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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.