By F. M. Kearney
I often write about the challenges of finding nature subjects in an urban environment. Of course, even the largest concrete jungles aren’t all concrete. There’s always a local park or a botanical garden somewhere nearby. Places like these are perfect locations to capture unique compositions of natural and man-made subjects.
I’ve lived in New York City all my life. I’ve photographed parts of the town that few locals visit and most tourists don’t even know exist. When seeking out nature, I know where all the best spots are located… or so I thought. I recently saw a promotion for the Roosevelt Island Cherry Blossom Festival.
A Cherry Blossom Festival… on Roosevelt Island?
Roosevelt Island is a tiny sliver of land located in the East River between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens. And when I say “tiny,” I mean tiny. It’s just about 2 miles long and only 800 feet wide. Between 1921 and 1973, it was known as Welfare Island and used mainly for hospitals. My mother actually worked in one of them as a nurse. In 1973, it was renamed Roosevelt Island, after Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, it’s mainly comprised of residential apartment buildings and home to over 11,000 people (based on the 2010 census). It’s a great place to shoot sweeping panoramas of the mid-Manhattan skyline and close-ups of the majestic Queensboro Bridge, which looms directly overhead – connecting Manhattan and Queens.
I never thought there was much to shoot on this island in terms of nature until I saw the promotion for the cherry blossom festival. I honestly never even knew there were cherry blossom trees on the island. But, in fact, the first festival took place in 2011, as a fundraising effort following the deadly earthquake and tsunami that year in Japan. Since then, the number of planted trees (as well as the festival) has grown to the point where they now almost completely encircle the island. But, it’s the trees along the west promenade that draw the most crowds, due to the incredible backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. This is definitely an interesting juxtaposition, and the photos below illustrate just how alluring this location can be… especially at sunset, when the lighting produces dramatic, long shadows. While most people would undoubtedly strive to capture this type of shot, I only had one thought on my mind… bokeh.
Bokeh is just a fancy word to describe the aesthetic quality of the blur in the out-of-focus parts of an image. It more commonly refers to the way a lens renders out-of-focus points of light. The word actually translates as “blur” in Japanese – quite fitting considering the subject matter of this article. I knew the blur (or bokeh) of the city lights in the background would be a unique attribute to the images I envisioned.
After shooting the standard daytime shots and jockeying for the best positions amongst the throngs of sightseers, I hung around until twilight. It’s amazing how fast that place clears out after dark. That’s too bad (well, good for me, because I could finally work in peace and quiet), because the types of images you can capture are distinctly different from anything possible during the daylight hours. Twilight is probably the most magical time of the day for photography. Most nature photographers are well aware of the beautiful quality of the natural light during this time, but it was the artificial lights that would take center-stage in the images I intended to capture.
These types of images are as challenging to shoot as they are unique – mainly because the ambient light is steadily dropping. In a sense, it’s all about trying to carefully thread a needle. You want to use an aperture setting that will give you enough depth of field to get most of the blossom as sharp as possible. That means selecting a fairly small aperture, but if it’s too small, your shutter speed may not be fast enough to freeze any motion of the blossom. Of course, you can always raise your ISO, but raising it too high will produce unacceptable noise.
During the day, I used my 24-70mm lens to capture entire scenes like the two images above. However, these focal lengths were far too short to create the bokeh effects I was seeking. I needed to switch to my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens for the evening shots. The reduced depth of field made it necessary to concentrate on single blooms or tight clusters, as opposed to sweeping vistas. I used mid-range apertures between f/8 and f/4. I wasn’t able to get perfectly rounded orbs as I would have at f/2.8, but it gave me just enough depth of field to get most of the blooms in sharp focus. I found it to be an acceptable compromise. I specifically chose a night when the winds were light, because I knew my shutter speeds would be an issue. Even on the calmest of nights, there’s still going to be some movement in delicate cherry blossoms. Therefore, the slowest speed I felt comfortable using was around 1/20 second.
The most interesting location to shoot was around the Queensboro Bridge. The repetitive lighting formations on its span and cables provided the most unique backdrops. I shot the opening image of this article around 6:30 p.m., just after the sun had gone down and the city lights were beginning to come on. Luckily, since I was facing west, I was also able to take advantage of the beautiful sunset colors of the sky behind the bridge tower. I shot it at 200mm, and since it was still fairly light, I was able to maintain an ISO of 400, and used f/5.6 at 1/30 second.
When the color in the sky faded away, I concentrated solely on the bridge. The photos above are a few of the compositions I got while utilizing its distinctive light patterns. I needed to bump my ISO up to 800, though.
As the evening wore on and the ambient light continued to drop, I was forced to increase my ISO to 3200 in order to maintain an acceptable speed. The RAW images were grainy, but I was able to fix it in Photoshop. I had set my camera to High ISO Noise Reduction, which helped tremendously. Shooting under full nighttime conditions was extremely challenging. There weren’t many nearby streetlights, so I had to focus with the aid of a flashlight. Maintaining the correct exposure was becoming more and more difficult. But, that’s when it dawned on me that I really didn’t need to get the correct exposure – I just needed to capture the cherry blossoms and the lights. Any more details than that might only serve as distractions. Since I was using a flash as my main light source, I was able to maintain the correct exposure on the blossoms, and 1/45 sec. was more than sufficient to capture the lights in the background and to freeze any movement of the gently swaying blossoms. The results were adequate, but I prefer to shoot earlier in the evening when there’s more color in the sky – and, when I don’t have to use a flashlight to see what I’m shooting. Below are a couple of the images I was able to get under these conditions.
With the exception of the daytime photos, the use of a flash was critical for all of these shots. Just as critical was using it off-camera. It’s important to hand-hold the flash to have the flexibility to aim the light at precise spots in order to minimize the shadows as much as possible. It’s also a good idea to shoot multiple shots, because the slightest change in position of the flash can create huge differences in terms of where the shadows fall. I also wrapped a warming gel around the head of my flash. This transformed its white light into a much warmer tone that better matched the color balance of the ambient light. Lastly, I reduced its output by 1-2 stops. In dim lighting, it can be over-powering. Although it was necessary to use a flash, you don’t want it to be obvious that a flash was used.
A good way to capture unique images is to shoot a subject away from its normal environment. You don’t often see cherry blossoms in an urban setting, and it’s even rarer to see them at night surrounded by city lights. Try to think outside the box. Unusual juxtapositions can yield unexpected and amazing results.
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).