12.13.15: 30 Rock at night

30 Rockefeller Center stands bright against a January night sky, New York City. 


Technical information

Jan. 22, 2009,
6:42 p.m.

40°45’30” N,
73°58'40" W
(Show in Google Maps)

Canon EOS 40D

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L (16mm) 


1/50th second


I’ve captured a number of photos in and around Rockefeller Plaza during New York visits, some that I’ve posted to my web sites and some that have never left my files.

This is a photo that has grown on me since I shot it on a cold January night in 2009. I took it as an afterthought with no intention of ever using it, but now I’m glad I have it as part of my collection of New York City photos.

I had walked through the plaza after dinner, looking for some photos of ice skaters or other activity at ground level, but I didn’t see anything that interested me. So I cut through the promenade toward Fifth Avenue and planned to walk south to Grand Central Station. As I approached Fifth Avenue I turned to look back at the promenade in hopes that the people walking to and from the ice rink might provide some sort of photo opportunity, but it was boring stuff.

That’s when I glanced up at 30 Rockefeller Center, commonly referred to as 30 Rock. It stood bright against the dark sky, with the buildings on each side of the promenade (La Maison Francaise, 610 Fifth Ave., left, and the British Empire Building, 620 Fifth Ave., right) bracketing it like sentries. 

I had a wide-angle zoom on the camera, which I knew would create perspective distortion on all three buildings when I tilted up, so I decided to take off my gloves, brave the cold and grab the shot. I was breaking some of the unwritten rules of photography (shooting hand-held at night, which makes it difficult to get a sharp image, and placing the subject dead center in the frame, which often leads to a static, boring image), so I had no expectations the photo would be usable. Then I put my gloves back on and walked to Grand Central.

To be honest, I had forgotten about this photo until I saw it when transferring my files to my computer after returning home. But it immediately caught my attention on the screen. The perspective distortion creates a sense of scale, with the 70-story 30 Rock between the two six-story buildings, while the composition creates a sense of balance. The cold, almost institutional, look of the monotone walls of the “sentry” buildings is offset by the warm glow of tungsten lighting in the windows in the lower corners. The lights from buildings behind 30 Rock, near the bottom of the photo, provide a sense of depth (I hadn’t even noticed those buildings when I grabbed the quick photo).

I shot this as an afterthought and broke unwritten rules of photography while doing it. But it works. And I like it.

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.