While "Ultimate" is very fun to say, the definition of this powerful word and what it is attached to can vary widely and is certainly up to individual interpretation. In this case, I'll minimally provide my own concise definition of this word attached to photographing from a really tall building that happens to be a "top" tourist destination in New York City. "Top" in this case fits a couple of dictionary definitions including the highest vertical point and also the most popular destination. From the Top of the Rock, the observation deck of the Rockefeller Center in New York City, you can join crowds of others getting an aerial view of the city with no flight needed.
Let's start at the beginning:
Tickets are required for Top of the Rock and ... that is probably a good thing from a crowd control perspective. Whether the cost of the tickets is a good value is up for your interpretation. You are not likely going to visit daily and in my opinion, the cost is easily worth the visit to this location at least once in your life. Compared to the helicopter option to get up to this height, the ticket price is a bargain.
While tickets for Top of the Rock can be purchased on site, I recommend buying them online in advance of your trip. Having advance tickets insures that you can visit at your preferred time of the day and avoids a potentially long wait in the ticket line (and possible sell-outs). The online ticketing option worked great for me.
With little foliage present, the most sought-after view from the Top of the Rock doesn't change much throughout the seasons, so the biggest time of the year difference (from a photographical perspective) is the angle of the sun just prior to and just after setting. I think you will find the angle of the sweet light hitting the skyscrapers just prior to sunset to be more favorable near the summer solstice and a colorful sky (even after sunset) is more likely be in the frame near the winter solstice. If you want no distractions in the sky taking away from the glitter of the city lights, the time of the year you visit TotR matters very little with a couple of exceptions.
If you are photographing into Central Park during daylight hours, having foliage on the trees might be desired and fall may be a great season to visit. While this is the city that never sleeps, darkness falling early in the day (late fall, early winter) gives office lights a bit higher chance of being turned on. Window lights help give the city its sparkle after sunset and it stands to reason that shorter days (during weekdays) can increase the sparkle in your images.
Weather is of course a factor in how comfortable you are and winter holds the highest chance of the least comfortable weather. Also impacting the weather you feel is the lack of protection from the wind at the top of this 850' (259m) tall building. Note that the more uncomfortable the weather conditions are, the less crowded TotR will be. People will either not go up or they will not stay as long. Both act to thin crowds. As always with outdoor photography, dress appropriately for the weather.
The Christmas season is a great time to visit the city and an especially great time to visit the Rockefeller Center, with its giant Christmas tree, decorations and outdoor ice skating rink. This season, however, will insure huge crowds.
Without hesitation, I choose sunset as my favorite time of the day to be at TotR. Sunset is also the most popular time to be on the top of NYC, so crowds will be heaviest at this time and this means that more time will be needed to work into the ideal shooting position upon arrival.
While photos of the actual sunset over the city are nice and few love a great sunset as much as I do, I find a great sky to be a distraction from the primary subject at this time. Compounding this distraction is the lack of window and decorative lights showing in the buildings. The best photographic time of the day is yet to come. The city lights are needed for Top of the Rock photos to really pop, creating a sparkle throughout the city, and these do not show strongly until after sunset. Fortunately, crowds diminish somewhat after the firey ball goes over the horizon, though you can't count on the ideal shooting space being available if you arrive at immediately after sunset.
Plan to start photographing before sunset (perhaps 30 minutes before?) until at least an hour after sunset (longer is of course better). To allow yourself time to work into an ideal shooting location, purchase tickets timed for entrance at least 1:15 before sunset (for an average attendance day).
Getting up to the TotR viewing decks involves a process. Upon arrival at the entrance on W 50th Street between 5th Ave and 6th Ave timed with your ticket's allocated time, expect to be herded up a stairway (or elevator) into an airport-like security screening area. Your camera backpack and other belongings will travel through a scanner on a belt and you will walk through a scanner yourself. After another set of cattle chutes, you will pack (literally) into a glass-topped elevator for a fast ride to the top.
I arrived with 4:55 PM entrance tickets for a 6:05 PM sunset. While I had plenty of time prior to sunset, I don't know if I would have had a preferred shooting position had I arrived any later. Upon entrance, I went directly to the top viewing deck, walked directly to an open cement pier and setup for photographing. It would have been nice to walk around prior to selecting this location, but ... I took the sure-thing option and ... that was probably a good move as the crowds moved in quickly afterward. Prepare to be bumped into frequently as others press into positions to get their photos.
