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:
- The image needs to show the surrounding area, along with the NYC skyline in the background
- The NYC skyline needs to be clearly visible, with the least amount of haze
- Resolution and detail level need to be high, because the planned print size is 9′ long
- 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:
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:
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!