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How to Take Great Photos of New York City Part 1

By NYIP Staff on September 16th, 2012

Readers will notice that this two-part series on photo tips for visitors to New York City was written prior to the September 11 attack that demolished the World Trade Center. Perhaps we will rewrite these articles in the future to remove mention of the Twin Towers and images that show them. But not right now. The 110-story towers were part of New York's skyline for almost thirty years, and we don't feel that it's imperative to erase them, or their remarkable place in the skyline of lower Manhattan just yet.

As most readers of this piece also know, there's been a dramatic drop-off in tourism in New York City since September 11. New York City is still a great place to live and work, and to visit. We hope these tips whet your appetite. When you see the World Trade Center in a photo here or there in these articles, take a moment to reflect on the bravery so many showed in an effort to rescue the innocent and unsuspecting victims of this horrible attack. New Yorkers will never forget the victims and will remain forever grateful to all who assisted in the rescue effort.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

New York is one of the world's top travel destinations for tourists and sightseers. Every year, millions of visitors come from across the country and around the world to enjoy the wonders that we New Yorkers take for granted. And when they visit New York, tourists take lots of photos - billions probably - of the sights, the lights, the scene, the people...and naturally, of their families and travel companions. (Our students generally drop in at our offices located halfway between the United Nations and Grand Central Station.)

Many tourists come home with OK snapshots, but if they want really great pictures they often have to buy postcards or books. Well, you're a photographer, so when you come to New York you should be able to take home your own great pictures. To help you, we've prepared a series of articles that will appear on this site for the next couple of months.

Realize this: When you come to New York, you're coming to the best 24-hour-a-day photo opportunity in the world! We want to help you get the most fun and the best photographs, whether you spend a day here, or two days, or more.

Before we start, we want to let you soon-to-be first-time visitors in on an important secret: As we said before, we at NYI get the opportunity to welcome lots of students who come from out of town. And all first-time visitors tell us a version of the same story:

"I had no idea New York City was such a great place to visit! The people are friendly, it's easy to travel around the City, and it's not at all threatening."

The friendly "natives" are the biggest surprise for many visitors. But it's true - most of the time, in most of the places, most of us big-city New Yorkers are just like people everywhere. Easy-going, friendly and eager to help. So, pack your bags, come to the Big Apple, and expect to have a good time!

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

Now, let's get to work. This month and next month, we're going to cover the top sights that you'll want to visit here in Manhattan. For the most part, these are the "must-sees" for all tourists - but we've added special tips for photographers. Tips that will assure that you'll come home with great photos.

After we cover the best-known sights, we'll conclude this series with an installment devoted to some additional sights that are a little off the beaten path but worth a special trip for photographers, so that if you have a little longer time to visit our fair city, or if you've been here before and you're returning with a desire to experience something new, you'll find plenty of ideas to add to your itinerary.

If you haven't done so already, we suggest that you read our two-part article on travel photography. It was featured on this Website some months back. But in case you missed it, you'll find it in the Reference Section this month too. It's filled with suggestions concerning what gear to pack, what film to use, and how to get good scenic pictures wherever you go. Armed with this general information, let's move on to the specifics of how to get great pictures in New York City.

Let's start with a Travel Tip that's perfect for photographers visiting New York:

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

The red double-decker buses that circle the City's tourist sites are worth the price. If you have a full day to sightsee, you pay one hefty fare for a ticket that lets you ride all day and hop on and off whenever you please for as long as you please at each of the tourist sights around town. This is much better for photographers than a regular bus tour since it lets you spend more time where you wish, without being herded on and off the bus by a tight schedule.

Plus, you can ride on the top of the bus and enjoy your own elevated shooting platform as you ride through Times Square or alongside Central Park. (More about those sights next month.)

These double-deckers are especially great in good weather because many have the second deck open to the sky, which is perfect for making photographs as you roll through New York's skyscraper canyons. But even on rainy or cold days, there are double-deckers that have an enclosed top deck so you can still shoot out the window from a nice, high vantage point.

