I have an engagement shoot in September on Governors Island with my fantastic clients, Vanessa and Nathan, and so I decided to take a trip to New York City’s most overlooked oasis. Here is what you need to know for your upcoming photo shoot on Governors Island.
Let me start by saying that I haven’t been to Governors Island in years. I first made a visit to the island when I arrived in NYC (circa 2000), but haven’t been back since. Well, a lot has changed. The old, abandoned military structures are still there, but the city has built many leisure facilities since then. You can now find cool play areas for kids, lots of paths for biking, and even food truck service. For most people, visiting Governors Island is just a restful respite from the city, but I would like to discuss visiting the island as a potential photo shoot location.
When to visit. Governors Island is only open for visitation from May 28th to September 25th. (In my opinion the city is wasting an opportunity to not have this real estate gem open year round, but I digress.) This is an optimal window for engagement and portrait shoots, but the timing of the ferries is not. Ferries run 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. This means that you are out of luck for any sunrise portraits, and thanks to the fact that everything on the island basically shuts down one hour prior to the last ferry, you pretty much are out of luck for sunset photos as well. My suggestion is that you plan your shoot for the end of the season, at the end of the day so that you are working closer to the sunset ‘golden hour.’
Crowd conditions. I visited the island in the afternoon on both a Saturday and a Monday. The crowd levels were the same for both days. While the island is never that congested, bear in mind that the hordes are concentrated in the most popular areas of the park: the Slides, the Hills, and Hammock Grove. I don’t think it matters much what day you go, but you will need to be patient as the most photogenic areas of the park are its most popular. Also, the island is often home to music festivals on the weekend, so make sure you check the island’s calendar ahead of time. There was a music festival when I was there, though the crowds were contained to the ferry area and didn’t pose much of a threat.
Timing your visit. Here’s where it gets tricky. You know that the last ferry on a Saturday is at 7:00 p.m., so you think you have plenty of time to do your shoot. Wrong. The entire bottom half of the island – Picnic Point with its gorgeous waterfront views of the Statue of Liberty, the Hills, and the Slides – all close one hour prior to the actual closing of the island. So while you don’t have to leave Governors Island until 7:00 p.m. on the weekend, you will be restrained to the north (and less photogenic) end of the park starting at – I kid you not – 5:45 p.m. The security guards on the island are VERY strict about kicking you out of the bottom of the park early. I spoke with one of the guards – a former cop at the 102nd precinct in my part of Queens – who said the island starts moving people towards the ferry early because the job is akin to ‘herding squirrels.’ It takes time to move that many tourists/natives and gives you a great visual of what the security guards have to put up with.
As such, know that you need to start your shoot early. For my upcoming engagement shoot with Vanessa and Nathan, I know that the part of the park we want to concentrate on closes at 5:45 p.m. The ferry – which costs $2 round trip, though it is free Saturday and Sunday mornings until 11:30 a.m. – takes eight minutes to get from Manhattan to Governors Island. (Yes, I timed it.) Once you arrive on the island, it is a 15-minute walk (at a brisk pace) to the end of the island. This is why I suggest you take the 4:00 p.m. ferry. Your schedule would look like this:
4:00 p.m. – Ferry leaves Manhattan terminal
4:08 p.m. – Ferry arrives on Governors Island
4:28 p.m. – Walk to the end of the island
4:30 – 5:45 p.m. – Portrait shoot in Picnic Point, the Slides, and the Hills
5:45 – 6:30 p.m. – Portrait shoot in Hammock Grove, the top end of the island, and around the waterfront
6:45 p.m. – Ferry back to Manhattan
With sunset around 7:00 p.m., you will be sitting pretty, lighting-wise.
Photo locations. My suggestion is that you concentrate your shoot in four locations: Picnic Point, the Hills, and for those young at heart, the Slides and Hammock Grove.
