We spent the last portion of this series out in the country taking pictures under starlight. Now we’re going to head back into the city to figure out what the buzz really is all about. There’s no shortage of night time light and interesting figures in the city. From the neon to the bright and expansive bridges and sky scrapers, there is plenty for enthusiast and non-enthusiast photographers alike. Even if you don’t live in the city, and you only spend a few days a year there - This one is for you.
Unlike the countryside where the light is faint, you’re looking for a different kind of photograph in the city. You don’t want to wait until the sun has gone completely down. You’ll actually want a little more light to work with. When you’re taking pictures of the city at night, you’ll find out that they look best when there is a lot of light “pollution.” Forget about the stars and the sky. You want to photograph building and their mysterious glow.
I start my urban night photography right after the sun has gone down. I know what you’re thinking. You’re going to tell me that’s not really night photography, and I can see your point. But get this. In the two to three hours after the sun has gone down, you’ll find the sky to be full of colors you can’t see with the naked eye. It’s dark enough to be night, but not so dark that you lose all color in the sky.
The effect is even more amplified when a weather system passes through. What was once “light pollution” reflects up to the clouds and back, illuminating the entire city with its own light. These are the best nights to be out taking pictures of the city. Nothing quite compares to it.
Where to setup
Cities are monstrous. There are so many different places you can setup a tripod, but the best ones are a well-kept secret. Whatever you do, try to get a little higher than usual. You don’t want a photograph that’s flat and lacking in depth. You want one with clear lines that stretch from a point in the front all the way out to the horizon in the distance.
To get this, you don’t need to be on the top floor of the Empire State Building. You just need to be in a part of town with a slightly higher elevation. A lot of cities have excellent views in town. It might require a hike or a conversation with your friend who works on the 42nd floor, but believe me. When those images turn out, it’ll be worth it.
Consider adding water to every night time cityscape. It solves a problem you’re going to run into all the time. When there isn’t a lot of light available, it’s hard to fill up the frame and keep things interesting. Anything that reflects the light helps, and nothing could be better than crystal clear water.
Exposure length and aperture settings
With cityscapes, you have a decent amount of leeway. You don’t need to be using the sharpest (highest F-number) aperture, but it does help to have something that’s sharp enough. Most of the time, I end up shooting in manual mode with an aperture between F8 and F10. It’s sharp enough.
Remember, the higher the F-number, the less light gets into the camera, so it will take longer to correctly expose the image. If you do choose to go with something sharper, like F22, be aware that you’ll need to expose the sensor to more light so you might be waiting awhile to get that photo.
So far as shutter speed is concerned, it’s just like every night time photograph. You never know with 100% certainty. I usually start with a test image at 15 seconds (because there’s more light), and then I step my exposure time up or down depending on what I get back.
Here’s another quick tip. If your camera has a histogram view on the LCD screen, use it! Your histogram will tell you whether you’re capturing the right colors with the settings you’re currently using. If most of the graph is slanted toward the left, you need to increase your exposure time. If most of it is toward the right, you need to decrease your exposure time. That’s the gist of it anyway. For more information, check out my full histogram tutorial.
By now, you should have a clear grasp of how to capture visually arresting cityscapes at night. Water is the word of the day. Whether it’s in the sky as a looming storm, or it’s right in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, it helps to add more color to every cityscape. The rest is up to you find your secret shooting spot and make a go of it!
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