Thursday, July 14, 2011

How to Photograph Manhattanhenge

Twice a year, approximately  three weeks both before and after the summer solstice, the sunset lines up with the street grid of Manhattan.  The term for this, Manhattanhenge, was coined in 2002 by astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson of the American Museum of Natural History as a reference to Stonehenge in England.  It only applies to those streets beginning with 14th and going to upper Manhattan that were laid out in 1811.

The edges were allowed to go dark to enhance the effect of New York as a canyon of buildings framing the setting sun. See the photo at the end of this blog for a different interpretation of this same image.
Although the exact date for Manhattanhenge is when the sun is a full ball centered on the street as it sets on the horizon, it is possible to obtain great photos for at least five days before and after the main event.  

Be sure to allow plenty of time in advance of actual sunset.  You will have approximately ten minutes from when the sun peaks around the corner of the southern building until it finally sets.  So get to your shooting site at least a half hour before the time listed for actual sunset.

Photographing the sunset event is not too difficult, if you don't count taking your life in your hands to dodge street traffic.  The three things you will have to deal with are:  finding the right location, selecting the proper lens for what you want to capture, and setting the proper exposure when shooting directly into the sun.


While any cross street on the grid above 14th Street will provide the proper vista, a good choice is usually one of the wider streets, such as 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, etc.  Two streets that make particularly good vistas are 34th and 42nd Street.  That is because they contain two important New York buildings that look distinctive in silhouette.  The Empire State Building is on 34th Street at Fifth Avenue.  The best place to record its silhouette and the sunset is from the East side of Park Avenue.    

A similarly dramatic view can be had of the Chrysler Building, which is located on 42nd Street at Lexington Avenue.  The best place to include it in your photograph is from an overhang that crosses 42nd Street near First Avenue.  Unfortunately, this is one of the most popular views and is very crowded with people, some of whom show up in the early afternoon to reserve a spot.  Another view of 42nd Street including the Chrysler Building is from street level where 42nd crosses Second Avenue.

The shooting spot happens to be right in the middle of the Street.  People wait for the "walk" signal and then quickly take a few photos before scurrying back to the safety of the sidewalk when the light changes to give the traffic the right of way.  Large groups also gather on the 42nd Street overhand that goes up Park Avenue to Grand Central Terminal.  The problem with this view is that the Chrysler Building is not in the shot so you have to be content with a simpler shot.

Whatever location you choose, it is best to scout it out ahead of time.  The Sunset event happens quickly in less than ten minutes.  When you couple that with all the traffic and crowds, you really do not have much time to prepare on the spot.  

Lens choice:

There are basically two types of shots to this event: One is a wide view that includes some of the story-telling detail of the city.  The other is a tight, telephoto shot of the ball of the sun, perhaps combined with some to the city traffic to add interest.
In this case a moderate wide angle focal length of 35mm includes a full view of the city with the Chrysler Building on the right framing the setting sun.

Here a long telephoto lens of 400mm compress the space.  This enhances the congestion of traffic and provides a solid circular shape to the sun.  The refracted blurs over the traffic were caused by shooting directly into such a powerful light.
For a vertical wide angle view you will need the equivalent of a 24-50mm lens.  (All focal lengths here are expressed for full-frame format cameras.  On a camera with an APS format divide the focal length numbers by 1.5.  For instance a 24-50mm in APS size would be approximately 16-33mm).  To obtain a horizontal shot like the first one on this blog entry you will need a lens between 16-28mm.

To capture the ball of the sun takes something between 200-600mm, with 300-400 providing a good combination of full sun and some compressed areas of the city traffic and buildings.


Shooting directly into the sun, especially with a telephoto lens will usually fool the camera light meter into under-exposing the image, resulting in a very dark silhouette with no detail.  It is best to put your camera on manual exposure mode and take a light reading.  Do not read the light with the camera pointed directly into the sun.  This will result in an under-exposed image.  Instead, point your camera to an area of the sky where the sun is just a tiny bit out of the frame, and take a light reading of this area.  Use that as the basis of your starting exposure.  To play it safe, bracket your exposure by shooting one full stop lighter and one darker than the correct exposure.

You probably do not need a tripod because you will be shooting directly into the sun.  This will provide an exposure with plenty of motion-stopping shutter speed.  An ISO setting of 200-400 should work fine for this, and should be sufficient to allow a fast enough shutter speed to hand-hold the camera at a lens opening of f/4-5.6.  

Special effects:
The exact same six-sided star filter was used to create these two photos.  The lens on the left was set to 24mm, while the one on the right was set to 44mmm.  This resulted in a much more exaggerated star effect.
A star filter can enhance the effect of the sun with a wide angle lens.  On a lens of normal to telephoto length it can become a bit over-powering.  


In a situation like Manhattanhenge where you include a very bright light object and dark areas of shadow, it is best to take the photograph in RAW format.  This will give you a wider color and exposure latitude to make corrections and adjustments afterward.  All of the photos used above were done in RAW and enhanced later in Photoshop to bring out the color and details where desired.  

This is the same photo as the one at top that opened this blog entry, but it shows far more detail in the shadow areas and a different tint to the sunset.  Bringing out an image like this was only possible because it was shot in RAW, providing plenty of color and detail with which to work in Photoshop.


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