Start figuring out your shots after you are in place and begin shooting seriously as the light warms (assuming that the day is not cloudy). My favorite time is about 20-40 minutes after official sunset time, when the city lights become a significant element in the image. Shoot for at least an hour after sunset and longer if you have the time.
I'm not creating a subheading for weather, but ... you need only enough visibility to see what you want in your photograph. Very heavy cloud cover may not give you the look you were going for, but ... you might find the bottom-illuminated clouds interesting. What is in the sky at sunset and during the blue hour can be most interesting with a few clouds, but a clear sky is very nice also, allowing the city to capture complete focus. A distant storm may be welcomed, but ... these are hard events to time.
While the view into Central Park and the other northern areas of New York City are nice, it is the southern view that includes the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, Statue of Liberty and Bridges that most of us are primarily interested in having in our compositions. So, finding a photo position on the south side of the viewing areas is highly recommended.
Top of the Rock has three viewing levels. The lower two levels have very tall 2" thick glass panels with approximately 3" openings between them. While the panels block much of the wind (good for both warmth and camera steadiness), they also interfere with photography. Small cameras can fit between the openings, but there is little flexibility in framing and attaching any type of camera mount to the glass will be challenging. While I don't know if they are permitted, a suction cup mount with some camera position flexibility *might* work.
As might be expected, the best shooting location is at the top of the Top of the Rock, the third floor viewing area. With only fencing around the viewing area at this level, a clear line of site is afforded to the city. Though any southern position on this deck affords a great view for photography, the second level viewing area and glass is clearly visible in the foreground of wide angle photos as shown in the 16mm example below.
The exception is the southeastern side of the 3rd level viewing deck where the second level deck obstruction goes out of the picture. As seen in the 16mm image at the top of this page, the first level deck is still visible at this position, but much greater angles downward are possible without glass panels being in the frame. Thus, if possible, get a shooting position in the far southeastern area of the top deck.
Tripods are not permitted to be used on Top of the Rock for safety reasons and, after seeing the crowd, I agree completely with their reasoning. Plenty of security personnel are on hand to remind you of this rule if you "forget". But, you are going to want a camera support and once in your shooting location, steadying the camera is the next task.
My preference is to secure a position behind one of the concrete piers between the fencing. While "tripods" are not permitted, the security personnel did not have a problem with mini tripods positioned on the top of these roughly 2'x2' piers. Technically, a mini tripod is still a tripod, but it is not often regulated similarly due to the small amount of space it consumes. The Feisol TT-15 is currently my favorite mini tripod (compact, light, strong and relatively inexpensive) and it was my primary choice on this day. The Induro BHL1 Ball Head I was evaluating at the time worked well on this tripod.
Note that it would be easy for a mini tripod-mounted camera to fall over the edge from this vantage point, especially with people pressing in for their shots. Keep a hand on the camera to prevent it from being tipped over. During exposures, hold your hands just to the side of the camera to protect it from being bumped or falling (protect the people on the deck below – you have a responsibility for others' safety).
A good alternative to using a mini tripod is clamping a camera to the strong metal fencing that runs between the concrete piers. I recommend that you minimally be prepared to shoot in such a position in case a pier position is not obtainable. A great base for a clamping system is the super clamp. The aptly-named super clamp is an extremely useful device that will lock very tightly onto a wide range of surfaces up to about 2.1" thick, including the strong metal fence at TotR. Your clamp is only as solid as the object it is being mounted to, but the TotR fencing is very sturdy.
Also affecting stability are the parts that go between the camera and your camera. While clamp studs can directly mount to your camera's tripod threads, you will want some flexibility in framing the shot and a ball head is ideal for this. An easy and very direct method of attaching a ball head to the super clamp is via a tripod head mounting plate with hex stud. This solution does not give the most flexibility in camera adjustment, but it works very well.
To add more flexibility to the ball head position you work from, mount a double ball joint between the super clamp and your ball head. The double ball joints often come with a camera mounting plate, but I prefer to work from a ball head mounted to the double ball joint via a Impact 3/8" to 3/8" Adapter Spigot.
For ultimate flexibility at the sacrifice of camera stability is the Magic Arm. As with the double ball joint, the magic arm is attached to a super clamp on one end and I attach a ball head to the other end via a 3/8" to 3/8" adapter spigot. While this setup can clear far more obstructions and magic arms are extremely useful, a weakness is the amount of vibration permitted, making this a second (or last) resort when using longer exposures.