Picnic Point. Picnic Point is the most southern point of the island, and it is closest to the Statue of Liberty. Aside from riding past in the Staten Island Ferry, this is as close as you can get to Lady Liberty without actually visiting Liberty Island. Picnic Point has sweeping views that go from Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront on the left, the Verrazano Bridge, and over to the NJ/NYC skyline. There is a pathway that winds all along the water from Picnic Point back to the ferry terminal, and the view is beautiful. Picnic Point has a large grassy area, but when I visited it was fenced off for reseeding. So basically you are left with a few Adirondack chairs under some sparse trees and the waterfront. Since you will probably be starting your shoot here, keep in mind that timing will make this the sunniest part of your shoot, and you have very little shade. Make backlit shots and sun flare your friend.
The Slides. Next up is the slide area, hidden to the right of the Hills, just after the restrooms. This is the newest area of the park, and it is fun for kids of all ages. One hazard to note is that the slides are metal, and in the baking summer sun, they can get very hot. Watch yourself if you are wearing a skirt or shorts. It goes without saying that this area is popular with kids and is crowded right up until the security guards kick you out.
The Hills. This is where you will find the best views over New York City. High up on – literally – a set of hills, you can see do a 360 degree turn to see the Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey, and Manhattan skylines. By shooting off to the side you can make it seem like you have the entire place to yourself. Again, this is a very, very popular spot. One photogenic aspect of the location is the rough-hewn stairs leading up to the hills. The stairs are beautiful, but steep and treacherous. Make sure you are wearing no-tread shoes, and save the heels for when you reach the top. Also, when I was there it was quite windy, so be prepared.
Hammock Point. This is a great spot to veg out and relax. You may have to wait for a hammock, however, owing to the location’s popularity. There is a natural playground area next door that can also provide some great shots. And don’t miss the beautiful daisies surrounding the entire area.
Other areas. Most of the buildings on the island are abandoned and can’t be entered. That said, if you were looking for a slightly spooky ambience to your photos, you can find it here in spades. There is a vaulted entrance leading from Colonels Row to Liggett Terrace which I quite liked, as well as the columns on the building used for the New York Harbor School (located to the left of Liggett’s Terrace as you are coming from Hammock Grove). Other than that you have Castle Williams (no relation) and the ruins of Fort Day. Again, these structures close one hour ahead of the last ferry. As I understand it, there isn’t much inside either set of ruins besides historical photos of interest. The park workers, like the security guards, are strict in closing everything up early.
Facilities. There are restrooms just outside the ferry terminal, at Liggett Terrace and at Picnic Point. The bathrooms in the ferry terminal are the nicest on the island, and the rest are glorified port-a-potties. Food service is minimal, but it is there. On the weekdays I could only find vending machine service, but there apparently is a whole host of food truck-like vendors who serve on the weekends. My suggestion is to bring your own picnic supplies.
What to bring. In addition to food and water if you like, wear comfortable shoes. If you are starting at the other end of the island, it’s a 15-20 minute hike.
What to do. Picnic, toss a ball, or ride a bike. Bike and surrey rentals are available by the hour or the day.
Don’t get left behind. Remember that friendly security guard I spoke with? I, of course, had to ask him what happens if you miss the last ferry. In his words, if you miss the ferry and the island has to run an extra boat just to take you back to Manhattan, then the fee is $1,000. If you miss the ferry because you are being a jackass and decided to hide out in one of the abandoned buildings, then that earns you a one-way trip to the nearest precinct. Message to all: don’t be late and don’t be a jackass. (Not that any of you would ever even contemplate such, myself included.)
Final advice. There are precious few spots to hide in should it rain while you are on Governors Island. Very few trees or covered buildings make this location only shootable on dry days. But if you catch a beautiful day, then Governors Island is a tranquil refuge on which to spend a day taking photos.
Helpful links and information.
- Governors Island website with information
- Ferry schedule to Governor’s Island
- Map of Governors Island
- The ferry to Governors Island is located in the terminal just to the left of the Staten Island ferry.
If you would like to see more of my travel essays, please visit my personal website – www.Kelly-Williams.com