On May 15th I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. Pittsburgh is a vibrant city, known for its industrial heritage. Downtown is located at the convergence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers into the Ohio River, called “The Point.” The hills surrounding the city offer excellent viewpoints for photos. I spent my last two semesters at CMU (August through May) creating images of Pittsburgh’s skyline and architecture during my free time. Twenty of my favorite images are shown below accompanied by a discussion of my creative process.
Prior to the start of my senior year in August I began compiling a list of locations I wanted to photograph. I had dozens of scenes in mind from classic shots of the skyline to obscure architectural details. This would be my first time having a car in the city, opening up many opportunities I had not previously possessed. Every new idea was added to the list and every completed shot was removed. By graduation my list was nearly empty.
At the start of the semester my kit included a Nikon D750, Nikon 20mm f/1.8G, Nikon 50mm f/1.8G, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G, and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. This would change slightly as I traded my 20mm for a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G in December and I purchased a Nikon D810 in February.
Shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh in August my friends and I drove north of the city to Quaker Steak and Lube for chicken wings. Driving home at dusk I rounded a bend on I-579 and saw the city gleaming in front of me. I bit of research showed that there was a pedestrian bridge over the highway with a fantastic view of Downtown. I returned a few days later to capture the scene you see here. Standing alone on the bridge in an unknown part of town made me nervous, but it was worth it!
One of the best views of the city comes from a couple of miles west of Downtown along the Ohio River at West End Overlook. I arrived at sunset and upon setting up my gear I was greeted by a beautiful pink sky and an old steamboat chugging along the river. Unfortunately, the foliage was overgrown, getting in the way of a clear shot. I vowed to return in the winter after the leaves had fallen.
Pittsburgh is home to some of the most beautiful houses of worship I have ever seen. One of which is the Saint Paul Cathedral, located in the Oakland neighborhood along Fifth Avenue. One afternoon I walked over as the clouds began to clear and took a shot looking right up at the church before proceeding inside.
It was nearly empty inside the cathedral, and surprisingly well-lit! I took a few shots, attempting to highlight the enormity of the space. I stopped down my 20mm to f/4 knowing that my D750 could easily handle 1600 ISO.
Carnegie Mellon’s mascot is Scotty the Scottish Terrier. One afternoon I decided to walk out onto the field at Gesling Stadium to create an image of the Athletics Department logo. I was a member of the varsity swim team and a photographer for the Athletics Department, so I feel a special connection with this image.
One of the most popular views of the Pittsburgh skyline comes from Mount Washington, a large hill beside the Monongahela River where coal mining once took place. From here you can see the formation of the Ohio River as well as dozens of bridges spanning the three rivers. You often see panoramic shots of the cityscape from this location, but I decided to focus my shot on Downtown.
Schenley Park is one of Pittsburgh’s best known outdoor spaces. Rolling hills, wooded terrain, and convenient foot paths make it a great place to get away from your daily grind. A road called Overlook Drive passes through the park; at its peak is a wonderful view of Downtown. I visited this spot on many occasions to capture the scene during different seasons and times of day. With the skyline three miles away a clear day is a necessity.
Shortly after Thanksgiving a traded in my Nikon 20mm f/1.8G for a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G. The 20mm was a great lens, and I was sad to sell it, but I knew that the versatility and wider view of the zoom would give me new opportunities.
I tested out the 14-24mm on CMU’s architecture. One of the oldest buildings on campus is Margarette Morrison Carnegie Hall which was home to the women’s college in the early twentieth century. I put the wide end of the zoom to use on the rotunda at the building’s entrance.
I was not 100% satisfied with my first visit to West End Overlook during the fall. Foliage had blocked my view, and I knew I could get a better shot once the leaves had fallen. When I came back in December I was pleased to see that the Ohio River was as smooth as glass, reflecting the cityscape almost perfectly. Another photographer at the location said he had never seen the river so placid before. The fountain in Point Park had been shut down for the winter and replaced with a huge holiday tree, creating a unique scene to capture.