When using any of these camera stabilizing platforms, the camera's self-timer plus mirror lockup feature or a remote release should be used. Note that if it is windy, it may be best to remove the lens hood to further reduce potential vibrations. Shade the lens with your hand, hat, etc. in this case.
Having an image stabilized lens can be extremely helpful if a camera-securing location proves unsuccessful for you and the IS feature is good insurance to have. If using a wide angle lens, a wide aperture can also be very helpful (especially if not incorporating close foreground in the frame). At the distances viewed from Top of the Rock, there is plenty of depth of field for good quality image even at 35mm f/1.4.
Nearly any focal length can be used to take great photos from TotR, but short telephoto focal lengths along with anything wider work especially well.
If you want the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center and/or other attractions to be large in the frame, choose a normal to telephoto focal length. While I had the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM Lens in my backpack, I never mounted it. Good images were available for these longer focal lengths, but my priority was for the bigger picture on this visit. I made strong use of the full extents of the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM Lens on a full frame Canon EOS 5Ds R. This combination captured the following image at 70mm.
Though it is still small in this image, the Statue of Liberty is nearly centered in the frame and a slight upward camera angle was necessary to keep the tallest antenna in the frame.
Very distant subjects are visible from TotR, but a downside to using a long focal length to reach those distant subjects (such as the Statue of Liberty) is the magnification of the effects of heat waves that can be present over the city. Longer focal length selections may mandate shorter exposures than under ideal conditions, better avoiding heat wave blurring.
The next image shows a 35mm full frame angle of view, courtesy of the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens.
Obvious is that if you want more of the city in one frame, go wide angle. Go really wide even, perhaps even use a fisheye lens. This is a good location to create a panorama (or use an ultra-high resolution camera and crop to a wide aspect ratio). With the incredible resolution of the EOS 5Ds R in my hands, the latter was often my choice.
If you are unsure of the framing you want, err on the wide side. While it is possible to crop later, it is much more difficult to add missing subject matter into a later-derived composition. If planning to crop, plan to crop only the top and/or bottom of the frame, and/or both sides equally *unless* the camera is vertically level (more about this later).
Moving within the confines of the viewing area will not have a dramatic change on your composition. The southwest side has slightly better separation between the Empire State Building and the One World Trade Center, but as I said before, the southeast side has the lowest foreground obstruction.
The perspective from this high up in a building is unusual. How often do we look downward on really tall skyscrapers? We are used to looking up at buildings with diminishing lines making the top of the buildings appearing smaller, somewhat pyramidal. When on top and looking downward, buildings appear to get narrower at their bases.
Shooting with a vertically level camera eliminates the converging lines effect, but ... cropping may be required to get the desired framing as there will likely be too much sky in the frame with a centered horizon. A tilt-shift lens is a great option for correcting perspective distortion and correcting perspective in post remains an option with all lenses, albeit a destructive one at a pixel level.
Framing upward provides a unique look from this height, but a great sky likely needs to be present for a striking image.
For most of my shots and I simply pointed the camera downward as I liked the unusualness of the perspective. This effect is especially obvious in the first image in this post.
The tallest buildings, with their antenna towers colorfully illuminated after sunset, were the primary elements I was interested in using in my compositions. Know that the lights on these towers change colors, meaning that each picture can be slightly different from that of the others. Also note that capturing a wide range of light color and pattern combinations can consume a lot of time.
The tops of all buildings are not required to be in the frame. I grant you the psychological permission you might need to cut the top of buildings off, adding a different look to your take home. There are many good composition options available without including the tops of the tallest buildings and these can add some variety to your portfolio. The following image was captured with the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens directed toward the north.
Strong foreground subjects are not readily available at TotR, but people looking through the glass panels below can be incorporated into the frame (example included earlier on this page). Try long exposures and multiple exposures blended to allow people to become motion blurred. I also found the blue light on the glass panels to be favorable after dark. An additional idea is to incorporate the large mounted binoculars or fencing into the foreground, keeping in mind that depth of field will become challenging. Don't be afraid to let the background go into a blur in some images. To keep everything sharp in the frame, a focus stacking technique can also be used.
Some of your images will likely end up with the top of the lower deck glass panels in them. What to do with those images is up to you. These images can remain as-is (the panels are not so obvious in some after-dark photos), embracing what is there. They can be removed in post-processing (not too hard using the healing brush in the after dark images) and cropping them out of the frame is always an option.
