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Photo Tips

General Electric Building.

General Electric Building (1931), 570 Lexington Avenue at E 51st Street. Architect: Cross & Cross.

After taking a few thousand photos, I can share a few observations about photography in The Big Apple.

  • Traffic is ugly. Cars, trucks, and buses are constantly getting in the way of your picture. Traffic signs and traffic lights are even worse – they never move out of the way. The only cure for parked cars is to make note of the alternate-side-of-the-street-parking signs: They’ll tell you when one side of the street is supposed to be clear for the street sweepers, so you should be able to get a clear shot. But if you’re patient, you’ll usually find breaks in traffic that give you a clear shot of a building. At street corners, moving a few feet closer to a building can clear traffic lights and signs from your picture.
    This site: www.nycdot.info/ maps all of the parking signs! Just zoom in on the location you’re photographing, check the “Parking Signs” checkbox, and then click a sign in front of the building. The resulting popup will show you the parking regulation in effect.
  • Scaffolding is ugly. New York’s Local Law 11 is intended to ensure that buildings are inspected and repaired often enough to prevent bricks and gargoyles from falling on tourists. This actually happened once, and the city naturally overreacted. Now, building facades must be inspected every five years; Local Law 11 could also be named the Scaffold Workers Full Employment Act. Ironically, more people are now injured each year by scaffold accidents than were previously hurt by falling bricks. Go figure. Meanwhile, that gorgeous building you want to photograph may be wrapped in pipes and boards. Come back in six months.
  • Beware the tripod police. Over-zealous building security folks can go crazy when they see you aim a camera at their building. Especially if you’re using a tripod. Serious photographers use tripods, but the uninformed and uniformed assume that all tripod users are either professionals who need a permit, or terrorists who need to be locked up. For the record, tripods and still photography are completely legal without permit for professionals and non-professionals, as long as you’re on public property and aren’t claiming exclusive use of the street or sidewalk. If you’re shooting and moving, you’re OK. [ See and print out NYC photo permits – paragraph 3. I carry this with me and show it to police or whoever else questions me. ]
  • New York buildings are big. And close together. Which means that if you’re trying to capture whole buildings in a single shot, a wide-angle lens (or wide-angle zoom) will really come in handy. Of course a telephoto lens also comes in handy, for cross-river shots or even capturing building details from across the street. This is where a super-zoom point-and-shoot like the Canon SX40 can leave a DSLR in the dust. You might also try for a vertical panorama – capture horizontal slices of a building, then stack and stitch the photos together using your favorite panorama software.
  • The most important ingredient is LIGHT. To capture the detail and texture of brick and stone, strong direct lighting is best. You need to have the sun in the right place – which only happens at certain times of the day. There’s a web site that will show you the best time to shoot (weather permitting): SunCalc.net. If you follow the link, you’ll see the setup for shooting the Studio Building on March 13, 2015. It uses Google Map as a base; you can set any date and time to see the direction of the sun.

Governors Island

Governors Island is open only during the summer on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Mondays. Free ferries run approximately every half hour from The Battery in Manhattan and every ten minutes from Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn. Visit The Trust for Governor’s Island for the 2015 schedule.

The island has two forts – Fort Jay and Castle Williams – that date back to 1806. (Castle Williams, which had been closed for renovations, has been reopened.) Other structures were added by the U.S. Army over the years; the island ended its military career as First Army HQ in 1966, when Governors Island was turned over to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard moved out in 1996; in 2001 the forts (and the land between them) were designated a National Monument. The federal government sold the island to the City and State of New York in 2003; “Open Access Weekends” began in 2005. Currently, Governors Island Alliance, the Trust for Governors Island, and the National Park Service are expanding the island’s park facilities and programs.

Google Map

High Line Park

New York “Parkitecture”: An abandoned elevated freight rail line on the Lower West Side has a new life as a one-of-a-kind elevated green space. The park winds from 34th Street near 12th Avenue to Gansevoort Street and Washington Street. (The northernmost extension opened in 2014.) You can enter at either end or at several stairways in between. Visit http://www.thehighline.org/ for more information.

Besides being an enjoyable destination unto itself, High Line is an excellent vantage point for spotting architectural landmarks of Chelsea, West Chelsea and Gansevoort Historic Districts.

Google Map

Discover New York Architecture

New York City has nearly a million buildings, erected over a span of four centuries in a bewildering (and fascinating) palette of styles. Yet most New Yorkers and visitors are oblivious to the city’s architectural riches. That’s not a criticism – just the observation that New York is so fast-paced, people rarely have a spare moment to appreciate the art and science of our built environment.

