded. When I first visited 30 Rock, admittedly many years ago, the benches and shrubbery gave it an almost park-like feel and there were no additional barriers to inhibit your view. Now the roof is ringed with a clear protective Plexiglas, which is understandable, but you will need to shoot through that or squeeze your lens into the space that separates the large panels. Either way, it makes for a more pleasant experience than the cage-like bars on the ESB observation deck. No tripods or “professional” equipment are allowed without permission—just buy your ticket and enjoy.
Calvary and Green-Wood Cemeteries
Okay, so not the first choice for wedding photographers, but I find this to be the quintessential New York City scene, with tombstones in the foreground and skyline behind. Use a telephoto lens to compress them within the frame and you’re talkin’ photo gold. The southern and western parts of the borough of Queens are filled with huge cemeteries of many faiths and each has unique viewpoints, but where the Long Island Expressway meets the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and then rises over Long Island City to then dive down into the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, you’ll find the four massive Calvary Cemeteries. From their elevated vantage point you can see the Manhattan skyline and incorporate it into your frame in a variety of ways, or look to the nearby steeples, power plants, or highway overpasses to create shots resonating with urban mythos. Head down to Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, and you’ll find a pastoral setting compared to Calvary. While the city skyline is distant, the quiet beauty and natural colors offer many photo opportunities. Also, from Basquiat to Bernstein, and especially for Civil War and baseball history buffs, Green-Wood is the final resting place of many famous New Yorkers.
The Circle Line Cruise
There is a lot of water around New York City, but it seems that few people think of this when they consider New York—and that is shame, because some of the best images of the city can be found from upon or across the water. Again, I’m not suggesting you head out to Coney Island, Orchard Beach, or Flushing Bay, although if you did, you would be sure to find endless photo opportunities. A simple trip on the Staten Island ferry might suffice. However, spend a bit more time and money and go for a ride on the Circle Line. Not only will you get spectacular views of the skyline from all sides of the island of Manhattan, but you will get a close-up of the Statue of Liberty and pass under the iconic Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges, as well as the Edward Koch, Robert F. Kennedy, and George Washington bridges. That alone could fill up an SD card, but depending on which excursion you take, you can also just cruise up the East River with views of Brooklyn, Queens, the United Nations building, and all the other wondrous, yet not-so recognized views of Manhattan and The Bronx.
Greenwich Village or Brooklyn Heights
There are parts of “the Village” that look like every other city in the world—bustling, dirty, loud—and then there are those perfectly quaint tree-lined streets of row houses that will take you out of the hustle and settle you into a tea-sipping moment on a stoop or even transport you to the day of clacking horse hooves pulling carriages on cobblestones. Find one of those streets, perhaps Commerce or Barrow Streets or up by Perry Street, and wander until inspiration strikes, perhaps in the form of apple blossoms dropping like snow, or a Village denizen smoking on a fire escape. For people-watching and picturesque corners, it does not get any better. Similarly, head across the river to Brooklyn Heights and find Pineapple or Cranberry Streets and soak up the beautiful brownstones and neighborhood quiet and then double your pleasure with a short stroll to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for sweeping views of New York Harbor, the downtown financial district skyline, and the bridges of the East River.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Central Park. Yes, it can be crowded in summer, barren in winter and dangerous at night, but for me there is no more special place in the world on a warm spring afternoon than Central Park. And the locations to photograph are too numerous to count, from the Sheep Meadow, with its view back toward the Midtown skyscrapers, to the Bow Bridge, photographed and filmed so many times, to Belvedere Castle, to Literary Walk, to Strawberry Fields... you get the idea. Again, people-watching with street performers, softball games, and everything in between is a must, but if you prefer a mini-escape, head to the Ravine and the Loch for a wooded retreat and photograph the streams and cascades that feel as natural as can be but are really the engineering art of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. If you bring your long lens, you may even get a shot of the hawks or coyotes that have been known to shelter in this urban forest.
Off the Beaten Path
I just want to throw in two more locations, somewhat off the main tourist routes but certainly not hard to find. The first is the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Jumel Terrace, a beautiful street of 50 row houses from the 1890s, which is adjacent to the 1765 mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan. These locations are in Washington Heights and offer a commanding view of the Harlem River. Also check out the view of the Manhattan Bridge from Washington and Water Streets in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO. From tourists to high-end fashion shoots to car commercials, this view, with the Empire State Building framed by the arch of the bridge, is well-known and well worth the trip.
You are an incredible writer and photographer, John! Thank you for these beautiful locations and tips. For anyone looking for more places to explore and shoot, I invite you to check out an app that I am working for called Explorest. We feature over 150+ locations in New York. Seeking to aid both travelers and photographers to discover and explore the most incredible places around the world, we just launched in New York and we’ll be expanding to Shanghai and many more places soon! We hope to make it much easier for travelers and photographers alike to find and experience these locations for themselves.
