We’ve lived in NYC for over three years now and the only touristy thing I’ve wanted to do is visit the top of Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building. Last night I braced myself for the crowds and went to the Top of the Rock. It was a phenomenal sight from the upper observation deck. You’ve seen that view in movies or pictures a thousand times probably, but it doesn’t prepare you for the real thing.
If you are planning a trip to NYC and intend to do the Top of the Rock, here’s what to expect:
I purchased my go-anytime “ticket” online, because I didn’t want to be restricted to a certain time in case the weather turned bad. The entrance for the top is on West 50th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. When I arrived I found out that the “ticket” was actually a voucher and I had to wait in line to exchange it for a real ticket to the top. After a short wait, I was directed to the elevators. Everyone was excited and chattering, checking their cameras – here we go! There was another short wait to board the elevators. As we got on the elevator, the attendant announced, “This will take you two floors, where you have to get your ticket checked and go through security.” What?
The security line moved fairly quick. It’s like going through airport security, but you can keep your shoes and belt on. After security, you are corralled into a waiting pen where they show historical footage of the building of Rockefeller Center. There are three chutes and each one is timed for departure every 8-12 minutes. Our middle group watched the one to our left go first. Then we waited eight minutes, entertained by the history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.
After our 8 minutes passed, we were directed to another line for another elevator. We lined up in two waves for entry to the elevator and after another handful of minutes, we were IN THE ELEVATOR. This was it! And it was the elevator to the top. The level of chattering and camera checking increased as we sped from the second floor to the 67nd floor. The 67th and 69th floor observation decks have safety glass that extends about ten feet up. It’s probably very nice on windy days, but not great for taking photographs. The 70th floor observation deck is open to the elements and you take two escalators to get there.
As I expected, there were a lot of people up there and it got more crowded as the sun slowly approached the horizon to the West. At first people were taking turns leaning onto the rail to enjoy the view and take pictures. But as it got closer to sunset people were claiming spots along the rails and not moving. Everyone was waiting for the Empire State Building to light up at sunset. I grabbed a south-facing perch and waited with the others.
For photographers wanting to get a good pictures, here are some things to be aware of:
- no tripods or monopods. A tourist somehow set up his tripod and was told to take it down by security.
- it is hazy in daylight, especially on hot summer days. The sky looks blue and clear from the street below, but it’s incredibly hazy 70 floors in the air. You might want to consider using a filter to reduce this.
- it’s crowded. People will bump into you while you are shooting. Deal with it.
- if you are against the rail or a section where there is a stone ledge, you can rest your camera on the ledge to get a more stable shot. I saw a few people using a Gorillapod.
- right after sunset is perfect light obviously. If you can time it to capture this time, it’s worth it. You can spend as much time as you want up there. The security people are friendly and no one will tell you to leave if you are behaving.
- I used a digital Nikon D700 and a 50mm f1.4 Nikkor lens. The 50mm (the D700 is full frame, so it’s a true 50mm) was a perfect lens for me, but I can imagine that a 35mm lens would be fantastic as well.
The colors at sunset are gorgeous, but the deep blue sky after sunset (the magic hour) is just phenomenal.