How to Shoot Great Cityscapes at Night

How to Shoot Great Cityscapes at Night

When the lights go down in the city, magic happens! How do you harness the incredible low-light capabilities of today’s DSLR cameras to create stunning urban nightscapes? With a solid combination of technical knowledge, gear, planning, and imagination, you can create incredible images in any city. Here’re some tips to get you started.

Nightscape Photography Gear

A sturdy tripod, a digital SLR camera with full manual settings, and a remote-release cable are all that’s required to shoot urban nightscapes. Choose a tripod that will accept a ball head or pistol grip. These facilitate easy adjustments, like quickly moving from portrait to landscape orientations. For the camera, modern DSLRs with full frame sensors and low noise at high ISOs, such as the Nikon D800/D810, Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 5Ds/5Ds R, and especially the Sony a7s/a7SII, are excellent choices.

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Pistol grip tripod heads (left) and ball heads (right) allow for quick vertical/horizontal changes.

Fast lenses (lenses with wide maximum apertures) aren’t as important when shooting urban cityscapes as they are when shooting rural landscapes at night (like the Milky Way in the desert) because in urban environments it’s more likely that you won’t be shooting with the aperture wide open due to higher ambient light. Instead, what you want to bring along are lenses that are tack-sharp from edge to edge, with minimal barrel distortion, and optimal sharpness from f/5.6 (or lower) and up.

DSLR Camera Front view with zoom lens

I prefer to use a wide angle zoom lens for urban nightscapes, like the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II. Other good options are the Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS, the Canon 11-24mm f/4L, the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G, the Sony 16-35mm f/4 OSS for Sony a7 series shooters, and the Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 for Micro Four Thirds (you have to go a little wider with MFT to accommodate the 2x crop sensors – learn more about MFT in Sample Images: Benefits of Shooting Olympus and Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds).

No one likes to carry around a huge, heavy camera bag on subways or while pushing through crowded sidewalks. When cruising around cities, I find that versatile zoom wide angle lenses, such as the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II or the longer-reaching 24-70mm f/2.8L II, cover just about any range I might need. As with all night photography, a healthy amount of trial and error will be necessary since there won’t be enough ambient light to use just Live View shooting on your camera’s LCD. Developing a feedback loop of “shoot, review, adjust, shoot, review, adjust….” (and so on) is greatly helpful when experimenting with urban nightscapes.

Nightscape Camera Settings

Make sure to set your file type to RAW, especially if you plan on using post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom to perform differential color correction, dodging and burning, or perspective correction. Shoot in Manual (“M”) mode and set your lens to manual focus.

Looking over Hakodate, Japan from the tram. 0.5 second exposure at f/3.5 and ISO 200 on a Canon 24mm tilt-shift lens, which is manual focus only.

Looking over Hakodate, Japan from the tram. 0.5 second exposure at f/3.5 and ISO 200 on a Canon 24mm tilt-shift lens, which is manual focus only and allows for a miniaturization effect.

There aren’t any “catch all” exposure settings that will work all the time – different scenes will demand different settings. A good place to start might be ISO 800, a “middle of the road” aperture such as f/8, and a shutter speed of 10 seconds. Experiment with trial and error to see what changes you might need to make as you move around the city and encounter different scenes. Here are several common night shooting scenarios to get you started.

Car Trails

One of the easiest and most exciting things to photograph in an urban environment are car trails, or the streaks of red, white, and yellow lights left by vehicle tail lights in long-exposure photos as moving cars pass through the frame.

McIver Crossing

Approximate 3.5 minute exposure at f/9.5 and ISO 800.

The trick to making these images “pop” is to time your shoot during the sweet spot in the “blue hour,” or the phase of twilight before/after sunrise or sunset when there is still some light in the sky but it’s dark enough for the tail lights to appear bright and vivid.

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30 second exposure at f/22 and ISO 250. Read on to find out how aperture affects the size of starbursts.

You will then have to experiment with camera settings until you find the perfect combination of aperture, shutter, and ISO to brighten the car lights against their background. Choose a composition where the motion of the lights has some contrast against non-moving elements of the background or foreground.

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30 second exposure at f/5.6 and ISO 1600.

Think ahead before you open your shutter about how the tail light lines will lie in your frame. Make small adjustments to how they lie in the frame by moving your camera (or your camera and yourself). You may even want to shoot a sequence of these and stack them later in Photoshop, especially if traffic is light.

5 second exposure at f/22 and ISO 250.

5 second exposure at f/22 and ISO 250.

Choose your composition carefully to incorporate and juxtapose non-moving elements into the frame against the moving cars and make sure you find a safe location to set up your tripod well out of the path of traffic.

Starbursts

Some wide angle lenses make it easy to generate starbursts from all stationary single-source lights (like street lamps). Simply stop down your lens to a narrow aperture and use a long exposure to generate a beautiful pointed star emanating from any lights in your frame.

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30 second exposure at f/19 and ISO 400.

For example, the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II will give crisp, pointed starbursts from f/11 and above, with the points of the stars getting longer as the aperture gets smaller.