Full-day passes run around $35.

To find these bus services, either check at the front desk of your hotel, or look for them at any major tourist sight - they're hard to miss! You will spend some time sitting in traffic between the key sights, but hey, that's New York. Use the time to meet your fellow tourists, or read the paper, or do what most tourists do - people watch. New Yorkers are pretty much oblivious to these buses, so you'll be able to observe us in our natural habitat as we really are.

Ready to get started? This month, we're going to begin at the bottom of Manhattan - historic Lower Manhattan.

Sights to see:

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean
  • Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island - by ferry from Battery Park
  • Staten Island Ferry (free for pedestrians!)
  • Battery Park
  • Wall Street and the Stock Exchange
  • Trinity Church
  • The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian
  • Bowling Green (North America's oldest park)
  • The Esplanade at Battery Park City
  • The Museum of Jewish Heritage
  • The World Trade Center's Twin Towers (they're both taller than the Empire State Building...about third highest in the world today)
  • The World Financial Center

That's a lot of sightseeing, so you can easily spend the entire day down here. We think this is absolutely the best single spot to visit in New York City - the tip of Manhattan. All the attractions we've listed above are within a few blocks of one another...all within easy walking distance. And there's something to fascinate every member of the family.

How do you get to Lower Manhattan? All the double-decker buses stop in Lower Manhattan. But if you don't have the inclination or the time to take those buses, here's our next tip:

Since a cab ride from mid-Manhattan to the Battery runs about $15 one-way, this is a perfect opportunity to ride the famous New York City Subway. You'll get there faster and have more fun than you would stuck in traffic in a taxi.

SUBWAY: If you're on the Westside, take the Westside IRT Local - Number 1 train to South Ferry, or the Westside IRT Express train to Wall Street. If you're mid-city - around Times Square - take the BMT "R" train to Whitehall Street. If you're on the Eastside, take the IRT #4 Express or the #5 Express to Bowling Green.

Are the subways safe? Current statistics indicate they're safe 24-hours-a-day. But let's be practical. Our experience is that they're perfectly safe during daylight hours. Five million passengers a day can't be wrong!

Don't be confused by the different subway stations we've named above. They're all within a few blocks of easy, safe walking to the key sights. Any tourist map will show you this area in great detail, but if you're confused, don't be bashful. Just start asking directions when you get off the subway. You'll get willing help from almost all those friendly New Yorkers we mentioned before. We promise!

Okay. You've made your way to Lower Manhattan. It's time to get out your camera. While all the attractions we listed above are worthy of a visit, let's dig into the ones that will give you the best opportunities for your photographs.

Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

This is our Number One choice. Enter this beautiful little park and walk down by the water's edge and you'll see the magnificent vista of New York harbor with the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Brooklyn, Governor's Island and Staten Island in the distance. Turn around and you'll see the canyons of Wall Street and the Financial District behind you. Don't be surprised to find that you're surrounded by hundreds of other tourists waiting for the boats that go out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and other tourists and local types just enjoying one of the most cosmopolitan parks in the world.

Buyer beware!

Before we move forward, Battery Park is the home of dozens of friendly entrepreneurs with briefcases full of expensive-looking watches with names like Gucci, Piaget, Breitling. Take our word. These are counterfeit watches that look a lot like the real thing. Funny thing is that they tell time perfectly well. So you may want to buy one. But don't pay the asking price. Bargain. Pay no more than $10 or $15.

To Visit or Not to Visit the Statue of Liberty

This is the next decision you have to make.

If you have time and the weather is good, a trip to the Statue of Liberty is well worth the time. In fact, if you have plenty of time, we recommend that you also take the side trip to Ellis Island where millions of immigrants to America first stepped onto American soil after crossing the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the last century. It's a fascinating trip into history, and of course those immigrants were the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty. The same ferry takes you to either or both.