Pittsburgh’s industrial past can be seen even in areas that have recently undergone renovation or gentrification. One of these locations is The Waterfront shopping center. Once the site of US Steel’s Homestead Works steel plant, the area is now home to a movie theater, shops, and restaurants. The last remanence of its industrial past are the twelve brick smokestacks from the steel mill. At night they glow under spotlights like a monument. I took this shot in January under windy conditions at ten degrees Fahrenheit; it was so cold even my camera was freezing up.
During the fall I had visited Overlook Drive in Schenley Park on a number of occasions, but never at night. On a clear evening in late January I finally drove over at dusk in hopes of capturing a night cityscape. What I had not considered was that the sun was setting behind the city, and I ended up with the skyscrapers silhouetted against an orange sky.
Like most college students, I spent a decent bit of time in the library. CMU’s Hunt Library was built in 1960 featuring an aluminum exterior that is lit by LEDs at night. To highlight the sharp angles and aluminum finish I got up close to a corner with a wide-angle lens and created this abstract image.
One of the things I love about Pittsburgh are its four distinct seasons. Summers are hot and winters are cold and snowy. Fall and spring are beautiful as long as it is not raining. I wanted to capture the cityscape covered in snow to illustrate this. On Valentine’s Day the sky cleared, but snow remained on the ground, so I headed up to Mount Washington. To my pleasant surprise, there was ice floating in the rivers to further demonstrate the cold climate.
The North Shore, located across the Allegheny River from Downtown, is one of Pittsburgh’s most lively and photogenic locations. Heinz Field and PNC Park are the major attractions on this side of town. Along the river is a walking and biking path with some great views of the city. I knew that the river would glow under the downtown lights, so I set up my tripod at the water’s edge and captured this scene. The Roberto Clemente Bridge is on the right and the Andy Warhol Bridge is on the left.
This was my first time using my new Nikon D810 in Pittsburgh. The sharpness and detail of the 36 MP sensor combined with base 64 ISO is wonderful for cityscapes and architecture.
My favorite part of the Pittsburgh Skyline is One PPG Place; this skyscraper looks like a glass castle. One afternoon I drove to Downtown to get a closeup shot, and I was lucky to find the sun peaking through the clouds. I stopped my lens way down to get a big sunburst which I feel completes the composition.
Union Station is another example of Pittsburgh’s turn-of-the-century architecture. The station opened its doors to train passengers in 1903. Today it operates partly as a luxury apartment complex. The image you see here is looking up at the rotunda at the station’s entrance.
If you’ve ever been to Pittsburgh you will know that many of the city’s institutions are named after Andrew Carnegie, founder of US Steel and extraordinary philanthropist. The Carnegie Music Hall is one of these. The interior is ornate and beautiful. Students at CMU get to experience concerts at this incredible location free of charge.
The Smithfield Street Bridge spans the Monongahela River to connect Downtown to Station Square; once a bustling transportation hub, it has been turned into a shopping and dining center. Driving past Downtown one morning I realized I had not explored many of the bridges and my time in Pittsburgh was almost over. I went out on the bridge and saw that its lines led back towards the city, creating a nice composition.
The Roberto Clemente Bridge is one of many bridges that connect Downtown to the North Shore. This bridge is often closed to automobile traffic for sporting events taking place at Heinz Field and PNC Park. On one such occasion I was able to take a shot laying on the street looking across the bridge. I’ll admit that I had seen this perspective before and wanted to try it out myself.
The last big location on my list was near the Fort Pitt Bridge across the Monongahela River from Downtown. I waited for a very clear evening and parked my car at a small soccer stadium. Train tracks and the steep, rocky river bank made this location more dangerous than I expected. I fell at least once climbing down the rocks to the water’s edge. I finally setup my tripod and waited for the sky to turn dark. The river did a great job reflecting the city lights.
You have now seen some of my favorite cityscape and architecture images from two semesters living in Pittsburgh, PA. It is a unique and growing city with plenty of history to explore. Additionally, I worked for CMU’s Athletics Department as a sports photographer; I hope to write another post about that experience. This month I move to San Francisco to begin my life as a “real” person working in the tech industry. You can see more of my work at https://500px.com/mqnielsen.
This guest post was submitted by Matt Nielsen, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University where he studied Information Systems and competed on the varsity swim team. Please visit his gallery at 500px to see more of his work.