Here’s another observation: New York City has hundreds of museums of every description. But the Big Apple could be considered a museum itself: A 301-square-mile museum of architecture, where the exhibits change daily and reflect 400 years of development. Our homes, buildings, bridges, tunnels, subways and parks are fascinating works, accessible to all. Take the time to look around – and up and down – and you’ll discover a mosaic of history, art, and science in every borough.

If you are a New Yorker, you probably live or work just a short walk from some architectural treasure – possibly just minutes from an historic district filled with landmarks. If you’re a visitor, then your hotel is probably close to a landmark, or may itself be historic. To enjoy this wealth, all you need are your feet and your eyes. Camera is optional but recommended. As noted above, the exhibits change daily – your favorite building or park could be changed or demolished tomorrow, so capture it today. You can collect buildings, the way bird-watchers collect species.

This site is the start of what I hope will be a layman’s guide to and sampler of New York architecture: The photo galleries and related articles are meant to entice. As a layman’s guide, NewYorkitecture.com is not heavy on architectural jargon, but the site will be developing a modest beginner’s course on architectural appreciation. You won’t exactly learn architecture, but you’ll learn the differences between a column and a pilaster, and how to distinguish Gothic from Romanesque. At this writing, of course, the site is limited. I’ll be adding to it every week, so it will probably be worth your while to come back every week.

The navigation at the top of the screen is the most obvious way to get around – categorized to make it easier to follow. The home screen photos are linked to the ten most recent image galleries – just click to visit. You can also use the previous/next links in each gallery to explore another subject.

I include parks in this site because they are all designed – what I call “Parkitecture” – not just undeveloped land.

Enjoy the photo galleries! When you open a gallery, the slide show starts automatically. Click the icon next to “full screen” for a more dramatic view; click Play button in the bottom left corner to resume the slideshow. If you prefer, you can also use your keyboard left-arrow and right-arrow keys to go back and forth. When you’re in full-screen mode, the up and down arrows control the caption and carousel ribbon at the bottom of the screen. Press the [Esc] key to exit full-screen mode.

So jump in, explore, have fun. Then put on your most comfortable walking shoes and meet New York’s fabulous architecture in person!

If you are an out-of-town visitor to New York City, welcome! Take a look at the Guides section for helpful info.

If you find that the architecture bug has bitten you – beware, there is no antidote – you will need a better guide. The best guide, IMHO, is “ AIA Guide To New York City ” by Norval White and Elliot Willensky with Fran Leadon. (Oxford University Press, New York.) The 1,055-page fifth edition includes 955 pages of maps, photos and detailed block-by-block, building-by-building commentary on virtually every architecturally significant structure within the five boroughs. The book even notes significant demolitions! There are subject and address indexes, a glossary of architectural terms, even touring and photography tips. You can use the book as a walking tour guide, as a reference book, or as a history book of sorts (read about real estate development battles, zoning law trades, etc.). The authors’ scholarship is matched by their wit, so you’ll be entertained as well as educated. The “AIA” in the title, by the way, stands for American Institute of Architects.

Suggested Reading: NewYorkitecture.com is intended as a recreational site – exploring New York City’s architecture just for the fun of it. If you want to dig deeper, here’s a page of excellent research sites: Web Resources. If you’d rather learn from books you can hold, here’s a short list of excellent references: Favorite Books.

About NewYorkitecture.com

profile31 The “man behind the curtain” is me, Ken Grant, a retired travel industry journalist and web producer/programmer.

When I found myself with time on my hands, I resumed an old interest – photography. That led to going around town snapping pictures of places I knew as a kid (we moved around a lot), and that rekindled a fascination with architecture. Architecture fills one of our most basic needs – shelter – with beauty, utility and economy. Every building is a unique expression of that art and science, and many are wonders to behold. Within a month I realized that I just had to share my finds with others.

But, truth be told, I’m not an expert on architecture: I’m a gourmand, not a gourmet in this respect.

Tech notes: I’ve used six cameras in preparation of this site: Canon G5, Canon SX110 IS, OlympusSZ-10, Canon SX40, Canon Rebel T3i, and Canon 5D mark iii. The Canon 5D optics, speed and tech features leave the others in the dust – but is incredibly heavy. I’m now lugging 20 pounds of gear. But I miss the SX40, for its extreme zoom range of 24mm-840mm (35mm equivalent). That let me shoot whole facades from close in, or zoom in on a 20th-story gargoyle without carrying and changing lenses. Many galleries include High Dynamic Range (HDR) images – photos that merge three exposures to gain greater highlight and shadow detail. In these images, you may see ghost images of people and vehicles that moved between exposures. This is intentional. I also use Adobe’s Lightroom instead of HDR to improve the photos. In addition to saving more shadow and highlight detail, Lightroom lets me correct perspective (keeps verticals vertical).

