Tips and Tricks for your Empire State Building Proposal
I have been a wedding photographer for 11 years, and just had the pleasure of shooting my second Empire State Building proposal. While professional photography is technically not allowed at the top, the head of security kindly let me through so that I could photograph Andrea saying ‘yes’ to Aubrey. In today’s blog post I’ll have all the details of Aubrey and Andrea’s engagement plus some lessons learned for how to propose on top of the Empire State Building.
Aubrey’s Proposal to Andrea
Let’s start with a quick introduction to the happy couple: Aubrey and Andrea. These two met at a bar in their hometown near Atlanta where Aubrey was working the door as a security guard. Andrea could have breezed right in to the bar, but hung around to chat. Aubrey claims it was love at first sight, and from seeing how besotted these two are with each other, I believe him. They are planning to get married later this year in a low-key ceremony in Georgia, but first comes the over-the-top proposal.
Aubrey had one plan in mind: to sweep Andrea off her feet with a fantasy proposal. While Aubrey had visited New York City before, this would be Andrea’s first time to the city. She had always wanted to visit, and was a huge fan of ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ What better way to get your girlfriend to say ‘yes’ to your marriage proposal then by dropping to one knee at the top of the Empire State Building with both a diamond ring and Broadway tickets? And thus Aubrey contacted me to put a plan together.
We talked twice via Facetime, and arranged to meet on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in the entrance area where you first come off the elevators. After circling the platform once, Aubrey finally found the perfect spot and asked Andrea to marry him. Andrea was so surprised, and her response to his proposal was priceless. I loved her hand-on-the-hip sass. For Aubrey, you could tell it was a huge relief to get the ring out of his pocket and finally propose. The plan went off without a hitch – as I knew it would – and we then headed out to Times Square with enough time left over for Andrea and Aubrey to eat dinner before they were due at the theater.
Empire State Building Rules
So here’s what you need to know if you are planning an Empire State Building proposal. First, a lot has changed since I last photographed Paul’s proposal to Jacky in 2014. You now enter the building not from Fifth Avenue, but on 34th Street closer to Sixth Avenue. But that’s a minor change compared to intensified security presence. I don’t remember if there was a metal detector the last time I was there, but the security at the Empire State Building now is on par with that of any airport. Indeed, the intensified security has made me rethink this as a proposal destination.
Commercial photography is not allowed. Commercial photography is technically not allowed at the Empire State Building. The building has its own in-house photography studio that takes and sells photos of tourists, so I’m sure they aren’t thrilled about competition from other photographers. But there is also the security risk. While I always try to minimize my paparazzi presence and shoot as unobtrusively as possible, other photographers may get in the way of visitors who are simply trying to get a good view of the city below. The platform on the 86th floor is crowded on a slow day, thus having a photographer trying to clear out space for the perfect proposal shot could be dangerous.
So I completely understand the rules against allowing commercial photographers – and yes, your engagement shoot counts as a commercial shoot. At the same time, asking someone to marry you at the top of the Empire State Building has got to be the most iconic NYC proposal of all time. Here’s how it went for me: when I came through security, I had with me two cameras and all the bells and whistles of a professional photographer. The security staff saw my gear (which fit into one bag, but still) and called over the head of security. This guy is super nice, and I’ve dealt with him on another occasion photographing a bride and groom at the Empire State Building after their rehearsal dinner. He explained about the building’s photo policy, but asked me if the bride-to-be knew about the proposal. I explained it was a surprise proposal, and he let me through.
Bring only one camera and lens. If I had to do this all over again, here is what I would recommend: cut down on the amount of equipment you are bringing. With a wedding proposal, I always want to be prepared, so that means two camera bodies and multiple lenses. But if you really want to not raise red flags, then cut it down to one camera and one lens. Lots of tourists have fancy cameras, so this should let you blend in. If you are bringing more gear, then be polite and professional. I gave the security manager my business card, and he seemed impressed – or, at least impressed enough that I wouldn’t cause a scene at the top of the building. One option that I considered is to store my equipment with a service such as Luggage Hero, and then pick it up upon descent from the 86th floor so that I could have everything I need for the engagement portrait session to follow. In any case, make sure you understand the risks and communicate this to your client. There is always the chance that the security staff could block my entrance next go round.
Communication is Key
Have a way to communicate with your photographer. Which brings me to my next tip: make sure you have a clear line of communication with your photographer. Lots of things could go wrong on the day of your proposal. During Mark and Elena’s proposal at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Mark’s car service brought him to the wrong location so he was thirty minutes late. In case of emergency, make sure you have an immediate means of communication available, such as texting or WhatsApp. Know the plan ahead of time, and give your photographer a heads up when you are planning to make your entrance.
Know what the other person looks like. Set up a Skype or FaceTime call ahead of time so you can actually see what your photographer looks like. I would also ask for a photo of the significant other so you know what the other person looks like as well. You want to make sure that your photographer recognizes you and is not taking photos of another couple. To make it easier to spot each other on the day of the proposal, ask your photographer what s/he will be wearing. During my Facetime call with Aubrey, I told him I would be wearing a very distinctive black-and-white houndstooth coat, which Aubrey told me looks like Bear Bryant’s famous hat. (Clearly, I am not a football fan as I completely missed the reference.)
Plan where to meet. For me, the easiest spot to meet at the Empire State Building is the lobby area as you come off the elevator. This is a great place to wait because it is covered and protected from the wind.
Buy the express pass. There is quite a difference in cost between a standard pass (starting at $38) and a VIP express pass (starting at $65), but oh what difference it makes in terms of time. If you have a standard ticket, plan to wait at least two hours to get to the top during the busy tourist season (summer days and evenings). With a VIP express pass, you skip all the lines and head directly to the 86th floor.
Remember the Empire State Building is open until 2:00 a.m. What could be more romantic than an early, EARLY morning proposal? Scheduling your proposal for the very end of the night/early morning means you are more likely to have less crowds during your visit.
Skip the 102nd floor deck. I have never visited the 102nd floor, but I understand that the view isn’t that different from the 86th floor deck. It cost an additional $20 to reach the top, but why spend the money?
Dress for the wind. And speaking of the wind, it is always blowing at the top of the Empire State Building, so dress accordingly. Ladies, that means no flowing dresses that can easily show everything with one gust of wind.
Know that it will be crowded. The thrill of an Empire State Building proposal is all about the asking, not the photos. That is to say, the viewing platform of the Empire State Building is always crowded. It’s a public venue, so asking people to get out of the way while you ask someone to marry you is not in the cards. (And remember what I said about security concerns? Pushing other people out of the way for the perfect shot is the perfect way to get kicked out of the Empire State Building.) The look of surprise as you say, ‘will you marry me?’ is always a great shot, but have a plan afterwards of where you want to go to take some additional photos. In the case of Aubrey and Andrea, we headed to Times Square. Other nearby photo locations include Grand Central, Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, or the subway.
The perfect proposal requires perfect planning ahead of time, and Aubrey made sure that every last detail was taken care of beforehand. I wish the very best for Aubrey and Andrea when they walk down the aisle later this year. If you are planning a similar proposal in New York City (or beyond), drop me a line and let’s talk strategy!
Interested in a few of my other surprise proposals? Well then take a look at Mark’s surprise proposal to Elena at Brooklyn Bridge Park in this link. And don’t miss Matthew’s surprise proposal to Anna on the Central Park Lake in this link.
If you would like to see more images from my engagement portfolio, then please visit my website — KellyWilliamsPhotographer.com.