However, the lines for the ferry are long in peak season and the entire trip will take you a minimum of three hours even if you don't climb the inside of the Statue (an experience we recommend only for climbing enthusiasts since it is a bit arduous and very claustrophobic).

A Free Alternative

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

If your time is limited, you can have a great boat ride, get a good view of the Statue of Liberty, and spend time surrounded by real New Yorkers without spending a penny. How? By riding on the Staten Island Ferry! Who said there's no such thing as a free lunch? Well, maybe they're right. But, as we noted before, there is such a thing as a free ferry ride. This is it! It's free, and the two-way trip only takes about an hour. Ferries (New Yorkers call them "boats" as in "When does the next boat leave?") leave every twenty or thirty minutes during the day. Just walk on, enjoy the ride, and on the Staten Island side get off and get right back on. The best!

The outbound ride offers you the opportunity to photograph the Statue of Liberty from afar. Just set yourself up on the starboard side (the "right" side for all you landlubbers out there) and use a long lens. The return trip is particularly exciting because you have a super view and the best photo opportunity to capture the grandeur of the skyline of Lower Manhattan when the boat approaches the ferry slip back in Manhattan.

These boats leave from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, which is adjacent to Battery Park. Ask anyone for directions.

Photo Tips

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

If you're going to take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty or ride the Staten Island Ferry, our advice is to not bother trying to photograph Lady Liberty from Battery Park. It will simply be too small in your photos. Instead, concentrate on the local color, the crowds of tourists from all around the world, the ubiquitous performers and acrobats who entertain visitors in hope of getting some spare change in tribute for their efforts.

Acrobats? Entertainers? You bet! Lots of them. The very best are the acrobats who perform right in front of the gangway to the Statue of Liberty boats. In dry weather, winter or summer, these talented acrobats flip, tumble, and jump over one another without any protection, to the delight of the tourists lined up to board the ferry.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean
© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

Our advice: You don't have to take the boat to get a great view of these performers - don't miss them! In between their performances, Freddie the Ukelele player does a turn.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

If you take the ferry to the Statue, it brings up one of the main questions that you must consider in all travel photographs - what is the real subject of your photograph?

For example, if you take a photo of your friend and the Statue, is the subject your friend, the Statue, or both of them - your friend at the Statue of Liberty? It could be any one of the three. The important thing is that you decide what you want to be the subject before you take the picture. As we have stressed on this site again and again, the first question you must answer before you take any picture is: "What's the subject of my photograph?"

As any frequent visitor to this Website knows, this is Guideline One of NYI's Three Guidelines for Great Photographs. "Know Your Subject." If these Three Guidelines are not familiar to you - in fact, if you can't recite them by heart - then we strongly suggest, nay, we INSIST, that you look at the NYI Photo of the Month where it is discussed every month.

So we get back to our question: What's the subject of our picture at the Statue. Is it the Statue? Or our companion? Or both? To analyze this, let's look at some photos of NYI Instructor Joe Billera that we took on a recent trip to the Statue of Liberty.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean
© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean
© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

Once aboard the ferry, the tourists all around us are taking pictures like mad, but the Statue is still far away. Save your film. Wait till the ferry brings you closer.

When you get to Liberty Island (that's where the Statue is), you have to walk all the way around from the ferry slip to the front edge of the Island to get a good front view of the Statue. With a 300mm lens, you can take this type of dramatic close-up.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean
© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

Lighting Tip

You'll always have sky behind the Statue, so you need to compensate for the backlighting condition by cutting your exposure or using fill flash, which we did here with Joe. Without fill, Joe's face would have been a silhouette against the bright sky.

And if the sun is behind the Statue, you'll get the Statue in silhouette as well. In that case, increase your exposure. If your camera is adjustable, take a light reading of the sunlit grass in front of the Statue and use that exposure. If your camera isn't adjustable, but if it has some sort of exposure lock, again point the camera at the sunlit grass, lock the exposure, and then take a picture of the Statue against the sky.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean
© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

Now it's time for us to take the ferry on to Ellis Island or back to Lower Manhattan, because there's a lot more to cover.

