Photogenic wintertime backdrops in the Philly area?
January 5, 2010 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Some friends have asked me to take their engagement photos; most of the obvious backdrops are cold and less attractive due to the weather. We're in Philly, where should we go?

The background: I'm no pro, but I have an SLR and all the lenses I could want to do this shoot. I don't have any off-camera lighting, though I do have an on-camera external flash for bounce and fill. Our first instinct is to head to Rittenhouse or one of the other parks, but that's less delightful when it's 25 degrees out; same problem at Bartram's Gardens. Where else can we go for cheap/free that would make a good backdrop for a standard couples shoot? I've got Longwood Gardens as a backup option, but not sure what else there might be closer to home.
posted by Tomorrowful to Grab Bag (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I grew up in the Philly burbs, I don't live there now. One of my all-time favorite outdoor places (especially in winter) is the Valley Green section of Fairmount Park. There are lots of interesting old bridges and structures.
posted by gnutron at 12:39 PM on January 5, 2010

How about the top of the steps of the Art Museum? Also cold, but it doesn't look any less interesting. Shots of the couple all bundled up could look cute.
posted by kdern at 12:41 PM on January 5, 2010

Another vote for the Art Museum. Or waiting a few weeks. It can't be winter forever, right? :)
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:43 PM on January 5, 2010

Architecture is your friend this time of year. Borrow a tripod and off-camera flash, and ask permission well ahead of time at the Free Library or somesuch building who's public spaces you admire.

Go ahead of time without camera, and scout possible backdrops and angles, and be sure to ask for the input of the person who you're asking permission from. Get all of your tech issues sorted out before the shoot: fresh batteries, and you know how to change the camera and flash settings in the dark and upside down while attacked by bats. Run a few trial shoots in your apartment building.

Take your photos quietly and quickly during the shoot, and send a copy to the location's management as a "thank you."
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:43 PM on January 5, 2010

Actually, cold and less attractive could end up being your friend in a couple of locations especially, when using black and white. (It's a cheap trick, but I've seen it done a couple times really well).

Here's where I'd do a shoot or two:

Outside: Rittenhouse Square, Art Museum Steps, Society Hill, Kelly Drive down by the cherry trees along the shoreline, Logan Circle (especially since the fountain will be turned off - you can get some really good poses on the fountain nice and close), Love Park.

Inside: XIX, the Kimmel Center, The Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul (on the parkway) (iffy)
posted by greekphilosophy at 12:45 PM on January 5, 2010

Unlike Slap*Happy's otherwise stellar advice, I would avoid taking pictures anywhere where you must hang upside down or be attacked by bats. Kidding aside, I originally came to recommend Longwood, which really isn't terribly far from Philly. I see you're already considering that. The Conservatory is gorgeous this time of year, and if you wait until next week, the winter lights will be done-with, meaning fewer crowds.

Your other alternatives are close-ups (a tree trunk looks the same in the winter as the summer; only the canopy looks different), things like brick/stone, or indoors.
posted by JMOZ at 12:47 PM on January 5, 2010

Is in front of the LOVE sculpture too disgustingly cheesy? If nothing else, it has that nice pop of color...
posted by Madamina at 12:52 PM on January 5, 2010

One resource I really adore is Neil van Niekirk, who is a really excellent photographer in NJ who does a lot of weddings. Here's a recent post that might be of interest. I don't know what your level of sophistication is with color temperature, but I think you might consider "warming up" the blue photos you get from shooting in winter light. Obviously, this does nothing for the fact that it is meteorologically cold out, but it liberates your shooting a bit.

As for locations, I'd consider some of the colleges nearby (esp. Bryn Mawr)--some are very pretty. But most of all, I'd try to shoot the couple in a meaningful place. If they're from around the way, I'd look for something cool in South Philly (say, outside of Geno's or something). Artsy types? At the PMA. Etc.