Privacy Policy

NewYorkitecture.com does not collect any personal information. Links in NewYorkitecture.com may identify this site as the traffic source, but will not identify you as an individual. (Of course if you jump to a site where you have an account – say Amazon.com – that site will probably recognize you as a returning visitor.)

NewYorkitecture.com participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

Terms & Conditions

NewYorkitecture.com exercises reasonable care in linking to other sites, but cannot be responsible for the content of other sites.

Except where noted otherwise, all photography and writing is my own. You are welcome to enjoy and quote text from NewYorkitecture.com; credit would be appreciated.

I’ve invested a great deal of time and energy in creating these photos. I’m quite happy to share my discoveries with you in this site – and without ads! But I do ask that you respect my copyright and not re-use my photos without permission. Thank you!

You may order photos – digital or prints – on the Buy Photos page.

Fire Houses

What’s a fire house? Just a dorm with a garage, right? No way!! It’s where New York’s Bravest hang their helmets while pursuing arguably the most exciting career in the city. It’s where a kid might loiter on a summer afternoon: Waiting for the bells to summon firefighters to another blaze, watching the trucks roar to life, hearing the sirens and bells warn mere mortals to clear the way. (Well, fire trucks used to have shiny brass bells, and if you asked really nicely, the firemen would sometimes let you ring the bell.)

That excitement and romantic view of firemen must have inspired New York architects, because they designed some really awesome fire houses!

The elaborate stations of the early 1900s came about as New York City transitioned from volunteer corps to a paid professional force. The FDNY had its own architect, which for many years was Napoleon LeBrun. His crowning work was the station for Engine Company 31, a Loire Valley chateaux-style confection now used as television studios.

Incidentally – when you see a tower attached to or sprouting from a firehouse, that’s where they hang their hoses to dry between fires.

This photo gallery is but a small sample; you might also enjoy the “Ten House” (Engine Company 10/Ladder Company 10) website – it’s a portal into dozens of FDNY websites: www.fdnytenhouse.com/fdnylinks.htm

NewYorkitecture.com Photography Technique

Digital photography is wonderfully fast and cheap compared to conventional film photography: There’s no film to buy (or run out of!) or process – a single memory chip can store more than a thousand images, and be reused indefinitely. But digital photo display can be challenging, because digital photos don’t capture and store all of the image the same way that the human eye sees it. Frequently, what we see on the screen lacks shadow details or highlight details or both. And cameras are easily tricked by unusual lighting conditions, such as scenes with strong backlighting.

Architectural photography typically includes strong backlighting – a building with sky as backdrop – and/or shooting in bright sun, where shadows are especially deep and dark compared to the rest of the photo. Consequently, a typical building photo will have some areas that are underexposed and/or some areas that are overexposed. You won’t be able to see (on the computer screen) the details in shadows or highlights that the eye would normally see in real life.

When I started taking photos for this website I had to discard many photos because the camera meter was tricked by the backlighting. Then I started bracketing photos – taking shots that were intentionally overexposed and underexposed. The best of the three exposures would make it to the website. This was better, but still lacking.

In January, 2013 I began using High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography for NewYorkitecture.com. I was still bracketing each shot. But instead of selecting one of three images I used software to combine all three images. The normal exposure provided the photo’s midtones; the underexposed image provided the highlight details; the overexposed shot contributed the shadow details.

This technique imposes its own set of challenges: To work, the three images have to be EXACTLY the same. If the camera shifts even a fraction of an inch the final result won’t be sharp. And anything that moves between images – like cars, pedestrians, birds or planes – will be blurred or “ghosted” in the final image. So every shot has to be taken on a heavy tripod, and usually multiple times to catch breaks in traffic. But the results were often worth the extra hassles.

The software that I use can also create special effects with those three images – I’ve included a couple in the gallery above – but I only use the default “natural” setting for the galleries in this site.

If you’re interested in using this technique yourself, you’ll need: A good tripod; a camera that lets you over/under expose (preferably with an automatic bracketing mode); software to combine the images. I’ve tried a few different software packages, I like Photomatix from hdrsoft.com. They have a $39 “Essentials” version (free trial), and a $100 “Pro” version that has added features – the most important being the ability to automatically batch process hundreds of images.

In late April, 2013 I started using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 to make additional improvements – the most important being perspective correction. When you point a camera upwards to capture a whole building, vertical lines converge toward the top; the building seems to lean backwards. Occasionally, this makes a dramatic photo, but as a steady diet…. Lightroom (or Adobe Photoshop) can correct this, bringing all verticals back to vertical. The program also gives me greater exposure control than I have with HDR alone, so I can bring out even more detail. Many of Lightroom’s features are available in the free Gimp program, but Lightroom’s interface is so much easier to use.

I’ve stopped using HDR as a regular practice. I’m now using Lightroom and Photoshop to tweak exposures most of the time, saving HDR for only the most challenging lighting conditions.