We're back in Manhattan, and for further exploration, you have a choice. You can either walk along the Hudson River through a series of parks toward the World Trade Center, or you can dive into the canyons of Wall Street. Let's explore both possibilities.

Hudson River

From Battery Park you walk north into a brand-new park, Robert Wagner Park. (Don't bother to ask "locals" for directions to it. Not one in ten ever heard of it.) Walk through the park and continue north along the Hudson for about ten blocks, where you'll come upon the World Financial Center which is adjacent to the World Trade Center. Along with the brand-new Museum of Jewish Heritage, this recently-developed part of New York is a planned mix of a residential neighborhood with many financial businesses. There's a fancy marina, moderately-priced restaurants, lots of flowers, frequent street entertainment, statues, and some of the best rollerblading in New York.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

If you want to go to a really tall building in New York, the principal choice is between the World Trade Center here and the Empire State Building in midtown on 34th Street. We prefer the Empire State Building because you can get out in the open air and you're in the midst of the City, but the World Trade Center is taller and the views are magnificent. Our suggestion: Don't go to the Observation Roof at the top of Tower One. Rather, go to the cocktail lounge at the top of the Tower Two. For the same price, you can walk around, see the same view from the same res...and get a drink! Only caveat: Men must wear a tie and jacket. Women must not wear shorts.

The Financial District

Here's the other choice from Battery Park. (Of course, you can do both easily. Go to the World Trade Center, then walk three or four blocks to the Financial District.) Anyway, if you prefer to see the heart of historic New York, exit at Battery Park's northeast corner (where the double-decker buses stop) and cross State Street to New York's ornate Customs House and Bowling Green. By the way, the little above-ground subway station at the corner of the park is one of the original stations from the very first subway line in America.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

The Customs House, no longer used to levy tariffs on sea trade, now houses the marvelous collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and admission is free. Well worth a visit. There's also a Federal Bankruptcy Court in the same building, and you'll see lots of high-powered New York lawyers yakking on their cell phones in the square out front.

If the Customs House building looks familiar to you, it's because it gets used quite often in movies - it was the Museum in Ghostbusters Two and also appeared in one of the Batman films.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

Bowling Green, North America's oldest park, gets its name because the first Dutch settlers used it for lawn bowling. It's a pleasant place to have a sandwich and rest your feet. Just north of Bowling Green you'll see a massive bronze statue of a bull that appeared unexpectedly at that location about ten years ago. The work of a struggling New York sculptor who placed it there without permission, it originally raised the ire of our City government. But they never removed the statue, and today it has become an accepted landmark.

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

Rested? It's time to walk up Broadway a few blocks to the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. Historic Trinity Church is on your left, and Wall Street, the Stock Exchange, and historic Federal Hall (where George Washington took his original oath of office) are on your right. Best photos - the old graveyard on both sides of Trinity Church, and the giant statue of George Washington at the front of Federal Hall. (It's on this spot that he gave his well-worth rereading Farewell Address.)

© Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean

If you've come this far and your legs are holding up, continue up Broadway to Fulton Street, where you'll see City Hall to the north. If you didn't already see the World Trade Center, you can go one block up from Fulton, hang a left, a walk a few blocks to the World Trade Center and the Hudson River.

Shopper's Tip

Opposite City hall is one of the world's great discount stores - J & R. It's terrific for electronics, computers, and appliances. But don't bother to buy any camera equipment there. It's not that their prices aren't good. But in next month's installment we'll tell you of an even better place to go for camera supplies. Their prices are even cheaper! (By the way, we don't get a penny from any of these stores. These are totally unsolicited friendly tips.)

In Part 2, we going to explore the wonders of Midtown Manhattan, and we'll tell you how to get the best photos of the bright lights of Times Square, our favorite haunts in Central Park, and the hot spots of Fifth Avenue. (And we'll tell you where to go for the lowest prices in America for photographic supplies.) We can't wait!


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