New York: Top of the Rock

From Top of the Rock
Nighttime view from Top of the Rock

Whenever anyone goes to New York City, one of the things they want to do is go up in the Empire State Building. And why not? It is an iconic building and it offers great view of the city.

But there is a problem with the view from the Empire State Building for photographers. That problem is that you don’t have the Empire State Building in your shot.

The solution is to go to the top of 30 Rockefeller Center, also known as Top of the Rock.

About Top of the Rock

This is an observation deck that sits atop this 70 story building (850 feet/260 meters tall). After being closed for several years, it underwent a $75 million renovation and reopened in 2005. There are actually two stories to the deck and you can see in every direction. To the south you will see downtown, to the north is Central Park. It is surrounded by thick plexi-glass for safety (which also cuts down on the wind), but there are gaps between the panels large enough to stick your lens through.

It is a pricey ticket at $32 for adults ($26 for children 6-12 and $30 for seniors), but it is worth it. The entrance is on 50th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Fore more logistical information, check out their website.

When to Go

Top of the Rock is open daily from 8:00 am through 12:00 midnight (last trip up at 11 pm), so you have plenty of options for when to visit. The best time to visit is about an hour before sunset. This will give you time to get tickets, go through the displays, and take the elevator to the top before sunset. Once at the top, you will be able to take daylight pictures before the sun goes down. Then you will get sunset photos. Then you can hang around for a few night shots as well.

If you want to see the view during the day and at night you can also purchase their Sun & Stars pass, which lets you go up twice in the same day at different times. It costs a little more though ($45 for adults).

How to Shoot

Exposure settings at Top of the Rock might not be what you expect. To start with, while you might think that view would require a deep depth of field, it really does not. Everything in the shot is really far away from you (over 50 feet/30 meters). All that really needs to be in focus is “infinity.” Therefore with your camera set to focus very far away, you can use an aperture setting like f/5.6 or f/8 and still have everything sharp. This has the benefit of letting a lot of light into your camera and also eliminating any concerns about diffraction.

You might have to use a longer shutter speed if you are shooting at night, and the bad news about Top of the Rock is that they do not allow tripods. And they are watching for you, so don’t try to use them.¬†You do have some options for stabilization though:

  • Monopods are allowed. Put your camera on the monopod and then find a way to stabilize it as you shoot between the plexi-glass panels or from the top deck.
  • Use your tripod as a monopod. They will allow you to bring your tripod to the top, and you can use it by extending one leg only and using it as a monopod. Then use it in the same way as mentioned for the monopod.
  • Find a place to set your camera. There are concrete/stone shelves where you can place your camera for stability. I’ve done this but it makes me nervous. Keep your strap wrapped around your wrist a few times to make sure it doesn’t blow off.

This is one place where it makes a lot of sense to bracket your photos. You will likely be dealing with a dynamic range problem. During the day, the sky will be much brighter than the foreground. At night, the city lights will be much brighter than everything else around them. To capture all the tones, bracketing and using HDR later might be the only way to keep from having blown highlights.

Sunset view from Top of the Rock (yes, there are other views, but I like this one the best).

When setting up your shot, think about two things: a center of interest and the foreground. As to the center of interest, the Empire State Building is an obvious place to start. I have taken hundreds of photos from Top of the Rock, and no matter how creative I tried to be, almost all the photos I liked when I got home were straight-ahead shots of the Empire State Building (see Take the Obvious Shot). Then just try to set up the shot so that the foreground makes sense to you. It is difficult to explain what makes a good foreground in this context, just make sure you pay attention to it.

Don’t forget to shoot a panorama while you are up there as well!


Even for non-photographers, Top of the Rock is often the highlight of their trip to New York. Check out the reviews on Trip Advisor, where it is currently rated as the #3 attraction in all of New York. For photographers, it is even better. Do not miss this place next time you head to New York.