The New York City sunset can be a sight to behold, with sky high buildings reflecting magnificent colors and clouds peeking in between.
But twice a year, residents are treated to an even more spectacular sight: Manhattanhenge.
It’s that magical, fleeting moment when the sun perfectly aligns through spaces between giant skyscrapers to cast an amazing beam of light.
The unobstructed ray shines through the city, stopping busy New Yorkers in their tracks.
“This is for anyone who can appreciate good scenery, not just people with cool cameras or lenses,” New York photographer Billy Dinh told CNN.
Here’s everything you need to know about Manhattanhenge, including how to snap the perfect photo:
When does it happen?
Manhattanhenge can be seen this weekend, weather permitting — rain is in the forecast.
Saturday will feature a half sun on the grid at 8:13 p.m. The full sun’s orb will peek at 8:12 p.m. on Sunday.
What causes it?
You can thank Manhattan’s easy-to-use grid system, which dates back to the early 1800s, for the effect.
If Manhattan’s street grid was perfectly aligned along north-south lines, then Manhattanhenge would coincide with the equinoxes. But Manhattan’s layout is rotated 30 degrees east from geographic north, shifting the days of alignment to late May and mid-July.
The term “Manhattanhenge” is popularly attributed to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and is a play off Britain’s Stonehenge. That ancient structure highlights the sun in similar fashion during the winter and summer solstices.
Where’s the best place to see it?
The happy alignment starts at Houston Street and runs up to just south of 155th Street.
“For best effect, position yourself as far east in Manhattan as possible,” Tyson said on the website of the American Museum of Natural History. “But ensure that when you look west across the avenues, you can still see New Jersey.”
He lists the following streets as particularly good ones since they are wide:
- 14th Street
- 23rd Street
- 34th Street
- 42nd Street
- 57th Street
The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation also suggests the Tudor City Overpass in Manhattan and Hunter’s Point South Park in Long Island City, Queens.
Be sure to seek out a spot about 30 minutes before sunset. Don’t be late because the effect only lasts a few minutes.
Check the weather before you go
While this weekend’s weather forecast isn’t ideal for viewing Manhattanhenge, there’s still hope.
Meteorologists are calling for rain, cloudy skies and a temperature in the high 40s at sunset on Saturday and Sunday.
“It needs to be a bright and sunny day,” said Dinh, who photographs Manhattanhenge every year. “If it’s anywhere cloudy, you’re going to miss it because the clouds are going to block the sun and the sun won’t line up correctly.”
Still, Dinh advises people to snap photos a day before and after the scheduled dates.
This could mean better luck on Monday.
“I take some of the best photos a day before or a day after the recommended days. When the sun lines up and it moves, it shifts every day but very slowly,” Dinh said. “You can avoid the big crowds, and you’ll still see it hit right in the middle. You won’t be able to tell a difference or that it’s not aligned perfectly.”
Don’t worry if you miss it. You’ll have another chance to see Manhattanhenge when it returns on July 12 and 13, 2021.
Choose the right lens for your camera
Dinh advises professional photographers to shoot with a wide lens (24-50 millimeters) to capture the sun setting with the surrounding buildings and scenery, or a telephoto lens (70-300 millimeters) to zoom past the crowds and capture the sun alone.
Keep in mind the len’s focal length, or how zoomed or wide you want the shot to be, he said.
The farther you are from the West Side where the sun sets past New Jersey, the stronger focal point you’ll need for a better photo.
“It’s all about the picture you want,” Dinh said. “If you want to capture the atmosphere and more of New York, use a wide lens. If you want something closer and zoom all the way, bring a more higher focal point lens 200 and above.”
“People who want to get more up close can go up 300, 400, 500 focal point,” he added.
For people shooting the Manhattanhenge with a professional camera, it is important to ensure your aperture is medium to high, ISO is low, and shutter speed is what you intended, Dinh said.
“This means a normal shutter or slow shutter for long exposure to let less light in through your lens. The goal is to underexpose the shot to make up for how bright the sun is.”
Or use a camera phone instead
For amateur photographers, iPhones and other camera phones are a fine option.
Our phones are default wide focal lengths, which isn’t a bad thing, Dinh said.
Wider lenses allow you to not only capture the sun, but also city landmarks like the Grand Central overpass, Chrysler building or Times Square.
If you use an iPhone, touch the screen as you take a photo and slowly lower the brightness so you can get the exposure you want and actually capture the sun.
“Don’t shoot a person directly in front of the light, because you’ll just get their silhouette and it’ll come out very dark,” Dinh said. “Have them at a side so the sun hits their face a little bit and you’ll get the sun and their face.”
The sun’s orange and yellow beams will make your photograph pop, but you can also edit it for greater effect.
“If you want a quick edit after you’re taken the photo, most filters will do a great job, see what it looks like with the presets, and if that doesn’t work, play around with the brightness, highlights, and contrasts,” Dinh said.
Consider using a tripod
Whether you’re using a professional camera or cell phone to capture Manhattanhenge, a tripod can help you snap a better picture.
If you’re trying to take a picture using a slow shutter speed for long exposures, a tripod will help stabilize the camera, Japanese camera maker Nikon said.
“Using a tripod will certainly keep the camera steady for a much more stable shot,” Dinh said. “In addition you can incorporate long exposures while your camera is on the tripod to create some interesting effects with moving parts of your photos.”
If you don’t have a tripod, Nikon recommends increasing the ISO for a faster shutter speed so the photo doesn’t turn out blurry.
But the best tip of all is to just appreciate the moment. After all, you don’t need to shoot the perfect photo to admire the view.