How to Take Night Cityscape Pictures

There’s something special about a contrasty night scene that really pleases my eye, or maybe it’s all the sparkling lights!
 
Taking great shots at night can be a little tricky. Photos sometimes turn out blurry, lack critical detail, or are improperly exposed.
 
Learning a few tricks will help you capture some great shots. This article will teach you a few of them. There are many approaches to nighttime photography, so once you read this, I encourage you to get out and practice. Don't give up after your first time out, keep trying and pay close attention to your camera settings and composition. While reviewing your images try and identify what might make the image even better.

Photo above by Aleksandar Djordjevic License

Gear
If you want to get great shots at night, you will want to bring some extra gear along.

  • Tripod - You’ll need to keep your camera still and steady. A solid tripod and head are a must. If you go too cheap, you’ll regret it. Buy something solid and stable. For DSLR users, buy a setup that holds more than the weight of your gear. I’ve heard varying suggestions on how much more, but a common rule of thumb is 1.5 to 2 times.
  • Remote Release - Touching your camera’s shutter button can introduce unwanted vibrations, even on a solid tripod. Using a remote release you won’t even have to touch the camera. If you don't have one or your camera doesn’t have this option, you may also use the timer mode on your camera.
  • Flashlight - Whether on the shores of a river, or the edge of town, a flashlight is definitely handy. Not just to see where you are going, but to search your bag and see what you are doing while on location.
  • Neutral Density Filter - If you’re heading out to capture light trails of flowing traffic, you may need an ND (Neutral Density Filter). Though not always required, depending on how much light is present, this will help you use a longer exposure when needed.


Planning
Look at a map and plan ahead, find some places you want to shoot from. You might also search for images online of the city, bridge, etc. you want to capture to see what others have done and think about how you might want to shoot it differently.

Nighttime shots don’t all have to be shot when the sky has turned black. Start shooting before the sun goes down. You can get some really nice sky and interesting colors before it gets really dark. Plan on arriving on location early so you can start framing your shots and trying various compositions. If you want a little bit of light left in the sky for a more dramatic effect, the light can fade fast. If you have taken a few shots already to check composition you will be a step ahead. Although, keep in mind, street lights, signs, and additional lights will be coming on which may change what you want as far as composition. However, having arrived early you will still be at an advantage.

As it gets dark, survey the scene. Are there any signs that are only on for a brief time, then shut off? A scene I was shooting had a large neon sign on a building that would come on for a few seconds, then shut off. You may want to time your shots accordingly.

Know your gear! For best results find out what options your camera has, and familiarize yourself with it’s modes. For point and shoot cameras this might mean knowing what scene modes are available for night time shooting. Other modes and functions that might come in handy are: timer mode, bracketing, exposure compensation, and mirror lock-up.

 

Aerial Lift Bridge, Duluth, MN :: 1/5 at f/5.6
 

Settings
Getting the settings right are the key to pleasing photos.

Point and Shoot
With your camera on a tripod, use the timer mode to ensure your camera is as steady as possible for the picture. Check your camera for a night time landscape mode, or use auto. Since the camera sensor is going to likely see a lot of darkness, it may try and overcompensate by capturing the scene too bright. To deal with this, use negative exposure compensation to dial down the brightness.

Advanced Point and Shoot or DSLR

  • Metering - Try different metering modes to see what gives the best results. If there is a particular part of the scene you want to protect from overexposing, you may want to spot meter on that point. On my Nikon I also use matrix metering (some cameras call this mode evaluative).
  • Focus - Focus on the area of the scene you want to be sharpest. If your shooting a bridge or other object in the foreground, focus on that object verses the object in the distance. If shooting a skyline focus on one of the buildings. 
  • Aperture - To get larger parts of the scene in sharp focus, use apertures of F/11 to f/16.
  • ISO - Use a lower ISO to reduce noise.
  • Shutter speed - I shoot night scenes in aperture priority and let the camera choose, If your shooting car light trails you may want to use shutter priority, or better yet use manual.
  • Bracketing - You may want to bracket your shots to see which lighting looks best. At sunset, minor differences in exposure can dramatically change the look of the scene. Bracket your shots, especially your first couple times out so you can start to see the difference minor setting changes make.
  • Exposure Compensation - Similar to bracketing, only you are controlling the settings.
  • Mirror Lock-Up - If your camera has mirror lock-up, use it. This will help get even sharper images. When the mirror is locked up after focusing, there is no mirror movement to cause vibration.
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction - Some use it some don’t. I personally think it works well on my D300. When taking longer exposures extra noise can be introduced into the picture. This setting reduces the noise. Typically, it takes a while to process after the shot. A rule of thumb is however long your shutter was open, it will take that long for Long Exposure NR to do it’s thing.
     

Composition
As with any scene, you may want to avoid setting up your tripod at standing eye level. If your tripod allows, try spreading the legs out and shooting from a low angle. Or you may look for some stairs to setup on, or some other higher vantage point. Look for interesting lines or patterns, objects that frame the shot, etc.

Watch for intruding elements into the frame that you might overlook. Take a good look through the viewfinder and see if anything will be distracting in the final image. Some things you may decide ahead of time to clone out later. For example, power lines.

Stone Arch Bridge
The Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. This bridge is the only stone arch bridge, and second oldest bridge on the Mississippi river. My friend and I arrived early and settled in to the area.

This image was shot 30 minutes before sunset. It was getting dark, but there was still color left in the sky when using a long exposure. This is what I was mentioning earlier. If you get out before the sun totally disappears you get the benefit of dramatic skies, while still capturing the office buildings with their lights on.

I shot on a tripod (of course!), down low, using mirror-up function and remote release cable for minimum vibration and maximum sharpness.

For metering I spot metered off the 2nd or 3rd arch so that I wouldn't overexpose that part of the scene. Somewhere around the 3rd or 4th arch is where I focused using auto focus. The camera was set to f/11 in aperture priority at ISO 200 which yielded a 6 second exposure.

To darken the scene a hint (and enrich the colors) I used -2/3 EV negative exposure compensation. I had the in-camera Long Exposure NR set to ON to reduce the noise.

In post processing I did minor tweaking to levels and vibrancy (ACDSee Pro) and cloned out distracting power lines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some other shots from the same area

(complete gallery at http://myfotoguy.zenfolio.com/steonearchbridge, click on the photo info tab to view camera settings)

 


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