GIMP – The GNU Image Manipulation Program is available at: www.gimp.org/. Adobe now “sells” Lightroom and Photoshop together as a Creative Cloud bundle for photographers, at $9.99 per month. This may seem odd, if you’re used to buying software, but in practice it’s far more economical than the old purchase-and-annual-upgrade cycle. As a bonus, you always have the most powerful, up-to-date software. You can get the details at Adobe.com.

Posterized Photos

This gallery is just for fun – posterized versions of images used elsewhere in this site. These images all started out normally – sets of bracketed exposures. Then I used Photomatix software to apply color shifts and luminosity effects with the “Grunge” preset. (See NewYorkitecture.com Photography Technique for more information about this technique.)

The images in the gallery are of buildings in the Chelsea, Soho, Ladies Mile, Civic Center, Astor Plaza and Flatiron districts.

Citigroup Center

Citigroup Center is remarkable New York architecture, with an engineering story even more dramatic than its photographs. The distinctive floating tower (renamed 601 Lexington Avenue in 2009) became a scary 59-story lesson for architects, engineers, public officials, lawyers and journalists worldwide.

Two elements make Citigroup (originally Citicorp) Center so distinctive: The southwest-facing 45-degree roof and the nine-story stilt base.

The signature angled roof, unmistakably visible for miles, was designed as a solar collector. A power gauge in the lobby once showed how much electricity was being generated by the sun. Apparently the solar panels were no threat to Con Ed – they’ve since been unplugged.

The stilt base was designed to turn a profit, not heads. It was almost a disaster.

The nucleus of the building’s site was owned by St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which wanted to sell the land and use the profits to build a new church in a less valuable location. As Citicorp assembled the other pieces of the site, St. Peter’s discovered that they couldn’t locate a suitable new church site. Oops. Citicorp’s solution was to build a new church on the corner, and erect the office tower above the church. (See “Holdouts!: The Buildings That Got in the Way” by Andrew Alpern and Seymour Durst for the full story.)

With the church located on the corner, the tower supports had to be placed at the center of each wall, instead of at the corners. This, in turn, required special bracing to transfer the weight of the building to the piers.

There was a miscalculation. In determining the maximum loads, LeMessurier had considered the effect of winds perpendicular to the facades – but not “quartering” winds that would push against two sides simultaneously. Making matters worse, the steel contractor had substituted bolted joints for the much stronger (but $250,000 more expensive) welded joints that were specified. LeMessurier discovered the error and the bolt substitution a year after the building was completed. The engineer ordered wind tunnel tests and discovered to his horror that the building was vulnerable to winds over 70 m.p.h.

After urgent meetings with Citicorp, LeMessurier ordered two-inch-thick plates to be welded in place over the bolted joints. Welders worked every night for three months in a race against hurricane season. They almost lost: Hurricane Ella was headed for New York on Sept. 1, 1978 but fortunately it turned out to sea, averting a massive evacuation of the neighborhood. (The Red Cross had estimated 200,000 deaths if the building toppled.)

The massive repair project went virtually unreported for 17 years – a newspaper strike hit New York just as the repairs began; The New Yorker broke the story in 1995. Diane Hartley, a Princeton engineering student, was the hero in this drama. In the course of writing her thesis, she had questioned LeMessurier’s calculations – triggering his reevaluation of the design. LeMessurier’s unflinching disclosure of the problem is today used as a case study in professional ethics.

In 2002 the building was reinforced again – this time one of the massive base columns was encased in steel and copper to protect against a terrorist bomb blast.

The engineering crisis overshadowed Citicorp Center’s other impressive features: Double-decker elevators used interior space more efficiently; a tiered, sunken plaza beneath the building’s southwest corner provides space for sidewalk cafes and entry to the subway system; a 410-ton “tuned damper” system in the crown minimizes the building’s wind-induced swaying.

Drama notwithstanding, Citigroup Center is an impressive and attractive addition to New York’s architectural treasure chest, whether viewed from afar, up close or inside.

Citigroup Center Vital Statistics
Citigroup Center Recommended Reading

Google Map

4545 Center Boulevard

4545 Center Boulevard is a new (still leasing at this writing) apartment tower in Long Island City designed by Miami-based Arquitectonica. The balcony-studded, rippled glass facades rise 40 floors over the East River, part of the Queens West development behind the giant Pepsi sign and Gantry Plaza State Park.

An attached six-story parking garage/amenities center is topped by a 50,000-square-foot “amenity deck” indoor/outdoor recreation area, replete with deck chairs.

This was the last of five towers along three blocks developed by TF Cornerstone. (TF stands for Tom and Fred Elghanayan.)

4545 Center Boulevard Vital Statistics
4545 Center Boulevard Recommended Reading

Google Map