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I’ll Follow the Sun: On Location in Weehawken

My goal is to film the sun rising over the iconic New York City skyline.

Up with the Chickens
It’s 5:30 Tuesday morning, early December (oh so cold), and I’m stumbling around the darkness of my bedroom trying my best to accomplish two things: find my shoes and not wake up Sarah. The floor is cold, an ominous indication of temperatures outside, but I’m driven! I planned for this last night and there’s a pile of warm, winter-friendly clothing in the downstairs studio.

As I tiptoe out the door, Sarah whispers, “Be warm, be safe!”

My destination is a small park perched on the cliffs of Weehawken, N.J., also known as the Palisades, that overlooks the Hudson River. My goal is to film the sun rising over the iconic New York City skyline.

The Manhattan Skyline at 6:30 a.m.

I left my camera and a backpack with some lenses in an unheated part of my garage to prevent condensation forming on the camera and lenses caused by moving warm gear into a very cold car.

How do I know this? A few years back on a shoot in New Orleans, I moved a hefty VariCam from my comfortable, air conditioned hotel room into the sultry southern air and in seconds, the camera and lens were sweating with condensation, rendering them useless for nearly an hour.

Back at the cliffs, parking is easy. With the exception of a lone jogger and local sanitation crew, I pretty much have the street to myself. The darkness and a breeze off the Hudson help intensify the cold (is it -10°?), but I’m too busy to think about that now as I begin setting up my gear.

Sarah and me at Six Flags over Texas—she has a brilliant idea.

The tripod’s set, my F55 is locked and leveled, and batteries are being kept warm and charging until the last second. All that’s left is to patiently wait and stay warm.

Taking Stock
I’m creating these images for stock, which I hope to sell through Getty Images and other stock agencies that represent our work. Shooting imagery for stock has become a significant part of our business—not only generating additional income, but also providing a creative outlet through which we can direct and produce our own brand of imagery, with a few limitations.

The Manhattan Skyline at 7:30 a.m.

We were shooting at Six Flags when the first thought of creating New York City stock footage occurred—not my idea but Sarah’s. “If we were from Texas and we were visiting Manhattan, we’d be filming and photographing all over the city, but because we live there, we basically take it for granted.”

It was as if a bright light appeared, followed by a chorus of angels. “Let’s do it!” I agree. As soon as we returned home, we began to film NYC.

Focalware Sun and Moon Calculator app

In the Beginning
At first we used a Sony HVR-Z1 HDV camera to gather our imagery, but it didn’t take long to realize that we would have to up our game if we intended to be serious players in the stock market. Eventually we purchased an HD camera and began creating a new collection of NYC images. The investment paid off and our monthly sales grew to significant levels, giving us incentive to shoot more and allowing us to invest in better gear.

To future-proof our work, we currently film everything in 4K. I use a Sony F55 when I’m working out of my van or with an assistant, but that’s a load when I’m walking around the city, so I’ll often use a lighter PXW-FS7 or a tiny a7S II with a 4K Atomos Inferno monitor-recorder. Both work nicely with a medium-weight Manfrotto tripod, allowing me a lot more mobility and comfort.

Waiting with my Sony F55

Meanwhile, the camera and I are standing out here in the cold waiting for the sun to rise, and that stiff breeze off the Hudson makes 22° feel like 10°.

Puffy clouds float over Manhattan and my weather app predicts the possibility of light snow this afternoon, which is ideal for capturing the brilliant glow that often occurs just prior to the sun’s appearance under these conditions.

It’s 30 minutes before the sun is due to crest the skyline. I’m beginning to feel the chill, but I’m ready.

Lower Manhattan at sunrise, about 7:15 a.m.

There’s an App for That
So the next question is: Where exactly will the sun appear? For that, I turn to another app. I have about a dozen apps on my smartphone to help arrange chasing the sun and the moon. Each app is designed to inform where the sun will rise and set and at exactly what time, but today, none of the apps seem to agree on an exact location. No problem. I was out here yesterday and I know that the sun will rise a few degrees south of where it appeared yesterday.

Nowadays, we don’t limit our stock to New York City; we create it everywhere we travel, as well as right here at home. Sellable stock footage can be created anywhere and of almost anything. People, places, kid, pets, flowers—all potential sellers, as long as you follow a few basic rules: avoid logos and trademarks, and don’t submit images of people or private property without a signed release.

After 40 seconds of brilliant color, it’s now 6:45 a.m.

It’s also important that you choose something you like to film. Then you’ll have fun doing it and perhaps, like me, be motivated to stand out here in the extreme pre-dawn cold to get the shot you’ve imagined.

The sky has moved from black to a soft blue and clouds are gathering over Midtown. Sunrise is still five or six minutes away but a red-orange arc has formed behind the skyline, with orange-pink highlights rimming the clouds. I know from experience that this may last only a few seconds.

I begin recording at the first sign of color and let the camera run continuously, making slight adjustments as the light intensifies. Finally, I set the iris for my final exposure and film the sun rising above the buildings, gently rolling through the clouds, which lasts about ten minutes. By filming continuously, I have more options downstream. I can speed up the image in Adobe Premiere Pro, creating a time-lapse effect, or use any portion of the capture as a standalone clip in real time.

In less than a minute, the colorful clouds become muted as the sun begins to lift above the horizon.

The sun has peaked above the skyline and I can feel the warmth on my chest. I realize that I have been singing “Here Comes the Sun” to myself for the last five or six minutes. Thank you, George Harrison!

Baby, It’s Cold Outside
An obvious problem encountered when filming in cold weather is that I have to keep my gloves on to keep my hands warm. Every time I remove my glove to operate the tiny switches on my camera, it takes twice as long to regain that warmth. In the past I had glove liners and hand warmers, but now (fanfare!) my newest favorite: battery-heated gloves.

Sarah bought them for me last winter. They’re wonderful!

I am satisfied that I’ve captured enough and I return home to review my footage. Sarah and our daughter, Ellie, are now awake and at the breakfast table. Both warn me to keep my cold hands to myself.

Working Your Dreams
You can see Sarah and me shooting New York in this video:

Download the December 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine