My dear reader, I believe this article has surpassed my record in terms of how many examples I have for you. More than plenty. I should actually count them… there are about 90 images! Enjoy them and, most of all, learn from them!
Night photography in the city is not as difficult as it might seem. In fact, there are a few myths I want to destroy right here, right now.
But first, you need to know one thing will be forever true: you DO need a tripod for night photography. Even if the exposure time is not as long as you thought, it’s still longer than the by day and it does cause camera shake.
Destruction of Myth Nr.#1:
City by Night kind of photography DOES NOT require a long exposure time!
The truth about night photography in the city is this: the longer the exposure, the more overexposed the light areas will be, and there is nothing good to gain in the dark areas. You just don’t need an exposure time longer than the one you use for fireworks.
Destruction of Myth Nr.#1:
City by Night kind of photography DOES NOT require a high ISO value!
Most beginners use high ISO for night photography because it reduces the exposure time so they think they can avoid camera shake. But then they get extremely grainy images, where the grain almost gets mistaken by a light.
Here is an example for you: left side picture is with high ISO and right side picture is with lower ISO:
The secret here is to combine the rules of night photography: (1) use a tripod, (2) use a delayed shoot (to avoid moving the tripod while triggering the camera), plus (3) the correct exposure time and (4) aperture settings.
The first two things are easy. What you might wonder is how to get the third and forth done. This brings us to the second part of the article.
Now, how about some tips?
Don’t wait until it is too dark to take your cityscape night shot.
Seriously, the best night photography is done after sunset but before full night. You need a little bit of dusk light in order to have some details in the dark areas, and, to force your camera to take the picture with less exposure time. Plus, you will get the advantage of having more colors in your shots, including a beautiful sky.
The correct aperture for night cityscape photography.
The thing is the following: the smaller the aperture, the more time your camera will need in order to get your picture done. I want you to forget for a moment about the exposure time, and if possible, set your camera in aperture priority mode. Test it out on a few shots until you get this effect: the small aperture will produce star-like lights. The smaller the aperture, the more rays will these star lights have. Now that you have this set up, and you have am acceptable low level ISO, you can move forward to the exposure time. If you are in aperture priority mode, there is nothing more for you to do, but if you are in manual mode, read the next tip.
Example wrong aperture:
Example good aperture:
The correct exposure time for night cityscape photography.
To get the right exposure time when you are on ground level, think about this: you do not need the passing by people to look like ghosts. Yes, they would appear in motion in your picture, but not as an almost transparent figure. Make a few test shots keeping this in mind, and then come back to your desired composition and see if you need to adjust – a little extra more exposure – before getting it perfect. Anyway, this tip only works if the city is not too dark – meaning it’s not very long after sunset and there are plenty lights in the city.
Play with the white balance function.
Most images of the city by night, if the white balance is ignored, will have mostly yellow lights. However, if you change the white balance to any other temperature or setting (it’s completely up to you), you get interesting coloring in the entire composition. There isn’t much to say about this. It’s an experimental thing. But don’t forget about it. Don’t pack your gear to leave before trying this. See for yourself what others have managed:
Good night photography in the city is, in about 80% of the times, from a high point of view.
This means you need o plan your photography session ahead by finding a spot somewhere high above the city, maybe even a little further away from the city itself.
If you doubt my point, compare below shots. Compare the left pictures done at ground level with the right side pictures done from a high spot in the city.
Examples from the distance:
Create a HDR image of the city by night.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to get the perfect exposure. This happens because some areas are too dark and some are too bright: there is a much too powerful contrast in your composition. But, there’s a solution for that too: create a HDR picture. In fact, I love this tip because it produces THE BEST cityscape night photography.
Focus on a subject to create a composition.
It’s nice to get a panoramic view of the city, but you don’t want it to be plain, right? All you have to do in order to create a composition that catches the eye is to figure out a point of view (extra tip: point of view mustn’t be necessarily with the horizon line at the eye level -> point the camera down or even up) from which you can focus on a certain element. By element I mean the following: a tower – a tall building, a bridge, an intersection, an u-turn, etc. And don’t forget to try a fish-eye perspective – it is well suitable for this kind of photography.
You might have noticed that I did not gave any exact numbers (for ISO, aperture and exposure time) in this article. It’s not because I can’t, but because there aren’t any clear rules that I can point and say: use that value! The lights of the city and the darkness of the night will always determine you to change the settings. I recommend that you experiment a lot. Set your camera on the tripod and take plenty of shots of the same scene using different values. There’s no pain in that. Night photography does require a little patience.