Case Study: Shooting NYC Skyline

A good friend of mine, Yechiel Orgel, who is a professional commercial photographer specializing in product photography out of NYC, contacted me last week and asked for some advice on shooting the New York City Skyline from a rooftop of a luxury condo building in Brooklyn. The aim of the shoot was to show the NYC skyline that can be seen from the roof of this building. The building is located in downtown Brooklyn, roughly 3 avenue blocks from the water. The client apparently wanted to get a really large print, which would be displayed in the lobby of the building, possibly made into a wallpaper. Yechiel was a little uncomfortable with these requirements, because it is not his area of expertise and he has never produced prints that large. So he wanted to get some recommendations on how to best handle the situation. He presented a list of the following requirements:

  1. The image needs to show the surrounding area, along with the NYC skyline in the background
  2. The NYC skyline needs to be clearly visible, with the least amount of haze
  3. Resolution and detail level need to be high, because the planned print size is 9′ long
  4. Access to the rooftop is mostly limited to business hours, with some freedom after hours

Here is the view from the rooftop that had to be captured:

NYC Skyline

Along with a general recommendation on how to address the above requirements, Yechiel had a couple of important technical questions to address. First, he wanted to find out what the best time for shooting the NYC skyline would be – Sunrise, Midday or Sunset to avoid the haze. Second, based on the print size requirements, he wanted to find out what camera would fit the job – Nikon D600, D800 or perhaps even medium format. Lastly, he was curious about what lens to use. He had the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and the 24mm f/1.4 lenses in mind and did not know if those were adequate for the job, or if he needed something else. Gear was not an issue, because he was going to rent and expense anything that he did not already have.

I wrote a detailed response on how I would shoot the scene and provided some recommendations, which I wanted to share with our readers.

In terms of the time of the day, I was going to recommend to shoot early in the morning (preferably at sunrise) to get the best colors and minimum haze. Haze is mostly environmental in large cities and gets worse during the day due to traffic and dust, so my preference is to shoot in the mornings to minimize haze as much as possible. Unfortunately, that was not an option for this particular case, because access to the rooftop was limited to normal business hours. The client indicated that they could work with times close to sunset and perhaps even past sunset, but definitely not before 9 AM. Based on this, I recommended Yechiel to arrive at least an hour before sunset, set everything up and shoot during and after sunset. Ideally, a sunset shoot would incorporate colorful clouds and beautiful tones, but if the weather did not cooperate, then shooting past sunset at slower shutter speeds could be a good alternative.

In terms of gear and printing requirements, I recommended to go with the Nikon D800 and use the panoramic photography technique to get the maximum resolution. Looking at the scene, the most important question was if there was anything in the foreground that needed to be captured. After talking to Yechiel and seeing the above image, I realized that there was no need for any specialized “no parallax” panoramic gear. So a typical tripod with a ballhead or a gearhead would do perfectly fine. I recommended to go for a single row vertical panorama, because multi-row panoramas can get quite complex and require a good discipline and proper setup. Basically, the idea was to level the tripod head, then allow for panning motion on the head and take vertical shots from left to right or right to left, with about a 20-30% overlap between shots (while keeping exposure the same between shots). Next, those images would be taken to Photoshop or other third party applications and merged together to form a single, high-resolution image. The big variable was the highway to the right of the scene with moving cars. If he wanted to eliminate cars from the scene, it would involve more planning and plenty of work in post with some blending techniques using multiple shots, and possibly use of cloning tools. If he went for really slow exposure times and capture the movement, he would have to find ways to blend those lights after stitching the panorama, which would also be demanding in terms of post-processing skills. Since Yechiel has never worked on high resolution photography and panoramas, these concepts were a little foreign to him. Knowing this, I recommended to go for a “safe” shot first, in case something goes wrong with stitching a panorama later. 36 Megapixels is still a lot of resolution, so if if the pixel-level quality is good, an image could be up-scaled to very large prints. Only once he was fully satisfied with the shot, I recommended to experiment with the vertical panorama technique.

For settings, I recommended to go for the sweet spot of the lens, which is generally the f/8 – f/11 range. Since the scene was going to be captured on a tripod, I recommended to go with the base ISO of 100 and turn off Auto ISO. I also suggested to use full manual mode, especially for the vertical panorama shot for shot-to-shot consistency, which is pretty much a requirement for stitching panoramas. It goes without saying that VR should generally be turned off when shooting from a tripod and remote cable release or Mirror Lock-Up, in combination with the Exposure Delay mode should be used to reduce vibrations when shooting at slow shutter speeds. For focusing, I recommended to use Live View and turn off autofocus (without touching the focus ring) for the subsequent shots. Since the nearby buildings are 50+ feet away, they would already fall into infinity using a wide angle lens, so I suggested to use one of those buildings for focusing.

