Shoot night cityscapes

Chris Humphreys

Photographer Chris Humphreys offers some tips for shooting better images after the light has gone.

Many cities come alive at night. Some are in fact personified by their nightlife – think the ‘city that never sleeps’ – and as a photographer it can be fascinating to observe and explore how an urban area can be transformed in low light. There are some major challenges associated with night time city shooting however and some common mistakes to be aware of if you hope to capture drama and have photographs with depth. Follow these tips for instant improvement.

1. Calculate your exposure

One of the biggest challenges with night time urban environments is the high level of contrast generated by artificial light. Since the ambient light is low, there are many very dark areas of shadow, interspersed with points of bright internal and street lighting. This can easily confuse your camera’s metering system into under- or overexposing. Switch to Spot Metering to make exposure calculation more precise, meter from the highlights, then switch to manual exposure mode to tweak the settings for a perfect balance of light.

Shoot night cityscapes
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2. Balance your colour

Another challenge is white balance; what ambient light there is will be very ‘cool’, consisting of blues and cyans, while artificial light is often very ‘warm’ with lots of reds, yellow and oranges. Shooting in Raw will almost eliminate this problem, as you can create frames with multiple white balance settings and merge these in post-processing for accurate colour in all areas of the image.

Shoot night cityscapes
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3. Creating light trails

A go-to technique for photographers shooting cities at night is long exposures of car lights, creating light trails. This is not as easy as it seems though – there is more involved than simply leaving your shutter open for a few seconds. Pick your shooting spot carefully to capture different coloured lights (both head and tail lights) and stand somewhere with enough traffic to actually show up in your shot. Often it will be necessary to shoot multiple frames and merge these in Photoshop to build up the trails.

Shoot night cityscapes
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4. Stop down your aperture

Try stopping down your lens to around f/11-16 to create starburst effects around points of light in your images. This is an attractive look that prevents street lights from appearing as indeterminate blobs of light.

Shoot night cityscapes
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5. Don’t shoot at night!

A common mistake amongst beginners is to shoot after dark – something most pro’s never do. Instead try shooting around 30 minutes to an hour after sunset, when the sky still has some colour in it. A black sky is boring and acts as dead space that contributes nothing to your images. A dark blue or magenta sky adds interest and some weight to the top area of your frame.

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