Good luck!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:54 PM on January 5, 2010

Having visited Philly for the first time just a few weeks ago (hi again!), these are the buildings I thought were really interesting looking:
  • the Perelman Building at the Museum of Art: I can't believe it was originally the headquarters of a life insurance building. It's beautiful. (Also, the steps at the main museum building had scaffolding on them when I visited; do they still?
  • any of the buildings with murals on them (you have so many!)
  • City Hall: it's a building with a plaza and a subway stop in the middle, which is so cool
  • the Penn Museum: nifty brick architecture, canopies and benches and things

posted by ocherdraco at 12:56 PM on January 5, 2010

the headquarters of a life insurance building (ocherdraco)

life insurance company, rather
posted by ocherdraco at 12:57 PM on January 5, 2010

I imagine the logistics would be challenging, and obviously it's not for every couple, but I think something along these lines would be possibly the best engagement photo ever, and (in my mind, anyway) one at least as emblematic of Philadelphia as the Art Museum steps. How many other cities have a two-story model of a heart you could take advantage of?
posted by EvaDestruction at 12:57 PM on January 5, 2010

From my sister, who has done a very successful engagement shoot at Longwood Gardens:

"If you're going to the Art Museum, be sure to go around back, too. Not just the stairs."
"Anywhere in Old City is great. Washington Square is nice, do yourself a favor and go to the alleys (like Willings) between spruce and pine."
"The University of Penn bookstore (borders) has WONDERFUL light indoors."
"Subway stations can be cool."
posted by moviehawk at 1:00 PM on January 5, 2010

Contact the Masonic Temple and see if they'll let you shoot in there. You can see some of the different crazy rooms they have on the virtual tour section of their website.
posted by The Straightener at 1:01 PM on January 5, 2010

I don't know Philly at all, but wanted to share this info. A couple of winters ago I was living in Chicago again and ran across a photographer taking shots of a couple in their wedding finery on Michigan avenue, directly on top of, behind and generally around a manhole cover. The steam that was emanating from the hole in the ground made for a really unique treatment. It was grey and overcast, but even without looking through the lens I could tell these photos were going to look amazing. Just a way of thinking outside the box. Good luck.
posted by FlamingBore at 1:01 PM on January 5, 2010

The new gazebos on the hill overlooking the Waterworks and the Schuylkill behind the PMA would be fantastic at this time of year. Cold, but fantastic. Just have coats nearby to throw on between bursts of shots. The Italian fountain and Logan fountain would be nice too.

Also consider around some of the historic buildings down in Old City and Independence NHP area. Not Independence Hall, but some of the other buildings. Specifically, the Merchants' Exchange at 3rd and Walnut (beautiful stairs on the east side), Carpenter's Hall, or 2nd Bank of the US.
posted by The Michael The at 1:02 PM on January 5, 2010

Clarifying on the Art Museum: there's an awesome gazebo around back.
posted by moviehawk at 1:03 PM on January 5, 2010

Outside, any of the Isaiah murals as a backdrop - his homebase is on 10th & South but really you can't walk a block without seeing them in Bella Vista.
I love the love statue as not just a backdrop, but a prop. Climb it, dangle from it, use it. Plus it's right next to a Mad Mex so you could run there for drinks/tacos to warm up if it's freezing out.
Inside: How twisted are the friends? I personally think the Mutter museum would be hilarious. (Um - don't shoot the couple in front of the syphilis display.)
The inside steps inside the main branch of the Free Library are Fred and Ginger fabulous.
As is the inside of 30th St Station.
posted by 8dot3 at 1:08 PM on January 5, 2010

Yes I think the gazebo could work. Or down by the boathouses?

On either side of the Schuylkill could be nice. Kelly Drive, or West River Drive (there's some nice views where the Schuylkill goes round a big bend).

In the 30th Street station? - You could have a bit of fun dressing up in 30s/40s gear if you took it there. It's inside too.
posted by carter at 1:12 PM on January 5, 2010

Also, Princeton is beautiful. There could be a number of inside AND outside locations to choose from there. Leaded glass windows, plazas and ivy draped buildings. Makes me all nostalgic for the days when I used to work nearby!
posted by greekphilosophy at 1:19 PM on January 5, 2010

And to pop back in again, did anyone mention shooting somewhere you can see these awesome murals linked on the Blue last year?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:19 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ignore my suggestions. Do the awesome murals Admiral Haddock linked to. Hot damn those are fantastic.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:30 PM on January 5, 2010

I wouldn't head out past 50th Street off Market with expensive looking camera equipment. Those murals are nice but 52nd Street through 62nd Street under the El is pretty notorious.
posted by The Straightener at 1:49 PM on January 5, 2010

I think the 30th St Station would be grand.

I also would like to put in another vote for Longwood Gardens' conservatory - it is truly amazing.
posted by sickinthehead at 1:52 PM on January 5, 2010

Rittenhouse or Franklin Square, especially at dusk, would be amazing. They're still all lit up with "ornaments" in the trees. And Franklin Square has a carousel. (A carousel!)

Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill has amazing gardens and grounds. And a grotto. (A grotto!)

I'm a sucker for anything architectural along the river like the Waterworks, the big bridges over the Schuylkill on Kelly & West River Drive, Forbidden Drive, the Japanese tea house, etc.

What about interiors? Have you been inside the Furness building of PAFA? Or the Dream Garden mural in the Curtis Center? (There's a neat fountain on the other side of the lobby in the Curtis Center.) Actually, we've got an embarrassment of riches in interiors -- all of the older buildings have marble and beautiful details. Union League? The Ritz? The Academy of Music? First Unitarian Church?

I have friends who took great shots in the median of Broad Street with City Hall behind them.

What about some of the cobblestone alley streets in Old City up around 2nd and 3rd streets? What about some of the narrow little side streets in Wash Square West? Cobblestones reflect the light really beautifully in late afternoon.

And that's not even getting into West Philly and UPenn, which I don't know as well.
posted by desuetude at 1:52 PM on January 5, 2010

Inside the Kimmel Center is the rooftop garden (Hamilton Garden). There's greenery and bright, blue sky for a backdrop (in addition to the architecture of the roof) if you go on a clear, sunny afternoon. The garden is always open when the building is open unless it's booked for a private event.
posted by gladly at 2:04 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I defer to the Straightener's knowledge of the area. But still, those murals are EXCELLENT.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:19 PM on January 5, 2010

They are, and you can't really tell from the pictures, but yeah, the neighborhood is kinda bad.
posted by The Straightener at 2:24 PM on January 5, 2010

Wanted to concur with an earlier comment that black & white photos in the snow can be amazing. We had some on our wedding day. It was very cold, not above 20 I think, and lots of snow. I was just in my satin long sleeve gown, he had his tux jacket. But we did fine for 10-15 minutes and got some beautiful photos before the reception.
posted by saffry at 2:47 PM on January 5, 2010

There are mural tours to the LOVE murals in West Philly every Saturday morning, organized by the Mural Arts organization. You could sign up with them and go with a group, though I recently went and found the best backdrop was the EL Stations themselves. I wouldn't worry about the middle of Market St. during the afternoon with a group, or popping out of a car. I also think it does a disservice to the neighborhood to avoid it entirely: keep your wits about you and you'll be fine. Plenty of people have gone there to take photos and lived to tell the tale.

The Wagner Free Science Museum near Temple is fabulous and steampunky. Indoors, too. The Italian Market is always nice, as is Reading Terminal. I can see that working really, really well. Same with the Mummers Museum. Actually, any part of South Philly near the Mummers Museum would work really nicely for local color, as a backdrop. And the Swedish Museum is down there too and decent.

LOEW's Hotel at 13th and Market has a fantastic view of William Penn from the top floor. It's free. If you have friends at Comcast, their lunchroom has an AMAZING view of the city and would be nice.

I've always thought under the El in the opposite direction -- think Fishtown -- would be an awesome portrait backdrop. Depending on how far north you go, you'll want to keep your eyes open. Or hell, go to that plaza at 6th and Washington and do pictures with the crazy live chickens in the background.
posted by melodykramer at 3:14 PM on January 5, 2010

What about the transported "rooms" in the art museum? There's the Japanese village, the cloister (maybe a bit dark), the church altar from the middle ages . . .

I haven't been to the new Please Touch Museum yet, but the old PTM had great, bright colors and fun settings for photos. If your friends want to do something campy, it could be fun.

The Dream Garden mural in the Curtis Building would be a great backdrop. I think it's open to the public.
posted by TEA at 3:50 PM on January 5, 2010

The Botanical Garden?
posted by elle.jeezy at 3:58 PM on January 5, 2010

I also think it does a disservice to the neighborhood to avoid it entirely: keep your wits about you and you'll be fine. Plenty of people have gone there to take photos and lived to tell the tale.

Melody, I don't really want to get into the Mural Arts debate, as I've had it with Jane Golden directly, about what service these Murals are providing to a neighborhood with a %50 unemployment rate, a thoroughly rotting housing stock that includes a substantial portion of the city's more than 30,000 abandoned homes and a historically astronomical murder rate. I personally think it's doing a lot less than Jane does, though I understand that she's fighting the good fight and attends a lot of community meetings and has worked with a lot of graffiti kids with felony priors, one of which was on my caseload earlier this year. It's a complicated thing, and I have extremely mixed feelings and honestly I would really want to know what all those kids parachuting into the neighborhood in groups to look at the cool murals did or intend to do for the neighborhood. Probably not much, is the reality.

Regardless, the neighborhood is dangerous. It has one of the highest murder rates in the city, and per the article I linked above 52nd and Market was advanced as the Daily News as the deadliest corner in the city in 2007. This is pertinent and valueable information that someone should know before heading out there in wedding finery and toting camera equiptment.
posted by The Straightener at 6:19 AM on January 6, 2010

I'm not going to debate the Mural Arts program, particularly not here in a discussion about an engagement photo shoot -- and I'm sure tomorrowful is well aware of neighborhoods in Philly -- but I stand by my suggestion to go out and have a look because it really is a beautiful project and made me (and many others, I'm sure) explore a neighborhood we had not yet visited.

Here's a collection of Flickr photos taken of the murals West Philly (not by me.) I think they're pretty awesome, and would definitely provide a nice backdrop for engagement photos, regardless of outside temperature. (And most of those pictures, I'm guessing, were taken from the El platforms themselves -- an all-day SEPTA pass would serve you well in this endeavor.)
posted by melodykramer at 9:47 AM on January 6, 2010

Okay, so, regarding the rest of the city aside from murals...

You could also arrange with someone to borrow their rooftop, which could give you some neat skyline action, you could play with the light during different times of day, and wouldn't require you to do your shoot guerrilla style.

Regarding the Dream Garden mural mentioned upthread by myself and others, I can confirm that the building is indeed open to the public. (It's around the corner from my office.)

If you wanted to shoot in Isaiah's garden at 10th and South, I bet he'd just let you do so. Knock on the door and ask him. Afterward, leave a donation for the upkeep of the garden.

If there's any interest in something a little grittier but not actually for-real dangerous, under the El right near the Frankford stop is pretty cool-looking, in my opinion.
posted by desuetude at 10:05 AM on January 6, 2010

I'm sure tomorrowful is well aware of neighborhoods in Philly...

I'm actually not so certain about that and also these threads are archived and searched by thousands of people so I just thought it was worth putting a heads up out there that the murals were in sketchy territory. I did not at any point say don't go there you'll die!!!1, it's just a heads up that the neighborhood is dangerous. It's been dangerous the last few years I've been working out there, it was dangerous in the early 90s when I used to buy drugs there and it was dangerous in the late 70s when I was kid there. It's not exactly news, but someone from the 'burbs, Jersey, etc. who isn't aware might want to know that to adjust their plans accordingly. I apologize if I came across as a dick.
posted by The Straightener at 12:06 PM on January 6, 2010

You're not coming across as a dick, The Straightener. And I think the Mural Arts Project is amazing and inspiring and I believe in some of the impossible-to-quantify good that it does. But i'll very heartily second that there is one huge hell of a difference between visiting the murals on a tour or via the El, even in the very sketchy neighborhoods, and stopping there, possibly in formal dress clothing, brandishing camera equipment.

I am by no means the sort of person who thinks a shabby neighborhood is dangerous or that dangerous neighborhoods have nothing but predators, but good lord, what are the chances of getting flattering photos of the couple looking relaxed and happy about the upcoming nuptials while you're watching your back in an unfamiliar neighborhood with a dazzlingly high crime rate?

This city is, to me, unspeakably gorgeous, even the shabby parts. There are plenty of ways to show that off without stapling a VICTIM sign across your forehead. Being non-judgmental to the extent that you utterly ignore your spidey sense is not good advice.

Also, I think that Signers' Hall in the National Constitution Center would be a hoot for some engagement shots.
posted by desuetude at 12:32 PM on January 6, 2010

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