Great Tip For Shooting Where Tripods are Banned

Nighttime in New York City

A week or so ago my buddy RC Concepcion stops by my office and he’s showing me some great night photos he took of the New York City skyline (seen here and below). I asked where he shot them from, and he told me some were taken from the top of Rockefeller Center, and some from the top of the Empire State Building.

Since these were night shots, he’d need a tripod to get shots that sharp, but neither of those places allows you to shoot with a tripod. In fact, they pretty much confiscate your tripod if you even walk in the front door with one (of course, they tag it, and give it back when you leave).

So I asked RC how he got permission to shoot with a tripod, and he said he actually didn’t use a tripod at all—then he let me in on a little trick that he’s been using that so far hasn’t raised any eyebrows, but still gives great tripod like results for low light shooting.

He said he: …”uses a Manfrotto 244 Variable Friction Magic Arm with Camera Bracket and a Manfrotto Super Clamp Without Stud. B&H Photo offers them together as a kit, but the arm is different – it has a lever instead of the ball tensioner” (which RC thinks is better).

He told me, “On both the Top of the Rock and The Empire State Building there are protection fences that are pretty sturdy. You can attach the arm to the structure and fire away.” (that’s the rig shown at right—you can see it clamped to the fence, and it gives you a lot of freedom as to where you position the camera).

The shot you see below was done using this same rig, but it was shot from the observatory at the top of the Empire State Building.

Anyway, I had just never thought to use a Magic Arm and Clamp for situations where tripods aren’t allowed (that RC guy is pretty clever). Anyway, my thanks to RC for the photos, and for letting share his cool tip with you guys. :)

Flatiron Building at Dusk.

  1. If only I hadn’t spent $100 on a recent out-of-warranty repair on my Manfrotto ballhead, I coulda had the funds to get this for the winter months (cold+night = great shooting climate in Colorado!)

    A great suggestion though for any situation where tripods are too cumbersome and obstreperous…tks for reminding me about it! :)

  2. I usually bring my gorillapod, which is useful for my little 450D +24-70 (I don’t think it is a good solution for bigger cameras/lenses). Probably your solution is much more sturdier than mine, but probably is bigger and heavier.

  3. Great, now they will rewrite the regulations to cover, “support devices” instead of tripods. Thanks, RC! Totally kidding, but don’t you think regulators are photographer too, and may read this fine blog? While giving tips you are also giving ideas to the other side.

  4. Smart man RC, smart man! A bold one as well lol! To be honest I get so pissed when I get kicked out of areas for a tripod or even using my camera! My reply that is going to get me into trouble soon is, “I’m shooting a camera not a gun! or I’m trying to make a killer shot not trying to shoot and kill!” Good lucks for the update on this!

    Miami, Florida | Nassau, Bahamas

  5. Great idea.
    I have my full size manfrotto, a smaller MY model – both with matching QR sets, and a few little ‘pocket’ tripods.
    Butfor a windy building top that is best idea i’ve seen or read about.
    I may look at variations such as a less expensive arm, but i am definitely going to equip myself with a similar device!
    Thanks to RC!

  6. Another alternative that works at Top of the Rock are bean bags (those that are flatter and long). Bring a couple and rest them on the cement platforms at their top level, and you can rest the camera on them to shoot. Wouldn’t work at the Empire, but good to know about the Magic Arm and Clamp for there. Thanks!

    1. I love Gorillapods. The problem with them in this case is:

      1. It makes it really hard to really articulate where you want the camera to look without having the rig tip over. The Gorillapod is great for keeping something up on a level plane. Not so good if the weight is in front of it’s center.

      2. My camera is -heavy-. You figure, the 70-200 alone would make it really hard to use a gorillapod.

      3. Any wind would take out or add shake more than a Magic Arm would.

      I may be wrong, but I think that the Tripod ban up there has a lot more to do with Safety than it does preventing the shot.. so I wouldn’t think either would be an issue.

      Hope that helps!

  7. Cannot but agree with Christopher Murphy’s comment above: the building’s rulebook will be rewritten to prohibit the use of any camera support, not just tripods.

