New York has long been known as the city that never sleeps. But a few times a year, the setting of the sun over the cultural capital of the world creates a spectacle that defies anything that happens after dark. It’s Manhattanhenge, when the sunset aligns perfectly with Manhattan’s street grid, illuminating the north and south sides of every cross street and throwing a warm, dreamlike glow over the brick and steel behemoths that line the city’s sidewalks.
The phenomenon was named Manhattanhenge as a nod to Stonehenge, the prehistoric circle of rocks that aligns with the rising sun at the summer solstice.
SUN AND THE CITY
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the sun rises due east and sets due west only twice a year, on the first day of spring and autumn. Besides those occasions, the sun rises and sets elsewhere on the horizon. If Manhattan’s grid were perfectly aligned with the geographic north-south line, the days of Manhattanhenge would line up with the equinoxes. But New York, as New York tends to do, threw in a twist: Manhattan’s street grid is rotated 30 degrees east from geographic north, which means Manhattanhenge doesn’t always happen on the equinoxes This year, the full sun dipped into the grid on Monday, May 30, and will do so again on Monday, July 11, at 8:20 p.m. (Also noteworthy: the half sun that sinks into the street grid on the evening of Tuesday, July 12.)
HOW TO TAKE THE PERFECT SHOT
Manhattanhenge is the perfect opportunity for an iconic Instagram. But there are things to keep in mind given New York’s epic skyscrapers. “The reason a sunset looks good on a beach is because there are no buildings,” says Annie Tritt, who has shot for publications like The New York Times. Buildings might be too dark to discern against the brilliant light. If you’re using an iPhone, there’s an easy way to fix this: “You can move the exposure level up and down on your screen,” Tritt says. “That will help you find the sweet spot.”
WHERE TO TAKE IT
Also crucial: finding the physical sweet spot to shoot the scene. “The grid of Manhattan makes it easy to stand on some of the major streets and get a perfect view of it—42nd, 34th, 23rd,” says Dennis Cacho, who racked up more than 3,000 Instagram “likes” of his Manhattanhenge shot last year. But because those asphalt canyons tend to be thronged, Casey Kelbaugh, an award-winning New York–based photographer and the founder of the international arts nonprofit Slideluck, suggests hitting up a rooftop bar. The rooftop of the Whitney Museum of American Art is ideally situated on the west side of Manhattan, and if that’s crowded, there’s another option nearby: Le Bain at The Standard, High Line. “There’s a door situation at Le Bain, but it’s pretty egalitarian on summer evenings,” says Kelbaugh. “Or you just book a hotel room. The smallest ones are only a few hundred.” But his favorite option is The Standard’s East Village location: “It has pretty much a 360-degree wraparound view of the city,” he says.
WHAT TO USE
Kelbaugh suggests editing a Manhattanhenge photo with VSCO, an app many photographers use, or Instagram’s own tools. “The vignette function is nice to draw your eye to the center of the frame,” he says. “Play with the shadows and highlights functions, contrast and even the warmth.”
While you’re snapping, don’t forget to savor the moment. “The way I like to experience it most is stepping out onto my own fire escape and realizing that somehow things line up in a more orderly way than usual,” he says. “It brings an immediate sense of appreciation and warmth. It adds a certain glow and sparkle to wherever you are.”