The airspace around New York City (and every other big city) is a busy one. Expect to have airplane lights streaking through your frames. Use the healing brush in Photoshop to quickly remove them (unless you happen to get a light streak that adds a positive element of your image), such as one landing at an airport.
If you were thinking that blurred car lights streaking through your frames were going to be a significant part of your Top of the Rock imagery, I'm going to disappoint you. The buildings are so tall that street views are not a significant part of the picture here.
People are a popular subject when shooting at the TotR. But, capturing good portraits at the TotR can be challenging, at least challenging around sunset with the best background light and the heaviest crowds. But, they are doable. You might need a small entourage to maintain a clear line of site on the subject if much wider than a headshot is desired. If shooting with backlight (the ideal scenario at sunset), a light source will be appreciated. Put an off-camera flash in a small softbox and balance the exposure on the subject and background. The same applies to after dark, but with much less light available, higher ISO settings and wider apertures will be desired. The wider apertures may present a depth of field issue, but you may find that an issue to be embraced. The city turned into a colorful blur of lights is beautiful also.
Basic exposure understanding is all that is needed when shooting from TotR. Avoid blown highlights (not too many blinkies on the LCD) and blocked shadows where possible (though some areas will likely go to pure black at night)
Pay special attention to the color of the illuminated tops of buildings and their antenna towers after the sun sets. It is very easy to make these too bright, rendering the towers white instead of yellow, blue, etc. If holding the lighted antenna tower colors renders the rest of the city too dark for your taste, bracket your exposures and use an HDR technique to get the best of both exposures. Bracketing exposures at this location is a good idea regardless of HDR processing being intended, as the most perfect shot can then be selected. You may find that you like photos of differing brightness and the different emphasis each provides.
I always recommend shooting in RAW format, but some of the following advice applies in-camera as well.
During sunset, the dynamic range can be a challenge as much of the city is in shade while the sky is very bright. Consider using HDR techniques (in-camera HDR is available in some models) to permit a brightness balance.
For white balance after dark, try auto white balance, tungsten or start at about 3400k (slightly warmer than tungsten) if you are not satisfied the results that the first two settings give you. Explore the saturation adjustment to see if an increase adds some pop to your photos.
In the post-sunset images, you may like the look of boosted mid-tones. Keep the blacks very dark to retain contrast and hold the brightest highlights back to maintain color, but boost the sparkle of the city by brightening the mid-tones, idealling using a curves adjustment.
I've mentioned cropping images. If cropping an image that was not captured with a vertically level camera, you will want to crop the same amount from both sides of the image to maintain side-to-side balance in the building tilt. A wide angle photo captured using a downward angle will cause the buildings to lean outward toward the top of the frame. A photo cropped from the right side of such an image will have the buildings all leaning toward the right, but with a level horizon, for a strange look overall. The opposite tilt will be seen in a left side of the frame crop.
Even though TotR access is tightly controlled and security personnel are plentiful, it is still important to keep your gear physically secured. It is easy to become distracted and, especially when looking through the viewfinder, not see your backpack leaving in someone else's hands. Or, especially if zippers are left open, something inside the backpack can easily walk away undetected.
I kept my MindShift Gear BackLight 26L camera backpack always fully zippered and wedged against the concrete pier using both legs. It would have been very difficult for someone to make off with any of the pack's contents without drawing my attention. BTW, the BackLight 26L is a great pack, with lots of capacity for the various grip components I brought with me (along with two cameras and four lenses).
While I talked specifically about photographing from the Top of the Rock in New York City, these tips can easily be applied for shooting from the other tall building observation decks found in this city and many others including in Chicago and Boston. Start creating your bucket list of high altitude urban locations.
The Top of the Rock is one of the greatest observation decks available, and the experience is far better with memories of the city views becoming long-lasting in the form of photographs. From this location, many of the major elements of New York City, including the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, One World Trade Center, Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, East River and much more (including sparkle) can be combined into a single frame. The really good news is that getting striking photos from this location is not very difficult, and with a little planning, you can add these to your own collection. Hopefully you like my photos, but you capturing the same or better is what it is all about.
I'm thinking that the lead image for this guide, captured at 16mm using the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens, will look great on a large metal print for my office. I hope that your Top of the Rock pics turn out even better!