    … or one could do like that girl I saw on the Empire State Building two years ago, 5 or 6PM on New Year’s Eve. No tripod, handheld camera. She had an expensive Canon DSLR and used an external flash, and could not understand why the night was so dark despite her powerful flash. “Distance” and “not so powerful after all” come to mind.

    1. :) So agree to your saying “The best ideas are often brilliant in their simplicity.” It’s like coming up with a bunch of logo ideas in different variations and you go back to the simple one you started off with.

      To Andrew’s post: Loving the gorillapod, might just get one. Thanks.

  8. Hi Scott.

    I and my girlfriend were in New York in July this year. I take some photos from empire state building. We were there in the beginning of the evening so I got daylight pictures and darker picture. I put the lens on the protection fences and it work well. Many of my friends think that was amazing pictures!

    New York is fantastic city!

    Best regards /Magnus

  9. I have the set and, I think, I agree with RC – the lever doesn’t give you any control, it just locks and unlocks in a kind of “pop” which tends to force me to mis-align the arm a bit… if only I had known about that wheel before! *sigh*

  10. If you really want to be able to shoot on a tripod anywhere you want, simply get a pair of large outer-ear headphones, put them on and look like you are working or just simply really busy or agitated. Kind of like George Costanza does so they don’t bother him at work. Trust me it works.

  11. Great Tip!! I have a few questions I hope you can answer.

    1. In the post, you mentioned “…B&H Photo offers them together as a kit, but the arm is different – it has a lever instead of the ball tensioner (which RC thinks is better).” Can you post a link for the kit?

    2. RC, did you purchase the kit from B&H and is that what is shown in the picture accompanying this post?

    3. The Super Clamp without stud is referenced in the post, but I see on the B&H website that you can also buy the clamp with the stud, what purpose does the stud serve?

    Keep up the great work, and thanks in advance!

  12. Good tip. I’ve been hassled about carrying a tripod in many places, none worse than New York. “Top of the Rock” was especially annoying since the upper viewing platform was essentially empty and I still wasn’t allowed to set up the tripod.
    In these cases, my Gorillapod has saved the day many a time. The Zoom-SLR version is barely sturdy enough for a basic SLR and a light lens (I have to strip the battery pack off my D90 and use only my 35mm or 50mm prime lenses) and definitely won’t hold a pro body and lens combination (the D700 and 14-24mm definitely won’t work). I suspect that the newer $99 model should do the trick even with the heavier camera and I would recommend this to anyone traveling to a big city who is going to want to shoot interiors or from landmark tourist locations on private property.

  13. Just wondering when I would receive the book
    where I won the photowalk in Greenville SC.
    Have not received an email or anything

    Thanks for your help
    Kae Fleming

  14. Actually RC- I just noticed in that photo of the rig that the end that is clamped to the building is attached to a ball joint on the end of the arm- is that a tight connection? I don’t see a tightener on that ball joint and it looks like it’s just resting the angle joint on the concrete there. I know that wouldn’t make sense to have it just be a loose joint like that, but that’s what it looks like in the photo and on the B&H site- that there’s no way to lock down that ball joint that attaches the clamp. Que pas?

  15. How do you recommend archiving photos?

    I’m coming to the point of a full PC HD. I’m not sure what to do because for the longest time, I just ran and stored everything on my PC, then have two externals that each mirror it, so I always have 3 copies. What do you do when you run out of space? Do you make a copy of all the older pix, catalog, etc (say 2009 and before?) and store a HD or two offsite somewhere?

    I’ve always wondered what the pros do when the sidewalk ends…

  16. hi,

    anyone suggest which is best – the 244 Variable Friction Arm with Bracket 143BKT or the 244RC Variable Friction Arm with Plate? The Bracket looks more versatile, but wouldn’t a heavy camera/lens combo have a tendency to rotate if left alone on it?


  17. As an alternative, I have been using this for a while now. (link to jpg)

    The key part is the 208HEX connector plate – available from B&H. I use a clamp (Impact) and my ballhead with it. It’s solid a pro sized body and a 70-200 2.8 attached can be held with no problem. It doesn’t have the reach of a magic arm on it but relatively compact.

