Lower Manhattan, Sunset Friday, Dec 10 2010 

On the short list of my favorite cities in the world, New York has a special place. I visited it for the first time as a nine year-old boy, and was mesmerized. It lived on for decades in memories and photos until I came back in 2003. So when the opportunity came up to go there again this past Thanksgiving, I spared no expense.

The purpose of the trip was not photographic in nature, so I was content to see the city as a tourist yet again. In addition, the November weather was murky and unpredictable and did not hold much promise for successful photography. But, on the only day when the forecast called for clear skies in the afternoon, I decided to make the pilgrimage to the Observation Deck on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.

The plan was to shoot the sunset and capture the brilliant sunlight reflecting off majestic skyscrapers. But two things conspired against me — one, sun sets really quickly in the Northeast at this time of year, and two, it takes a really long time to get through all the lines and onto the top of the ESB. By the time we went through metal detectors, cheesy green-screen photographers, ticket counters, elevators and more elevators, the sun was gone, and only the glimmers remained. It wasn’t even 5 p.m. when this shot was taken.

Lower Manhattan, Sunset

Lower Manhattan, Sunset

On the plus side, the city lights were coming on, and the south view to lower Manhattan was fantastic. The downtown buildings stand out wonderfully, with the Flatiron, Woolworth, and Metropolitan Life dominating the foreground along with Fifth Avenue. If you know where to look, you can find other New York highlights, such as the Liberty Island (with the Statue of Liberty just barely lit), and Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

Taking the photo without a tripod in fleeting light wasn’t exactly easy. I tried several techniques and spots along the southern terrace of the Observation Deck. The settings I ended up being the happiest with are the ISO 400 (not too noisy, but enough to keep the shutter speed manageable) and f/5.6 (one stop down for my 17-40mm f/4L lens). Resulting shutter speed was 0.4 seconds, so I braced myself into the fence and hoped for the best.

Michigan and Chestnut

The exposure ended up being just a little dark, so I lightened it in PhotoShop, carefully watching not to lose the pink and orange hues along the horizon. The shot immediately reminded me of a similar photo of Chicago I took from the Hancock Tower when I was there shooting with my friend John. Millions of tourists see these same views every week, but the iconic cityscapes represent a universal language that all tourists speak.

The Indestructible Fifty Friday, Dec 3 2010 

I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I had to start rebuilding my Canon gear from scratch. After I decided to purchase the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, my needs dictated to get a “walkaround” lens, something that I can keep on my camera about 80% of the time. That ended up being the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, which is truly spectacular, and served me well in many occasions.

Lovrijenac Fortress

Nifty Fifty at its best

And yet, with two Canon cameras (one digital and one film), I was not done collecting gear. My friend Scott was selling his EF 50mm f/1.8 II, otherwise known as “the nifty fifty”, so I was happy to take it off his hands. The Fifty proved to be a wonderful addition to my arsenal almost immediately, as I made some really nice portraits with it, although it was also occasionally useful for landscapes. It’s very light, and I once mistakenly took it off the camera thinking I’m only twisting off the lens cap.

Lenses of that focal length aren’t difficult to manufacture, so they are of very simple design and very good optically. Its large maximum aperture opened up a lot of possibilities for photos with narrow depth of field. I was able to use it in a wide variety of ways, and the image of the Lovrijenac Fortress pictured above is one of my favorite photos, a print of which is awaiting matting and framing. I loved using it on my film camera (Canon Elan 7), because there was something basic about the combination.

Indestructible Fifty

A photo of the old lens, taken with the new lens

Alas, in the last year or so, it had it rough. The Fifty had to share the backpack with several other pieces of kit, many of which were more sturdily built. At some point, it lost the battle against the Mamiya 645 1000S, and its autofocus function was no longer available. The innards were spilling out, and at one point along the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park, I even dropped it and barely saved it from a fall of many hundreds of feet. The Indestructible Fifty kept on clicking, but it clearly needed to be replaced.

This past Thanksgiving Week, I spent a few days in New York City, and on my list of places to visit was the B&H Photo Video store, the largest camera store in the world. They are the best in the business, and I’ve purchased items from their website many times before, anything from a roll of film to my Canon 7D. The store is insanely efficient, which it has to be, because the amount of shoppers rivals any department store I’ve ever been to. The staff was extremely knowledgeable, and through an amazing system of belts and elevators, they provided me with a brand new copy of the nifty fifty. I used it to snap the picture of the old lens falling apart, but I hope to find many happier subjects for it in the future.

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