In terms of lenses, I recommended a zoom lens, something like the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 or Nikon 24-120mm f/4 instead of a super wide angle lens like 14-24mm f/2.8 or a prime like 24mm f/1.4. Why? Because wide angle lenses are designed to photograph objects at close distances – they are not meant to be used for these kinds of shots. At such distances, the shot would be too wide and the objects would appear tiny, with a lot of space wasted. And going too wide is a big problem for panoramic shots as well, because those can be painful to stitch due to distortion. Yechiel already had a 24-120mm f/4 zoom, so I told him that it would do the job just fine. And why not a prime lens? Because he had limited space on the rooftop and he needed the versatility of a zoom to be able to try working with different focal lengths. I told him that he would probably use the 35-70mm range for this type of a shot, depending on what he wanted to capture.

Yechiel sent me the final image that he captured earlier this week and from what I can tell, he did a good job with successfully completing the task. Here is his shot of the scene that he presented to the client:

NYC Skyline Final

He was pretty happy with the result, but said that he is still working on the post-processing.

From what I can see, the detail level is pretty high and the customer should be able to make a 9′ long print. Although some colors in the sky would have made the image more appealing, I know that it was outside Yechiel’s control. I think he did a fine job with capturing the shot, especially considering that it is not something that he specializes in.

Would love to hear the opinion of our readers. Do you like the end result? Or would you have captured the scene differently? Please let us know in the comments section below!


Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) David

    For NYC skylines, location and timing is the key. Really. Try looking at places like West New York NJ (Blvd East…gate 212 from Port Authority), Long Island City Queens Waterfront, Astoria Park, Dumbo, and Bayonne NJ have the best views IMO. Going up high is also a good way to do it. Rockefeller Center is unparrelled in terms of views (you get Empire State AND World Trade).

    • David, I agree – location is key. In the above case, Yechiel’s task was specifically to capture the view from the condo, so he had no other option.

      • There are some very nice accessible parts of Brooklyn that offer good skyline views of the city.
        There are also some nice condos in Brooklyn that have great views. Here is one I managed from Williamsburg through a connection (from the 26th floor balcony)
        https://www.flickr.com/photos/inagitation/8481340553/in/set-72157634439325985

      • Avatar of Mike Banks
        10
        ) Mike Banks

        Since the color of the sky could not be controlled and the access to the shooting platform was not random over a period of time I would say this is a fine photo. The image is sharp, colorful and interesting. I think this will make a fine wall print. Nasim, do you know who will be doing the printing?

        • I see nothing wrong with the Photo. To me it actually adds more interest than do so in the Morning or middle of the day. Now if shooting water then I would have tried to go in the Morning.

          Looks like if he was contracted to do a shot, he should have an accommodation to allow it.

  2. 2
    ) eric laquerre

    For big prints he might use this program. http://www.alienskin.com/blowup/index.aspx

    I had a meeting with my photo clun yerterday and they invited an artist. He is doing big blown up for his work and said that program really impress him!

  3. 3
    ) Stefan

    I sold my 24-120mm after I shot similar stuff in Italy last year.
    The reason – NO SUNSTARS!!!!
    This lens is totally incapable of producing nice sunstars in bright sources of light.
    I used the magnificent 85mm 1.4G and woo-hoo – I had the best sunstars ever!

    • Stefan, yes and it is a problem with most of the modern Nikkor lenses with rounded 9-blade diaphragms. I find that 7 blade straight diaphragms are much better for sunstars. And if you really want to go fancy, Zeiss primes are phenomenal in rendering beautiful sunstars – you just have to have the right focal length for this type of a shot.

      • 11
        ) Stefan

        Agree.
        But I had the new 24-85mm before and it makes wonderful sunstars.
        An amazing lens for sunstars is the tokina 100mm micro. The 24-70mm f2.8 II from Canon is also amazing in that aspect, no matter the rounded blades.

  4. 7
    ) Cesar De Los Reyes

    … learned a lot from this first time shot. I have the lens recommended by Nasim and love landscapre shots which I have done a lot thru vacations. Only missing thing from what I normally do (but should be doing) is the vertical shot way. More stitches but much much better results. Only thing I could mention on the photo is the bigger chunk of the street shown … however, I believe there is not much that can be done to reduce that due to location and angle from where the shot was taken. Still, very good shot. Nice.