    One thing I would recommend – when clamping onto comething be aware that you may be crushing the pole or surface that you screw the clamp onto – those things are strong…

  18. I know this is an old blog post, but I thought you and your readers would like to know that the tripod police are at it again.  I attempted to take the same equipment as RC used to the top of the Empire State building on Sunday August 5th around 10PM. 

    Security at the Empire State Building is now almost as bad as the TSA is at airports these days.  I had to empty my pockets and remove my belt before I could go through their metal detector.  I also had to allow them to scan my camera bag / backpack in a device that looks to be identical to those in use at major airports.  After we went through screening, I was pulled aside and told I couldn’t take my tripod up.  I replied that I didn’t have a tripod, just a mounting bracket.  They’d seen it on the scanner and asked me to open my bag for inspection.  I pulled out the magic arm and they declared it a tripod and said I’d have to check it.  I protested that it wasn’t a tripod, but it fell on deaf ears, they were in full on tripod police mode.  Note: the magic arm didn’t even have the camera bracket or mounting clamp attached, it was just the arm and the adjustment handle.

    I don’t know if things are as bad at Top of the Rock (I didn’t have time this trip to go there), but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume they are.

    On a positive note, I was able to score a permit to photograph Grand Central Terminal on Saturday August 4th.  The process is exactly as described in one of your other blog posts, and has actually been improved since your last visit.  Now after you sign in, they give you a large sticker to wear, and not one police officer stopped or questioned me.  I did see a few look at me with my camera mounted proudly on its tripod, but as soon as the saw the sticker they just kept of going.  The only place in Grand Central you can’t shoot from is the balcony where the Apple store is, I got kicked out of there by someone purportedly working security for Apple.

    1. I used the Manfrotto 003 with a stud and a super clamp at Top of the Rock with no issues in 2011.

      You are right about the permit at Grand Central. Very easy to get and security was chatty once they saw the permit. The Apple police were a bit nuts though. I had the collapsed tripod (2′ tall) on the ground near the store and they said no tripods allowed. I laid it down and that was fine.

  19. Just to give a recent update. I went to TOTR on 6/15/14. They allowed my Manfrotto 055x through security, and just told me that I was allowed to take it up but only to ‘use it as a monopod’. My wife had my Gorillapod Focus in her bag in case my Manfrotto got vetoed, and they said nothing to her.

    Once on top, I made my way to the highest observation deck. Up there there is no glass, and there is a space on the other side of the railing to set up a tripod. The areas is narrow, but secure. I set mine up there, and stood there with it for over an hour waiting for sunset and nightfall. I did not receive any hassle from security on top for having it over the railing, or for having the legs expanded into a tripod. Most of the fellow tourist and photographers thought the idea was brilliant and appreciated that I did not take up any of their standing room. I wish I would have grabbed a photo of the legs of the setup, but it escaped me at the time.

    However, once night came and I was concluded, I went to the north side of the building to grab a few shots the same way and the security on that side of the building was quick to tell me not to do that. So, tripods are allowed (there were at least 10 others up there), but are only supposed to be used as a monopod. Your mileage may vary in setting them up for real. Just remember to be courteous, listen to any security/staff, and not to make a scene or be a hazard to anyone and you will likely have success. Also, be prepared with a plan b or c or d (gorillapod, magic arm, fast prime, etc) and don’t be a jerk when things don’t go according to plan.

  20. I’m in New York now for a few days and only have my magic arm as a support. I’m finding a surprising lack of sturdy places to mount it at street level. I’m planning a TOTR trip so fingers crossed I can keep it with me.

  21. I figured I’d chime in here as well since I regularly visit most if not all monuments in NYC. The Empire State Building is by far the hardest one to get any sort of mounting gear in. As one reader noted, I had to argue with the guard to some degree stating that I just came from a shoot and the arm was no harm. The brackets were detached but I had my Manfrotto Mini as a backup just in case. They made me open my bag but I played dumb and pulled out filters and remote releases…everything but my mini tripod. I was in the process of shooting a timelapse when the guards finally caught me and made me break it down. I’ve had moe success with TotR and even the WTC with a mini tripod. Your best bet is TotR as it is an open air observation deck and you will not have to fight the reflections off the glass or people potentially bumping your gear as much. Just make sure to get there before sunset as you will be hard pressed finding a good spot.

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