Tips For Shooting Urban Areas and Cityscapes At Night

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Sure, forests and rolling plains have their charm, but there’s something to be said for the beauty of manmade structures.

The dazzling lights on the buildings of a city’s skyline are a prime example. Even the lights from cars on the freeway can be lovely (as long as you’re not sitting behind them in rush hour traffic).

However, the same thing that makes these elements beautiful also makes them tricky to capture with a camera: they only come out at night.

Sure, the night mode setting on your camera can assist you and even produce some pretty good results. But if you want a little more control over the outcome, you’ll have to learn the ins and outs of adjusting your settings for night time exposures.

 

Slowing down your shutter turns moving lights into trails. (Image: Marc Baker)

Slow down your shutter. It’s dark out there! How can you walk away with something more than a black photo? Let your camera’s shutter stay open longer!

If you’re shooting moving objects like cars, it will cause the lights to form trails. The longer you leave your shutter open, the more fluid the light trails will be. Start at a full five seconds and increase your time from there until you get the exposure you like.

 

Image: Tina LeAnn Photography

Reduce camera shake. Okay, so your image isn’t pitch black. But is it clear? It’s hard to hold a camera perfectly still for a full three seconds (actually, it’s probably impossible). So enlist the help of a sturdy ledge, chair, table — really any motionless, flat surface you can find.

If you’ve got a tripod, that’s even better. If shooting at night is something that really piques your interest, you might want to consider getting one.

You can also cause camera shake when you release your shutter. Avoid this by setting a self-timer for a couple seconds or using a remote release if you have one.

 

Night time bridge

A small aperture, like f/16, will cause any light sources to produce a starburst effect. (Image: Andrew Mace)

Make the lights twinkle with a small aperture. Here’s the thing about aperture: it can either create or take away angles. With a wide-open aperture, like f/2.8, you’ll eliminate the angles and cause any light sources to look soft and round. If that’s the effect you want, go for it!

But to add a little twinkle to your photos, take advantage of the angles by closing your camera’s aperture with a setting like f/16. The strong angles will give any light sources a starburst effect, which can be really cool for your night shots.

 

Image: Jason Mrachina

Use ISO to your advantage. ISO can be tricky for low light photos. On the one hand, if your image is still too dark even with a slow shutter speed, you can bump up your ISO to 800 or so to compensate. However, long exposures tend to show more noise (that grainy, speckled look). The higher your ISO, the more noise you’ll see in the image.

If you’re leaving your shutter open for 30 seconds or more, you’re better off easing your ISO down to 200 or even 100 to cut back on the grain. With a faster shutter speed, you’ll probably be able to get away with a higher ISO setting.

 

City skyline at night

Experiment with water to make your image even more interesting through reflections. (Image: Thom Sheridan)

Choose a prime location. The best part about urban night photography? It gives you a chance to explore your city at night! You’ll find lit up scenes you never knew existed.

It’s just a matter of finding a good spot to shoot those scenes. The top floor of parking decks works particularly well. Some cities have pedestrian walkways that cross over busy streets, which is ideal for shooting speeding cars. Water adds another dimension to your image by reflecting light. Even if your city isn’t near any large bodies of water, you can get this effect from puddles too.

These suggestions will you get you started, but the most creative and intriguing shots come from experimenting yourself!

Do you have any tips for taking awe-inspiring photos at night? Let us know in the comments! 

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Leah is a freelance writer, photo junkie, and avid traveler. When she's not chipping away at a story, you can find her exploring the outdoors or planning her next adventure. Read about them on her blog, Relentless Adventure.

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