Friday, January 13, 2012

NYC Skyline - from the Jersey side

NYC Skyline (August 18, 2011) The scene of the New York City Skyline photographed from the NJ side is an iconic image - hardly a "hidden gem" when talking about photography in New Jersey. You've surely seen it on your way to or from somewhere, maybe even more than you care to. But have you photographed it? Most people have. But for others of us, it was always one of those scenes that remained on the list. "Yeah, I'll get to it." Maybe we had shot it when we first got started. Maybe it was as we passed through on our way to somewhere else.

For us, it was time to put forth the effort, prepare properly, and finally execute on the scene that was suprisingly lacking from our body of work. Like our other shoots, we did our standard preparation. Being somewhat familiar with Jersey City, we chose Exchange Place as our location. The pier is one of the closest points to the skyline, and an excellent opportunity to set up unobstructed. It was a weekday morning. We had been watching all week, and the morning clouds looked to give way to sunshine through the day - the perfect recipe for a sunrise shoot.

We arrived at Exchange Place just before 5.00am. At that time, street parking was available on the corner of Green and Montgomery, just West of the pier at Exchange Place. We would be setting up on the pier, right over the water. It was still dark, so we had some time to walk around and explore other vantage points. The illuminated Colgate sign, itself and icon of the Jersey side, didn't present much of a subject from the angle/location we were. We didn't find much else of immediate interest. We walked to the North of the pier at the end of Montgomery St., if only to confirm that we had chosen the best location.

At 5.27, the sky was starting to show signs of light. By now, we were setting up and positioning the tripod for the grand view before us. In most of the images presented, a polarizing filter was used to bring out the colors in the sky, which is important when considering the exposure times noted below. Exposure is always a challenge with skyline scenes. The bright lights of the buildings can easily be blown out if you expose for the buildings themselves, or even the sky. The reflection of the lights in the water adds an additional challenge. This is exactly why twilight, not darkness, is the best time for photographing skylines. The range of light is more condensed, making it easier for your exposure to capture detail in the sky, the lights, and the buildings without over-exposing or under-exposing for one element or another.

f9.5, 15 sec
+2 compensation

At 5.31, we captured our first shot of the skyline just as the light started to emerge. In the first frame of the morning, you can see the struggle. The image was shot at f9.5 for 15 seconds (ISO 100). We kept from blowing out the lights in the building to the right, but the rest of the scene is darker than we'd like. In post processing, increasing the exposure by 1.0 stop makes the image more pleasing overall, but the lights from the buildings on the right start to get hot. Increasing the exposure by 2.0 stops renders the overall scene more in line with how I'd like it, but clearly blows out the lights on the building.

Even just a few minutes of changing light can make all the difference. The first frame was taken at 5.31am. Only 7 minutes later, the light changed enough to present a better balance, and allow us to grab the panorama presented at the beginning of this post. Same settings - f9.5 for 15 seconds. We've got a reasonable amount of color and detail in the sky, the water, and many of the buildings. And remember, this is all through a polarizing filter. Just as quickly, the lights on the buildings went off, and our typical skyline scene had past.

During sunrise, the building lights are likely to turn off even before the sun rises. For the glistening lights of the buildings, twilight before sunset is your best option. Luckily, the building lights going dark enabled us to silhouette the buildings, which is exactly what we wanted to do this morning as the brilliant sky quickly became the subject of our images. The clouds aligned as we hoped and the sky just radiated as the sun approached the horizon. We couldn't ask for a better scene. Had this been a clear morning, we likely would have come away with nothing as the bright sky would have overpowered the dark buildings making exposure near impossible and the scene fairly mundane.

The light changed, the clouds moved, and our compositions varied. The scene before us was amazing, well worth leaving the house at 3.30 in the morning. With the sun rising perfectly behind one of the taller buildings in our skyline, we were able to shoot the scene through 6.30am, again, with the sky, the cloud formations, and the light as the subject.


3.48 depart Freehold, NJ
4.50 arrive at Exchange Place
5.27 sky starting to light
5.31 first shot
5.36 sky showing signs of promise - panorama taken
6.04 clouds starting to do their part
6.18 research pays off - gallery shot
6.23 starburst appears above the low point in the skyline
6.40 that's a wrap

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