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The lens on the left will produce an 8-pointed starburst while the one of the right produces a 6-pointed one.

The number of points each starburst has will be dictated by the number of blades in the aperture mechanism inside the lens.

Bokeh

At the opposite end of the spectrum from starbursts made by narrow apertures lies a phenomenon of light called “bokeh”, which refers to the patterns of light in the out-of-focus areas of an image.

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Wide open and intentionally out of focus at f/2.8, 0.3 second exposure and ISO 400.

You see this effect frequently used by cinematographers who film characters in night dramas, such as the excellent Bosch series now on Netflix, which takes place in Los Angeles and uses many shots of actors working at night against urban backdrops.

Behind the scenes from the show Bosch, which has a lot of urban cityscape shots.

Behind the scenes from the show Bosch, which has a lot of urban cityscape shots.

Use wide open apertures to selectively focus certain areas (or no areas) of your images to show the bokeh of the lens in the soft background. This is a great technique to capture your viewer’s eye and really direct it to the most important elements of your composition.

Post Production

Adobe Lightroom is a great “one-stop shop” solution to process your RAW nightscape images. In addition to the basic developing steps of exposure modification, Lightroom offers fantastic tools to differentially color-correct images. This is really handy in cities, where many different kinds of lights are often in the same frame. Or, choosing a Black and White treatment can impart a “Gotham City”-esque flair to your images. Recent versions of Lightroom also offer advanced-yet-simple perspective correction controls. Look down toward the bottom in the Develop Module for the “Lens Correction” panel.

Lightroom-Module-Grant-Kaye-Lens-Correction-Example

When shooting from sidewalk level with wide angle rectilinear lenses (a lens with little or no barrel or pincushion distortion), it can still be challenging to get everything in the frame that you want while keeping building lines vertical. This is because wide angles produce a stretched or enlarged look to areas close to the edge of the frame, distorting lines despite the lens’ anti-barrel efforts. If you want to avoid this in camera, you’d need a tilt-shift wide angle lens, such as the Canon TS/E-17mm f/4L. Discover more about the “straightening effects” of tilt-shift lenses in Tilt-Shift Lens Basics Part 1: How Learning Tilt-Shift Techniques Will Improve Your Photography. If you shoot with wide rectilinear lenses, such as the ones I mentioned earlier, you can use Lightroom to correct the edge perspective in your images, as shown above in this example from Reno:

lightroom-grant-kaye-perspective-nightscapes

The correction will force a heavy crop of the bottom areas of your image, so plan accordingly and back up while shooting so that you can to add “expendable” areas to the bottom of your frame in anticipation of the crop.

Planning Your Shots with Good Research

I am a big proponent of researching my photographs before heading out to shoot. Many excellent apps for smartphones and the web exist to help you plan your night cityscapes. Google Maps and Google Street View are powerful tools to research potential shooting locations and pre-visualize what your night photos will look like (note that almost all Street View footage is taken during the day, so this would be for location scouting purposes only).

Scouting above Reno.

Scouting above Reno.

While nothing beats pounding the pavement and hunting down that unique killer location, you can get the creative juices flowing by using Google’s tools to brainstorm and make a list of places to check out. Seek out compositions with strong reflections, such as across a river or bay from a brightly-lit city.

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30 second exposure at f/9 and ISO 400.

With some planning, you can be in position at just the right time in the blue hour to catch the fading light in the sky and add drama to your images. Also, a simple thing such as knowing when the sunset and twilight phases take place (as a result of the motions and timing of the moon and sun) can be a crucial bit of information. Incorporating the rising or setting moon will add a touch of nature to an urban landscape.

AURORA

6 second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 50.

Cities have a lot of light pollution, which many night photographers travel long distances to avoid, but in cities it can add a flavor to images with combinations of nature and urban elements. A nice amount of moonlight can fill in shadowy areas in urban parks as well.

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4 second exposure at f/5.6 and ISO 800 with an intentional blurring effect thanks to the Canon 24mm tilt-shift lens.

Apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris or Photo Pills make it extremely easy to find out where and when the moon will rise and what phase it will be in at any location. Before you leave home, you can also use these apps to plan for future shots; if you want to nail that shot of the full moon setting over Shinjuku from the 44th floor of the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, you can figure out exactly when to be there to shoot it.

Conclusion

With modern camera gear, it’s never been easier to make great images in cities at night. Dive into it with a bit of research and bring the right gear to facilitate your creative ideas and make your shoots go smoothly.

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Born in Hawaii, educated in New Zealand, and now living in Lake Tahoe, Grant Kaye specializes in landscape, night-sky photography, motion-controlled time-lapse, and creative filmmaking. His clients have included Red Bull, MSNBC, Yahoo, and many others. See more of his work on his website or join him for a workshop.

3 Comments

  1. Try Olympus Live Composite technology and you will never go back to the old way of doing night photography.

    Reply
  2. So stoked to see a post by Grant Kaye on the blog. He’s a master!

    Reply
  3. you should talk about how the odd numbered blades on a lens will produce double the star points…a 7 blade aperture=14 point stars

    Reply

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