WTC 2010, Part 2 of 2

You can see two things in the pictures below. First, a longer exposure time leads to greater chance of shake. Two, a sturdy tripod with some sort of spirit level on it would help keep pictures straight. These two are a little off…

Empire State Building with a slow shutter speed

150mm, f/6.3, ISO 400, 1.3 seconds

Empire State Building with a faster shutter speed

150mm, f/6.3, ISO 400, 0.3 seconds

You have to keep an open mind when taking pictures like this. Sure, I had some ideas for what I wanted to capture. And if I had gone to Jersey City, I might have had a better angle to get those shots. Instead, I was shooting a bright blue light in a dark sky on a fairly clear night in an un-scouted location. Time to think on one’s toes.

That’s how I wound up with the next shot. This is not something I ever would have pre-visualized, but when I walked a bit and saw everything lining up so perfectly, I jumped at it. I planted my tripod in a patch of grass, moved it to the sidewalk, and played with the angle to get the right spot. I’m still not sure I got it. I wonder if I had stepped back more, would I have had a better line leading into the picture? Or would I have had more dead space at the bottom? I guess we’ll never know.

Walkway to World Trade Center, September 11, 2010

17mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 2 seconds

But this is the spot where I learned my most valuable lesson of the name: Manual focus is your friend. The camera couldn’t grab focus on the blue light here. Heck, it was having a hard time grabbing focus ANYWHERE. My poor little Canon XTi only has one cross sensor. That’s at dead center in the picture, where there’s not much besides black sky and a blue light that’s multiple stops less bright than the lights surrounding it. There’s not enough edge contrast there for the camera to lock focus.

That’s when it hit me to go with manual focus. And that’s when I was happiest that my lens was a Tamron and had all the markings I needed. Specifically, it has the infinite focus spot labeled on the focus ring. Thanks to that, I had everything effectively in focus, from front to back. After that, all I needed to do was play with the aperture to dim the bright lights a little bit, and the ISO to get the shutter speed quick enough to avoid some shake.

One other lesson I was already learning from this picture: Lens compensation would be a very handy thing to have. I don’t have Lightroom 3 yet. Don’t have a computer that will work with it. But being able to straighten out some of the lines in this picture would be a good thing. Look at the way the light pole pulls in on the left there. The blue beam is straight, only because it’s in the center of the frame, where the distortion doesn’t happen.

(This picture is now lens corrected with Lightroom 3.  It didn’t straighten everything out as much as I’d hoped, but it did make a difference.)

Walking down a little further, I passed by all the tourists taking pictures. Saw one guy with his point and shoot on a tripod, trying to a pic of his three friends in front of the city. I quietly wished him luck and kept walking. I saw a couple of other photographers there with their SLRs and tripods (all fancier than mine) set up along the way, and tried to stay out of their way. I picked a spot that had a clear view of the Empire State Building to my left, and the blue lights straight ahead. Just to the right of the beams was a string of lights from a bridge, though I have no idea which one. To the left were some low-lying buildings, nothing remarkable. That’s what I had to work with.

On the bright side, the sky was mostly clear, minus an occasional small cloud drifting by in the far distance. The wind was up, but I thought I had everything I needed to get a decent shot. Again, it just came down to getting the right settings. How quick a shutter speed to minimize the wind? How high an ISO to achieve that? How large an aperture could I use? Adjust one to the left, adjust the other to the right. Click, try again.

World Trade Center Lights, 2010

17mm, f/2.8, ISO 400, 1.3 seconds

I did notice something from the new perspective, though. It’s something that came up in an earlier conversation. It looked like only one beam was on. I suspected that was because we were looking across the beams, and one was hiding behind the other effectively. Looking up at the clouds where the light ended, I could see I was right. Two clear bright spots of light indicated that two beams were piercing the sky. But from there, it only looked like one. Perspective is your enemy. And, again, my choice of location came back to bit me. I’d rather have a shot with both lights visible, but I’d take what I could get.

The big issue with shooting two and three second exposures is having items moving in the scene. You’d think I’d be safe in shooting cityscapes, but no. For starters, there were still boats out on the river at night, including one large booze cruise ship that noticeably blurred across a shot or two. And the planes streaked across the sky, with long white trails at inopportune times. With all the airports around the area, they’re impossible to miss.

At one point, I tried a longer lens to take a few shots, and that caused me to miss a picture that I’m still not sure if I’m ticked off or happy to have missed. One particularly low-flying commercial plan flew between my camera and the blue beams, crossing over it at a fairly eerie angle. The plane looked huge. In reality, I never could have frozen the plane in place and still get anything with enough light on it in the picture. But for a moment, I was disappointed.

In any case, I went back to the wide angle lens and played around with my composition. Unfortunately, at 9:55 p.m., a golf cart came by, telling everyone that the park was closing in five minutes. I didn’t want my car locked in the parking lot, so I called it a night.


Remembering what the bicycling photographer said, I drove north after leaving the park, instead of the southern direction I’d take on that road to get back home. About a mile up, I found a small side street lined with businesses and restaurants and free street parking. At the end was a nice brick-pavement circle, some dramatic lighting, and an awful lot of fencing along the Hudson. There were some people there, but none of them blinked at the site of me and my tripod looking for a good angle. The angle was straight down the Hudson and right at the lights. Being further away from the lights meant a tiny bit longer of an exposure was needed, but the lights turned out to be the bigger problem.

The walkway was lined with lights, and every one of them flared up across my camera’s lens. I tried standing between the camera and the light to the left. That helped shade the camera, but then the lens flare would come from the right side of the camera. There was no winning. Still managed to squeeze in a couple decent shots, though they look a lot like my others.

I tried to get a clean pic of the brick circle, complete with water feature and surrounding circle of lights, but there was too much foot traffic to ever get a clean shot. Oh, well.

Just to wrap things up, here’s a shot of the city I took away from the blue lights:

New York City skyline

35mm, f/11, ISO200, 6 seconds

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