Union Square at dawn
One early evening sometime last year fall or winter, I found myself walking down Broadway in lower Manhattan. The path I was on soon put me at the northwestern corner of Union Square park. Nothing unusual for me about that. Establishments around the park have succeeded in attracting my business for years so I find myself there all the time, and as such nothing on that “pleasant for this time of year” evening, should have caught my attention, yet something did.
As I started walking through the park I looked up and in the clear evening light I saw a magnificent looking structure. It had an oriental looking roof and decoratively walled off balcony all along the perimeter. Topping it off, it was lit magnificently by street lamps and accent lights. “How is it that I’m just noticing how fabulous this structure looks now, when I’ve been coming here for decades?” – I asked myself in complete amazement.
Turned out the structure that caught my eye was the Pavilion. Once a marvelous looking open air restaurant, that naturally as such had no way to keep their patrons comfortable in inclement weather and so was a seasonal establishment. It closed some time ago. There were numerous reviews that I read from customers that stated that the ambiance was all it had going for it, for the service, from those with negative reviews, was abysmal they said. Possibly this is what led to its demise. I do not know. I do know no eating establishment has been there since but a new owner, Jason Leeds, finally purchased the spot, and plans to open a fancy pizza restaurant there this summer, run by a well regarded executive chef ( I just can’t wait to try it).
But none of that was running through my head at the time, only the beauty of the structure and my failure to notice it, though at one point I did vaguely remember seeing open-air seating there in the summer long ago. Then it occurred to me that Union Square park from one end to the other is always teeming with human activity of all sorts year round. This section not all year round, but still quite often, and with its farmers market this sections most famous feature, running spring through fall and other events in between, in fact there is so much other stuff going on when I walk by that I certainly never stopped looking at whatever activity was happening at the time long enough to even notice the Pavilion. But with this part of the park empty and the night so clear this time it practically reached out and smacked me in the face.
Naturally as a photographer (amateur though I may be) immediately I wanted to frame this fabulous edifice in my mind for a future picture, but I was in too much of a hurry to either get to the store I was headed to, or to the subway after shopping at said store already, to do so. No problem, the next time I’m here I’ll take the time to look around and do some mental composing then.
It took quite a number of weeks before that happened, but when it did fortunately again this part of the park was empty and I could walk around to size it up photogenically. But when I tried to mentally frame a closeup of it, my photographic instincts told me this was not going to work, at least not in the way I was picturing it in my minds eye. And I didn’t have to bring one of my cameras and lenses to prove it to me. I always trust my instincts.
It wasn’t that I thought that I couldn’t find an angle that in the right light wouldn’t make for a very nice shot, even a magnificent one for that matter. It’s just that I was certain the best possible shot by far would be one that included some of the surroundings as well. But how many extra elements were needed and which ones? I knew the apartment buildings behind it were a must, but just cropping in on those three extra elements plus a bit of the park to make this structure stand out in bold relief, might still not be enough.
For one, in order to guaranty the place being empty enough of activities to shoot, I was going to have to come early in the morning (and even then only on a weekend), probably sunrise, and in that light the park would most likely be very dark and therefore probably un-photogenic, so I’d probably need to include more scene around it to compensate for that.
At this point I concluded if I was going to have to include even more surrounding elements than part of the stone wall surrounding the park to complete my vision, I should probably use my panoramic gear and take multiple exposure shots and stitch them together in my panoramic software program, because that would insure loads and loads of fine detail even in the dim morning light plus I could easily avoid any converging verticals in the buildings this way, and converging verticals are a constant thorn in your side whenever you include buildings, especially tall ones in any scene.
While I wasn’t sure just how much extra scene I was going to ultimately include, I was certain the park would be in it in some form, and if I took the shot once all the leaves were in the trees, they would look like a big dark blob in such early morning light. So I would need to capture the scene by March at the latest to both avoid the leaves in the trees and the people activity in the square itself.
No chance that was happening in January, too much after Xmas activity at work to get the free time. By late February the constant overtime slowed to a trickle, but there were now loads of backed up chores piling up at home from doing all that overtime and I was too tired from it to crawl out of bed at 4 in the morning to catch the ferry from Staten Island to the city early enough to beat the sun.
By March things at home and work were approaching normalcy - but I was still pooped from completing all that nonstop night and day activity. Now never one to have that loathsome alarm clock yank me out of bed on a day off, I wondered if I could wake up that early on my own yet. But when the upcoming schedule said I would be off on the 4th, I packed up the necessary gear to get the shot and a few extra lenses (not sure which one would be best for the panorama) and set them out in the living room the night before hoping I would wake up early enough on my own to use them.