  5. 9
    ) Alfred

    Being a amateur and still learning but I need to say that he done a pretty good job of the sky line and the highway and yes I agree that the sky could use a little more color to it, but overall a very good shot.

    • I think the streaking lights from vehicle Traffic actually add some extra kick to the Photo. But then That is the way I look at things.

  6. 12
    ) Mandy

    Great info as always Nasim.
    I am traveling to NY in Sept/Oct (from Aust) and am looking forward to shooting the city skyline. I will take note of David’s location recommendations, however what I would like to know is, are there are any restrictions with tripods, in particular, the Rockfeller Center?

    • 21
      ) Martin Mahoney

      I do not think you will need a permit.

      check out the nyc.gov Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting website.

      http://www.nyc.gov/html/film/html/permits/permit_required_fee.shtml

      it states:

      Permit Required: $300 application fee applies
      Equipment or vehicles are used or the person filming asserts exclusive use of City property.
      Insurance is required for this permit.

      Permit Not Required: $300 permit fee does NOT apply
      Hand-held cameras or tripods are used and the person filming does not assert exclusive use of City property.

      Optional Permit: $300 permit fee does NOT apply
      Hand-held equipment only. Permit does not include special parking privileges.
      Insurance is not required for this permit.

  7. Avatar of Mike Banks
    13
    ) Mike Banks

    Having been fined twice in one day I can answer this. It will depend upon the police officer you encounter. Use of a tripod on any city street in Manhattan requires a permit. You will need to contact one of the film and photography offices and see if you can talk them into one of their special permits. Good luck. Monopods draw less attention and usually can be used with no problem. Keep in mind that if no police officer stops you, you can do pretty much what you want.

    If applying for a permit do not mention you are anything other than a hobbyist. Photos are for you own collection. You may get lucky. I’ve had very good luck getting tripod permits in a number of different cities but New York was never one of them.

    • 22
      ) John St John

      Please check the regulations from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting: http://www.nyc.gov/html/film/html/permits/permit_required_fee.shtml
      Note that a permit is not required for a tripod unless an entire sidewalk or other public space is taken over for the purpose of filming or photography. Of course, if a police officer requests that you move, it’s best to comply.

      John

      • 24
        ) Mike banks

        Unfortunately that determination is up to the police officer you encounter. Should he/she determine you are blocking anything you will get a summons. Specially under this new mayor.

        • 32
          ) AM I Am

          I know one guy who got lost in NYC some years ago, before the GPS era. He was driving by when he saw a police officer standing at one corner. He stopped to ask the police officer for directions. The officer promptly waked up to this guy’s car an immediately gave him a ticket, a $350 fine; he had stopped in a non-designated area. This was during the zero-tolerance times.
          This guy promised never to come back to NYC again if that’s the way tourists are treated.

          • Avatar of Mike Banks
            38
            ) Mike Banks

            Ouch. That was truly uncalled for on the part of law enforcement. They are supposed to Serve and Protect and many of New York’s finest are that….the best. Some however take the gun and badge a bit too far.

  8. 16
    ) robert jordan

    Hi curious to know how many verticals went into this. Think color in the sky might have taken away the emphasis on the buildings besides I think cloud movement even at that distance could come into play.?? Light can change pretty quick ; thinking of exposure time and time to move tripod etc I wonder if any compensation was needed for exposure.

    Bob

  9. 17
    ) Keith R. Starkey

    Nice. I like it. No complaints.

  10. Avatar of Camillo Spoeri
    18
    ) Camillo Spoeri

    Hey,

    Thanks for sharing this article and your thoughts on this shot.
    I really like the outcome and think your friend has done a good job.
    Personally, I would have left a little more space on the left side, so the skyline isn’t pushed by the border of the frame.

    Camillo

  11. I think it’s a really nice image, but I also think I’d like to get that lamppost out of the lower right corner, if possible.

    • Avatar of Levan Verdzeuli
      28
      ) Levan Verdzeuli

      Nasim, I just have one question on the lenses used.
      Why not Tilt-shift?
      Well, I have never used this type of lens and I might not know something specific about it, but I have read a lot of reviews and seen a lot of videos on youtube how you can do panoramas and large-scale photos using TS lenses.

  12. 20
    ) Phillipa Alexander

    I like the image but find the car lights dominating rather than the skyline – if the brief was to show the visible NY skyline from the roof of this building I would crop the bottom to just above the Sleep Inn side and the right hand side to just past the Retractable Awnings sign – it would then be an amazing long panorama of the skyline and city lights.

