The View from the Top – Visiting and Photographing Three New York Towers (Part Two)

One World Observatory – The New Kid on the Block

One World Trade Centre from the Memorial Park

The visitor experience at the One World Observatory is as slick and 21st Century as the building itself; polished, closely managed (unsurprisingly) and with all sorts of audio-visual wizardry. You enter through a dedicated security foyer more akin to that of a small airport and are then funnelled through an array of screens where marvellously clean-cut characters tell the story of the building.

I would like to believe that the mature-yet-chiselled middle class, middle American bloke with the blue hard hat had spent most of his working life on a series of freezing cold or hot and sweaty construction sites. But to me, he looked more like he had just stepped out of some late-eighties soap opera. He was a bit too bright-eyed and bushy-moustached to convince. The words are undoubtedly sincere but I would have liked the delivery to be a bit less obviously staged. See what you think when you visit.

No Builder’s Bums Visible Here.

It’s all interesting stuff but, like me, you might just want to get in the lift and get straight to what you have paid your money for – the views. But first, that lift… or elevator since we are in America.

It’s fast. Really fast. And a bit like being in the Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator because whilst you rocket upwards the walls provide a virtual view of the outside world as it has changed over the last few centuries. At the same time a little infographic helpfully shows you how far up the tower you actually are. It’s fun but it might bother you if you have motion sickness!

What happens if I push the button marked “Up and Out”?

You exit the elevator into another audio-visual display (are you detecting a theme here….?) and a big reveal (enjoyable but for which I will give no spoilers). After all this theatre, you are allowed down (counter-intuitively) into the 100th floor viewing gallery so that you can at last take in the spectacular views.On the way you can pick up an iPad style One World Explorer tablet forĀ  a further virtual-style interactive experience.

See Forever… Through a Screen… Through Armoured Glass…..

This gallery is double height floor to ceiling glass and runs the full 360-degrees around the observatory level. There is lots of floor space to pick a spot without being too jostled and crowded (unlike the Empire State) although it will still get pretty busy at sunset. There are no outdoor viewing decks but you are free to circulate around the three floors of the observatory which include a cafe, bistro and more formal dining rooms.

But really, with all this audio-visual trickery, do you actually need to look out of the windows or go outside?

Well, actually, yes, I do and you might feel the same too becasue therein lies my little issue with the One World Observatory. As a general visitor it all feels a little bit too orchestrated. The views are great but you are too insulated; at every stage your visit is turned into a manufactured experience, filtered through a screen, an audio-visual exhibition or full height armoured glass. Now you might say the exhibits are informative and the screens are interactive, which is true. But they are not as interactive as being able to feel the warm city air around you or hear the buzz and beats of the streets below. I would be interested to learn what you think in the comments but I would have liked an outdoor viewing deck and less emphasis on electronic jiggery-pokery…


But maybe that’s what the iPhone generation wants. Nothing is real unless it is viewed through a screen then logged on Facebook, storied on Snapchat or photographed on Instagram. Which is a nice segue into….

The Photography Bit

The One World Observatory tag line is “See Forever” and you do get a different perspective compared to the Empire State Building – mainly due to the downtown position close to the tip of Manhattan Island. You get a good view of the iconic Empire State for start and some nice views across the water.

But as a photographer, that floor-to-ceiling glass might annoy the hell out of you. Take a look at the picture below. Great sunset colours, some nice lines and urban texture, but what looks a bit like lens flare is in fact a reflection on the interior of the glass panel.


You might find, like I did, that the interior surface of the glass creates a lot of awkward reflections. To be honest…. the reflections drove me a bit nuts. I tried a polariser, but in the end had no option but to compromise on my positioning and shooting angle just to minimise the impact of the reflections. This in turn compromises your compositional options as sometimes you just cannot get the shot you want. The best shots I got were from placing my lens directly against the glass or by shooting down at an acute angle. The picture below is a good example of this approach that works nicely – the ball park amongst the skyscrapers and the yellow taxis gives a nice sense of context and place.


You can get some good cityscape shots but you will be fighting the reflections and the effect of that super-thick glass all the time. Generally, I found that post-processing for contrast with judicious cropping and the use of a bit of HDR helped to minimise the impact of the shooting environment. You should shoot with this in mind so use RAW and bracket your shots at different exposures and apertures – you might find that an under-or over exposure partially wipes out the reflection or a wide aperture lets you shoot through it to some extent. But you will have to work for every shot.

Both the images below were composed around the worst of the reflections and were at least one and a half stops under exposed to minimise the reflective glare. I then made further copies at different exposure values to put through Google NIK’s HDR Efex Pro to emphasise texture, line and contrast. Not ideal but the best way I could think of to get the sort of shot I wanted.


A Spoonful of of HDR to Help the Reflection Go Down…

However, I simply could not get clean images from certain angles so came away without decent photographs of the views across the rivers for example. So maybe it’s best to simply appreciate the scenery first hand and not through a screen or viewfinder. If you are a scenic or landscape photographer you might find this a little bit disappointing.

But what actually drew a lot of my attention in the end was the people. The setting sun cast some fantastically soft side-light across the observatory floors. If your visual skills are that way inclined, this could give you the opportunity to exercise your candid indoor street photography in a unique location 100-floors above the city streets. I have given you a selection below for inspiration.

Watching Another Audio-Visual Extravaganza…
Patiently Waiting for the Sunset….
City Sunset Selfie…
Reflecting on the Reflections….
Tag Me Snapchat Me Instagram Me Shoot Me

In the end, the views are great and the audio-visual bits impressive – you can’t help but enjoy the sheer achievement that is the One World Observatory. But you might want it to be a bit less like a corporate presentation and a bit more of a visceral, less vicarious experience where the city is not filtered through screens. I would be interested to see what you think.

Part One of this post

Empire State – The Original and Still the Best?

is HERE.

I will add a link to the final part:

Rockefeller Centre – The Little Fella at the Back

when I post it in a few days time.

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