Thankfully I did wake up early enough to catch a 5:00 boat. Sunrise was at about 6:25 and if transportation went smoothly, would get me to the park with about 20 minutes to spare. More than enough time to pick the best lens and set up my gear to take the panorama.
I had hoped for a mostly clear sky with just a few clouds to add drama. Specifically what I was hoping for was a complete clear eastern sky at the horizon line, to not block the light from the sun as it rose above the horizon and tall buildings that would sit between me and the sun from where I would be standing to eventually take the shot. Then a few or even just one cloud above my scene to catch the warm light off of, and then I would have instant magic. However the weatherman said it would be overcast at sunrise. But with few weekend days off left before this shot became impossible I had to take what I could get, and I hoped that by some miracle a break in the clouds along the horizon in the east could make for an awesome sky even with all the clouds. But when I came up out of the R train, or whatever train replaced it, and looked south I saw a deep cloud bank from east all the way to the west that had no chance of thinning out before I needed to take the shot.
Seeing that, I decided I was going to include less sky and more street in my pano, which if I did it right could add a nice feeling of depth to the image (do it wrong and I’d add a lot of distracting dead space in the foreground instead), and I walked around for a minute or two looking for a spot that would naturally make the Pavilion stand out while being part of a huge pano with lots of other elements in it, and at the same time be a good place to accentuate the depth and openness of the square.
The sun would be up in a few minutes and the light would start changing dramatically with it so I couldn’t waste anymore time looking for the ideal spot, and went with my gut and set up my tripod at the edge of 18th Street at a spot that the design painted on the sidewalk would naturally lead your eye to the Pavilion, and took my sequences of shots.
When I finally got the time to sit down and edit this scene in Lightroom I was relieved to find that the highlights adjustments slider brought back most all the detail in the clouds. Considering how much sky I still had to include to balance the scene, if it hadn’t then my long trip to Union Sq. that morning would have been for nothing.
Overall I was pleased with the photo and in fact the shot was received extremely favorably by all who saw it, but it was still not the scene I hoped to capture. I also wasn’t fond of how all the clouds removed any hint of it being sunrise, and save for the lit street lights it could have looked like midday to any non New Yorker ( Native city dwellers would have wondered if it was daytime then where were all the people).
So I needed to take this shot again, and checked my work calendar online and saw I had one more free weekend day coming this month. Well apparently one more time I was going to forgo a night of much needed long relaxing sleep to get up a half an hour even earlier this time than the last time, for sunrise was now at ten minutes to six rather than 6:25 and trudge out in the winter cold to the city to try and capture this scene again.
Fortunately this time there was no forecast of cloudy skies at sunrise, instead it was predicted to be clear. Too clear as it turned out. For when I stepped out of the R train this time there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I could tell there wouldn’t be one showing up anywhere in the next 20 minutes to catch the warm rays of the rising sun to perfectly accent my scene. But if I took a darker capture of the scene than I did the last time, a kind of silhouetted skyline would look really nice against a clear cloudless sky. Maybe even convert it to black and white in Silver Efex to accentuate the feel even more.
Whatever the lighting I was looking at, I was just going to have to deal because after this weekend by the time my next weekend off came the farmers market would be setting up before sunrise and any chance to take this shot again was going to have to wait until 2019. So no use crying over weather elements I couldn’t control.
Since I was going to go for a darker feel, taking in as much sidewalk as I did two weeks ago probably wouldn’t work, because it would just be a lot of dark foreground with little detail. So when I shot the pano this time I took a more narrow capture of the scene which made me loose the feeling of vast depth that the first pano had, but it made the skyline stand out more.
When I sat down at home and edited this scene I did in fact edit the exposure to make the buildings a little darker, but instead of leaving them shrouded in dark shadows I kept the buildings exposure opened up a tad, then did convert the scene to black and white, and as expected it really did make the skyline stand out more against the clear sky without having to darken the buildings much.
Sitting back and looking at the finished product on my computer screen, no it didn’t have any warm sunlight shining off a convenient high flying cloud. And no it didn’t have the endless depth of the first Union Sq. pano I took at the beginning of the month. But for whatever artistic elements I had failed to capture in my month long pursuit of the Pavilion that still sat annoyingly under my skin, there was one thing I did manage to do, which was capture a really fine image of a classic city landmark.
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