Times Square is one of the most photographed places in the world. However, vacation photos shot in this exciting New York City attraction can often be disappointing. Here are seven easy-to-remember tips that will help you to capture stunning memories of your visit to Times Square.
While Times Square is colorful anytime of the day, you do not get the full impact of all those mega-wattage billboards until the sky has darkened a bit. This is when Times Square literally begins to glow. The true character and color of this dazzling attraction really starts near sunset. However, keep this in mind: Do not wait until the sky is completely dark. Shoot during twilight, when the sky is alive with warm blue and violet sunset hues. Sunset and twilight colors add pleasing background color and sparkle to your Times Square photos. In fact, your most exciting photos will be captured during the sunset/twilight time of evening.
There is another good reason to shoot at twilight: The extremely wide dynamic range of light to dark tones in Times Square will cause exposure problems when shooting under a completely dark sky. The blackness of a dark sky against the bright lights of Times Square often means that many of those billboards will be overexposed by the camera’s meter, turning colors pure white. The best solution is to shoot while there is lingering color in the sky. This creates a more balanced exposure, insuring that most of the bright billboard colors will be captured faithfully.
Here is a photo of Times Square taken only a half-hour before sunset. Everywhere you look, there is plenty of detail and color. Because the light in the sky and billboards is in perfect balance, everything is well exposed. I shot this photo handheld, using a Canon Rebel XS with the image stabilized kit lens (more on the benefits of image stabilization later in the article).
I shoot all of my best photos of Times Square within a half hour of sunset. The colors glow in a way that cannot be captured at any other time of day.
This is the best accessory to have if you plan to enlarge your photos to 8×10 or larger, and want the best possible quality. A tripod will allow you to create the sharpest possible photos at twilight. It makes possible the use of the camera’s lowest ISO setting for best possible image quality, and slower shutter speeds required by low light conditions. Stopping down the lens to F:8 or more insures the sharpest depth-of-field (sharpness through the full depth of the scene captured). It is cumbersome to carry, but essential for the highest quality images.
The photo below was shot about a half hour after sunset using a DSLR camera, kit lens, and tripod. Typically, Monday and Tuesday evenings are the least crowded in Times Square (unless there is a special event), making it more conducive to using a tripod.
If you bring a tripod, be sure to keep things simple. Your camera, a standard zoom lens (18-55mm if you’re using a DSLR) and tripod is all you really need. Don’t bring too much equipment. You want to be able to setup quickly and keep moving to get as many photos as possible. Plus, you’re less likely to lose or drop something due to fiddling with lens changes etc. Keep it simple!
This recommendation comes with a qualifier. Officially, tripods used by commercial film crews and photographers in Times Square Plaza require a permit. According to the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, a commercial crew is defined as two or more people requiring more than ten minutes to setup and shoot either film or camera on tripod. However, even as a non-professional, you may occasionally be asked by an officer to stop using your tripod during crowded events or for security reasons. The best thing to do is be polite, pick up your tripod and move on. You can always shoot from another street or vantage point in the area.
If you are shooting handheld, you can generally get pretty sharp photos at sunset if you use the IS or VR feature of your camera. In fact, I consider this an essential camera feature if you are not using a tripod (tip #2). Using a budget priced Nikon D60 DSLR, I have created sharp hand-held evening Times Square images at speeds as low as 1/10th second with the VR function enabled at the lowest ISO setting (ISO 100). In-camera stabilization is a must-have feature if you want to get great Times Square shots while traveling light. Also, you can increase the ISO setting of most modern DSLR and better “point and shoot” cameras to 400 ISO or 800 ISO for faster shutter speeds while keeping image noise at low levels.
The photo below was shot with my favorite handheld Times Square camera, a Canon Rebel XS with an image stabilized kit lens. I set the camera at 400 ISO, F:8 lens aperture with Image Stabilization enabled. If you are planning to buy a camera for your visit to Times Square, be sure that it has Image Stabilization (also known as Vibration Reduction, or Anti-Shake). It is a wonderful feature that can allows you to capture crisp photos that would normally require a tripod. Most entry level DSLR cameras and better point and shoot cameras have this feature. DSLR cameras typically give you clearer, noise free photos in low-light and evening photography.
The Canon Rebel XS is a camera I highly recommended. However, it is discontinued and replaced by the Canon Rebel T3. This is a lightweight DSLR with an excellent Image Stabilized kit lens that will produce amazing Times Square Photos. Plus the T3 adds video, a feature I did not have on my Rebel XS.
The largest benefit of using a polarizer in Times Square is reduced reflections. The myriad of reflective surfaces and light sources in Times Square bounces light in all directions. A polarizer can add perceived sharpness to a photo by minimizing reflections and enhancing contrast. Try shooting with and without a polarizer to see what gives the most pleasing results. A circular polarizer on a DSLR camera can be rotated until you see the desired result in your viewfinder or liveview screen. Just be aware that a polarizer slows down your shutter speed because it absorbs some light entering the lens.
Keep in mind that use of a polarizer filter results in slower shutter speeeds. If you use a polarizer at sunset for hand-held images, it increases the risk of blurred photos. It is best used with a tripod.
The range of light extremes in Times Square go from bright white highlights to deep black shadows. Shooting in raw mode allows you to extract the best possible quality from your images in post-processing. Typically, I find Highlight Recovery and Brightness adjustments essential for creating the best looking images. You also have the ability to tweak White Balance for getting the best possible color. Developing basic RAW image post processing skills is not difficult to learn. I highly recommend Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 for those who are starting to take photography seriously. It is a powerful but easy-to-use software.
The crazy shapes, colors and movement seen in Times Square demand creative compositions. Go beyond the standard snapshot views. Shoot at an angle, capture details, look for pleasing abstracts of pure color. Capture the blur of motion and traffic light trails with slower shutter speeds. Shoot plenty of images. Your best photos may not be the most carefully planned shots!
Shooting in Times Square can be a challenge for any camera, especially during and after sunset, when colors and lights spring to life. The big issue is the extreme contrast between the brightest lights and the darkest shadows. Low range pocket digicams will have the greatest problems with these ight extremes. Typically, the brightest lights will turn pure white in your photos from overexposure, and the darkest shadows become noisy. For best results, most entry-level DSLR cameras or mirrorless camera systems (with larger DSLR sized sensor) should be up to the task. Modern, low-cost kit lenses that come with these cameras all have some form of vibration reduction or image stabilization. These lenses are ideal for shooting sharp handheld images in Times Square around sunset. Increase the camera ISO speed to 400, turn on your stabilization or vibration reduction feature, and set your lens to F:8. These settings should give you sharp, colorful Times Square images without using a tripod.
That’s it! These easy to implement suggestions will help you to create memorable images of this exciting destination. Enjoy your trip to Times Square, New York City. I hope these tips help you to capture wonderful memories!