    • 23
      ) OREJr

      Totally agree. All the foreground crap is very distracting, IMHO.

    • 25
      ) Mike banks

      If you take another look at the details of the assignment #1 requires the surrounding area of the building to include the NY skyline. Your crop, although would make a great picture in itself does not accomplish what the client asked for.

  13. 26
    ) Donuts

    I think there is an undue emphasis on the old-looking white building in the foreground; it feels almost as if that building is the main subject of the photo (though if I were the owner of that white building I would like this photo very much!)

    I’d maybe try to reduce emphasis on that building by dimming that area, and maybe some of the other bright light pockets in the foreground/middle ground as well. Not a bad image though! I’ve always found cityscapes tricky.

  14. 27
    ) Mike B

    I think that the shot is the best he could have got, not sure if I would have wanted it as wallpaper, would a 50mm prime done the job?

  15. Avatar of Levan Verdzeuli
    29
    ) Levan Verdzeuli

    Nasim, I just have one question on the lenses used.
    Why not Tilt-shift?
    Well, I have never used this type of lens and I might not know something specific about it, but I have read a lot of reviews and seen a lot of videos on youtube how you can do panoramas and large-scale photos using TS lenses.
    (sorry for the dublicate comment above)

  16. 30
    ) christopher

    perfect shot. no bs. technically sound. He worked with what he had. good composition, nice balance and perfect exposure. However, he’s going to pull a 9 ft print from that? thats insane. that looks like its roughly 4×5. Far from panoramic. Anyway, excellent pointers. He nailed it. By any chance did he mess around with stitching in another version? From that perspective it doesn’t look like ever needed to be considered.

  17. 31
    ) John

    I think he should have gone with the first shot. Nighttime scenes are fairly ho-hum, and in this one everything is totally static (for example the vehicle lights are simply lines, with no sense of motion) and the cropping and lens used emphasise what is close – there’s no real depth. In the upper picture there’s a sense of contrast between the near buildings and the distant city which is complemented by the clarity of what is close and the haze of what is distant. Also the sky is more featured and, given a slow exposure, the vehicles could add a sense of motion. It’s perverse to try to show a city as a landscape unless one is trying to make some ironic statement; cities are in flux and need motion. Also, the upper picture presents a local/global contrast (the locality of where we live versus the globality of the city) which is missing from the lower picture.
    So I suppose my point is that there’s more to a picture than an expression of mastery of technique; it should present a view and the view presented in the lower picture is basically uninteresting.

  18. 33
    ) Gilles

    Hi Nasim,

    read the comments and have my little stone to add…
    I have done this kind of job years ago, 2 prints( 2 meter – 7′ long) for a bank meeting room. It was argentic…
    I manage to do a panoramic print but not a classic one : in fact I use the drawbacks of the panoramic argentic photo to do something different.
    I used 16 then 35 shots, not of the same size and assembled them as it to render askew prints.
    I used a Nikon FA and an old 55 f3,5 micro NIKON. I think wide angle is not always the good answer for a panoramic, I frequently used 100 or even 180 for the job.
    (I do not know how to send you an image)

    Thank you for your site

    cordially

  19. 34
    ) Thomas

    Interesting idea for an article. Please post more like this.

    Your advice on how to shoot seems right to me, with one exception, that of setting the optimum f stop. D800E (and I presume the D800, although I don’t own one) resolution will peak by or before f/8, and then diffraction will start to take its toll. That’s not to say that shooting at f/11 or beyond is bad; it just won’t yield maximum resolution.

  20. 35
    ) Andrew

    Hi Nasim,

    May I ask for your advice regarding a post processing workflow for panoramas? Do you recommend performing initial raw file editing on each individual frame in Lightroom before stitching them into a panorama using Photoshop Photomerge? Or do you recommend stitching the un-processed raw files first and then working on the complete panorama image?

    I have been using the latter method, but Photoshop saves the completed panorama as a .psd file and I think this results in a loss of image information compared to the original raw files.

    I am using Lightroom 5.3 and Photoshop CC.

    Many thanks,
    Andrew

    • You do know rather than save you can export to any Graphic type you want.
      jpg, png, tiff you name it.

      And in doing the export you can control the size of the print and the DPI as well and once you set up the first one and like the result of your setting you can export with previous settings and it will set everything exactly the same as the first You can even add water Marks such a a copyright symbol with or with your name or with or without year or group of years.

  21. 37
    ) Mark

    Nasim,

    Nice article as always–thank you.

