Brian Wancho technology executive and photographer

28Apr/12

Downtown El Paso at Night from the Roof of City Hall

El Paso from many years ago

Have you seen this photo?

I was starting to notice the same old photo of downtown El Paso on various websites and on email newsletters. While I thought it was a flattering image of downtown El Paso, it is obvious that it is very old and it has become distorted along the way. I decided that I wanted to recreate this photo.

The first task was determining where it was taken from. It's obviously from a high vantage point above most of the buildings. By looking at the arrangement of the buildings as well as considering the building that is missing, it became obvious that the photo was taken from the roof of City Hall.

The next task was getting permission to access the roof one evening to take the photo. That turned out to be easier than I expected. A few emails between me and a few people at the city yielded the permission I needed.

I watched the weather for a few days and picked a day that had high potential for low winds. Clear skies or partly cloudy skies would be ideal as well. I invited my coworker, Tony Casas to come along for the adventure.

In the equipment department, I packed everything I had. My plan was to run two cameras at the same time so I could double my potential number of exposures.

We arrived at City Hall at about 6:40 and were promptly greeted by the security guards as we had been instructed. One of them quickly showed us to the roof access door and left us. When we got to the roof, we examined the various potential locations from where we could shoot. One unexpected kink in the plan was the height of the wall that surrounds the roof. It was taller than 2 of our 3 tripods. We were able to find a way to use the window-washer mounting posts to boost the height of our tripods. For me, this meant my camera was higher than my head - which presented a challenge with camera operation.

Tony took this photo of me. I never looked down.

You can see from the photo above that there is no way for me to see through the viewfinder. This was the first time I've ever used the live view feature. It took me a little while to figure out how to get it to display all the information I needed.

Because of the difficulty we had getting our tripods set-up and the breeze, I decided that I wouldn't use my second camera. I didn't want to see the wind knock it over and watch it crash to the ground 12 floors below.

In addition to recreating the photo at the top of this post, I wanted to capture some panoramic images. This required that the camera was as level as possible so the resulting images would be straight. I found the virtual horizon feature on the D700 useful, but not critical.

As we waited for the sun to get closer to the horizon I took a few photos to check framing and exposure.

There are three potential shooting times during this time of the day (names I made up based on the color):

  • Gold
  • Blue
  • Black

For each of these periods my goal was to shoot one wide, one tight, and one panoramic image. The required exposure times dramatically increase during the late part of the Blue period and during the Black period. My original plan was to use two cameras during this time to capture more photos, but the wind and tripod difficulties made me scratch that plan.

Gold

Downtown El PasoNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/10 - 1/80 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 27mm

I found that the 24-70mm lens gave me the appropriate range of field of view to create wide as well as tight pictures.

Downtown El PasoNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/8 - 1/80 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm

I selected a spot on the roof that would allow me to see a significant amount of the County County Courthouse. The tradeoff was the Abraham Chavez Theater would be more difficult to include in the images.

Downtown El Paso - PanoramaNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/10 - 1/60 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 32mm
Cylindrical Projection

Each of the panoramic shots is a series of 3 to 6 images stitched together using Hugin. With images with this wide of a field of view there are tradeoffs. The image above uses a Cylindrical Projection method that keeps buildings in proportion at the expense of horizontal lines. Notice how San Francisco Street curves near the edges of the image.

Downtown El Paso - Panoramic - RectilinearNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/10 - 1/60 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 32mm
Rectilinear Projection

The Rectilinear Projection above keeps the horizontal lines straight at the expense of significant distortion in the buildings. Notice the difference in the width of the Camino Real hotel.

Gold to Blue

Downtown El PasoNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/10 - 2 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 29mm

Just after the sun sets the sky begins to turn darker blue. Sometimes light shades of pink and orange appear as well. This is the time just before the street lights turn on.

Downtown El PasoNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/13 - 1.6 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm

Blue

Downtown El PasoNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/10 - 10 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm

As the sky becomes darker and more artificial lights turn on, the scene really begins to become dramatic. The longer exposure that is required also creates some interesting light streaks from the passing vehicles.

Downtown El Paso - PanoramaNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/10 - 8 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 35mm
Cylindrical Projection

Blue to Black

Downtown El PasoNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/10 - 15 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 26mm

As the sky darkens, deep blue is replaced with purple. Artificial lights take over as the primary light source which creates a challenge for getting proper white balance and exposure.

Black

Downtown El PasoNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/10 - 20 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm

The final shots of the night show a nearly completely black sky and almost 100% artificial lighting on structures.

View the entire set on Flickr

Purchase digital images from El Paso Stock Photos

Prints are available via my Photography Website

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