Cityscapes at Night – Night Photography
Landscape photography is not surprisingly very popular. An interesting alternative to try is cityscapes. Not only is this potentially easier for those who live in towns and cities, it also offers a genre with its own character and challenges. Sometimes, depending on the city or town, you may be able to include some elements that are more easily recognised as “landscape”. Rivers offer great opportunities to explore reflections, for example. But even if only buildings and roads are visible, cities can still look great, especially cityscapes at night.
What equipment do I need?
A tripod is very important for night photography. Yes, you can sometimes shoot handheld if you use flash or if you use a wide aperture and high ISO. However, if you want to use the available light and get a good depth of field (most of the image sharply in focus) then you will need a long shutter speed. This means that keeping the camera still is vital. You could always put your camera on a flat, solid surface if there is one available, but a tripod is best. With a tripod you will have greater flexibility as to how you position your camera. You can try out different heights and angles, freeing your creativity.
You will either need a remote shutter release or to use the in-camera timer delay. A cable release or a remote infra-red shutter release enables you to take the picture without wobbling your camera. There is always a risk of moving it slightly as you press and release the button on the body itself. So, a remote option is the simplest solution. You can normally buy one from around £5-20, depending on your camera and what type of remote or cable release you would like. Alternatively, if you don’t have one, you can use the delay timer on your camera if it has one built in. This means that it delays for a few seconds after you press the button before taking the picture. You can normally set different delays of 2, 5 or 10 seconds, for example. This allows enough time for the camera to stabilise again after touching it.
Lens choice is along the lines of what you would do for landscape photography. Most of the time a mid to wide angle lens is best. I like to use an ultrawide zoom for most shots, occasionally switching to a mid-range zoom. If you are going to be setting up for a large depth of field then a fast lens is not essential.
Another easily overlooked piece of kit that is very important for this and indeed any type of long exposure photography is an eyepiece cover. This slots over the eyepiece and stops any light leaking in that way. If you don’t use one then you may find that your image is ruined by streaks of light entering through the viewfinder!
Always make sure that you switch off any vibration reduction or optical stabilisation feature on your lens when shooting from a tripod. Otherwise, it may cause some unnecessary movement and create blur. If the light is good enough, you can use autofocus. Focus in the same way as you would for landscape photography. Using the hyperfocal distance is often a good idea. If you’re not sure how to do that, you can either focus at infinity or about 1/3 into the frame as a rough rule of thumb.
If it is too dark to use autofocus then you will have to focus manually. See my earlier advice on how to focus in the dark.
Keep the ISO low (around 100-200, if possible). An exposure of around 30 seconds or so will mean that most people will not show up in the final image. You can also get rid of most vehicles that way and just be left with light trails. Your aperture will probably need to be around f/8 to f/11 to get a good depth of field. I wouldn’t normally go much smaller than that – there is no need for f/22 or so the vast majority of the time.
Watch your exposure for how well it balances. You may find that some light sources show up too bright or some shadows are too dark. If need be, take a few images from underexposed to overexposed so that you can blend them later or create an HDR image.
- Keep safe – don’t risk yourself or your camera falling into traffic and don’t go into unsafe areas, especially not alone
- Keep out of the way – don’t get in the way of road users or pedestrians if at all possible – you won’t make any friends if you do!
- Keep visible – if there is any chance you could be hard to see and a potential hazard then do wear a high visibility vest
- Look for interesting locations & moody scenes
- Create star patterns from streetlights by keeping them small in the frame & using a small aperture
- Try not to look like you’re taking a photo while you wait for the exposure to finish – if you do, people might stop, which means they are more likely to show up in the image
- Take a phone or a torch to help with setting up
All the images of cityscapes at night in this post were taken in the city of Norwich in Norfolk, UK. The video below puts these and many more images to music (by Dave Brons).
© Joe Lenton, February 2015