    IMHO, the final shot is almost there but not quite: the foreground freeway is such a strong visual presence that it’s pulling attention away from the NYC skyline, which was the view which the client wished to emphasize. I would suggest either cropping the bottom of the final shot up to the corner of the Paper & Plastic Bags building in the foreground (thereby retaining two strong triangular elements at the bottom of the frame and shifting the visual emphasis back to the NYC skyline), or employing the composition of the daytime image at top and (with luck) capturing a sunset or evening sky with more interest.

    • Avatar of Mike Banks
      39
      ) Mike Banks

      Mark, I’m in agreement that several other options could have been explored however one correction pertaining to your comment upon emphases of the skyline. In the four parameters given the photographer; emphasis was to be on the surrounding area with the skyline as background, clear with no haze. I also agree with some other of the comments regarding the cropping and use of the roadway in the foreground but overall, I still think for the parameters afforded and the time constraint and access to the shooting platform this is an overall good photo.

  22. 40
    ) Anthony C

    The photographer was fortunate the billboard on the far right side was not lit. While a billboard can certainly add to the urban feel, I’ll bet it would have just looked obnoxious in this view.

  23. 41
    ) James

    Nasim, good case. Questions: why not the 5DM3? Why not medium format?

    • James, Yechiel owns Nikon cameras and lenses, which is why I recommended the D800. If he shot Canon, I would have certainly recommended the 5D Mark III. Medium format is pretty expensive and requires some skill to use for a DSLR shooter. I would not recommend to go medium format on an important client shoot to someone that has never used it before. A totally different system!

  24. 43
    ) Cherag Tantra

    Nasim,

    A quick question would the HDR Panorama technique be not beneficial for this scene. I mean bringing out more detail in the shadow areas. Or is it that you did not recommend HDR considering he needed to print big and with HDR you end up getting more noise?

  25. 44
    ) Miguel Herrera

    Hey! Great article. One question that perhaps has not been addressed yet. What about the legality of having copyrighted buildings in the background when the photography will be used for comercial purposes (such as selling it to a client or for print ads?)

    Thanks!

    • Avatar of Mike Banks
      45
      ) Mike Banks

      Miguel, I’ve had this situation many times before and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. As the existing ad is visible to the world, therefore becoming public domain, should it appear in another ad that is not derogatory, has never raised any questions.

      Having said that, in one photograph I made several years ago for a client, the name of a bank appeared in the final image that was used to promote something the ad agency thought could be offensive to that institution. After contacting them for approval and presenting the final project, the bank did object and the bank name was photoshopped out of the image. Depending upon use of the original image, consideration needs to be giving to other advertisements in order to avoid legal action. This wasn’t really necessary but was good thinking on the part of the ad agency…just to be sure.

      • 46
        ) Phillip M Jones

        In this case I only see two items with any text. One appears to be a street sign. The other other is the name of a Business.

        From previous post recommending that the Picture be cropped to remove The street (Even though I think it adds character and interest to the Photo. The crop might take both out on the other hand, they could use a program called Impaint to take the sign out.

        • Avatar of Mike Banks
          47
          ) Mike Banks

          Phillip, not only does the signage add character but it was part of the clients original recommendations to show the area surrounding the building.

          Question Phil, is the Impaint program you mention a stand alone or a plug in type that would work with Lightroom 5.4. I’m not familiar with it.

          • 48
            ) Phillip M Jones

            It’s a Stand alone Program and not expensive. Its is to use and effective.
            First you pick a donor selection
            Then switch to Mask and paint like a paintbrush over the area you want to rub out
            Click Okay. Then what your left with a section that looks like the item was never there.

            Note it’s a one trick pony. This is all it exist for. to look at it go to http://www.theinpaint.com I use a Mac version. But I believe hey also have a PC version. Say you took an ocean picture and wanted to rub out a Sailboat you can Paint out the Sailboat so that only the Ocean remains.

            • Avatar of Mike Banks
              49
              ) Mike Banks

              Phil, I’ve bookmarked the page and will go over the tutorials later. I believe from what I see this would be a great addition to my workflow. Thanks

  26. 50
    ) Phillip M Jones

    Here is a sample of the corner the above photo with the building in question note is was done in haste so it by no means Perfect : https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxQ65mKK_cF5dy1Dc3RBMDVnUFU/edit?usp=sharing

    Note I took a screen shot of the corner in PNG format Opened in impaint and rubbed out the sign. It shows the building as if sign was not there. If you magnify 20 or 30 times I am sure you will see imperfections. but as said this was done in haste so it wasn’t meant be perfect.

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