I had a treasure trove of photos that I shot during the 50s, and developed by hand, these were shots of the Bronx that does
not exist today. All taken with a 35MM Welti I bought at Peerless Photo on 43 and Lex. During my divorce in 82 my exwife
tossed out into the garbage all my work. Photos and negatives. Lots of pix's taken of NYC, from Subway to ferry.
Franco...I'm not sure how to respond-- the 80's were a %#&@$!! Such a personal loss and a loss for archivists and local historians, but one of the glories of photography is that the present, even the smallest moment, holds beauty and I find when looking at photos from just 10 years ago, that change in NYC is a constant and you can create wonderful documents of what exists now. (Just hide that hard drive from anyone who may want to trash it!) Thanks for reading and commenting. Where did you photograph mostly? I lived in The Bronx in the 80s-90s and have many photos from Mott Haven, Bruckner Blvd and 3rd Ave Bridge and that neighborhood is also changing quickly.
Central Park’s Literary Row, in autumn is a mirrored photo :) I think it's good as art and bad as a place descriptive shot.
Thanks for the comment Alexey...you're right, although the actual view up Literary Row is almost as symmetrical as that mirrorred shot and a little artistic twist is warranted sometimes, no? Good catch. Do you have any favorite spots to shoot in NYC?
I spent an entire afternoon shooting several streets of brownstones in Brooklyn last April. It was the ultimate spring time to catch trees and flowerbeds in the best shape. Your other spots are good landmarks to consider.
Bstrom...Absolutely. No need to leave the neighborhood for great photography possibilities.
BRAVO! We are always looking for shooting suggestions while in the city. Looking forward to OPTIC 2017 and hopefully one year OLYMPUS will be present.
Thank you Jarine. Yes, looking forward to OPTIC, let us know as it approaches and happy to talk off-the-beaten-path locations to photograph NYC.
Great job, John!
Thank you Ryan Z! How is the new "Ryan and Rogue" show coming along?
I disagree with the author on one point. The ESB is better IMO from a photogs perspective. The plexiglass is a BIG problem, plus the fact that you cannot include any of the buildings below you (5 or 6 blocks worth at least), you have to go for the telephoto look... Its a great view no doubt but the ESB is better with its open views and minimal lower obstructions. Good article though!
Thanks Doug...Good point about looking straight down and about the plexiglass, although I found I could shoot between the panels at Top of the Rock, of course that depends on your lens choice. Truth is, you really can't beat the ESB, it is a breathtaking view in all directions but for a chnage of pace, I offered 30 Rock. I believe the observatory at One World Trade Center is enclosed by glass, but I'm sure it is still a spectacular view too
If anyone has other suggestions of accessible observation decks of skyscrapers, I'd love to hear from you. Thanks
My vote goes with John and the Rock. It's the best place to photograph the ESB, mid- to lower-Manhattan as well as Central Park and the GWB. The ESB is so cramped and I'd rather have the ESB in the pic than the Rock. But you can get a much better shot of the Crystler bldg from the ESB.
Thanks for the feedback KDJ, good points....this article on the Nikon D7200 has a few shots of the Chrysler (and the Flatiron) taken from the ESB.
Having been to NYC many times (born and raised, now living in AZ) I would have to add the Brooklyn Bridge. There are so many vantage points to shoot this iconic bridge. You need to get there very early in the morning or very late at night if you want minimal pedestrian traffic. Then again, sometimes pedestrians help make the scene.
This was a great article with some fantastic location suggestions. I agree with the author, choosing just five would be close to impossible.
Laura...no doubt, the NYC bridges (and the views from them) are great, especially the iconic cabling of the Brooklyn Bridge. Thanks so much for your feedback.
Thanks for the location tips. NYC, and if course, B&H are on my bucket list of places to visit.
What does 30 Rock consider "professional equipment"? Would a Canon 5D get through?
Ralph! I can't believe you've yet to visit B&H! Make sure you let us know when that day does come, we'd love to meet you. I'm fairly certain that a DSLR of any size would be fine, but when you start to put a video rig around it, have a Pelican case with several lenses and a tripod, that's when they start to ask for permits.
It would be great to plan a visit around Manhattanhenge, see you, Alan, Todd, and others; perhaps there's an Event Space that's Canon oriented or general photography related.
I have been there plenty of times and just about any camera will get through. I get through with a Lowepro packpack with all my gear. Off-camera lighting may be a problem and you certainly cannot bring a tripod or monopod. There are plently of ways to 'brace' your camera for those spectacular shots. I got most of mine handheld, with no problem at all.
5D no problem
Great article and photos John! And good shoutout to my favorite view of the City from Rockaway!
Thanks Rich Bomb....can't take credit for all the photos but do appreciate the compliments and yes...love the view(s) from Rockaway and the ferry out from Manhattan is one of the best hours you can spend ...with camera or without.