Most of us will live in or near a big city. Amongst the concrete and tall buildings there is an opportunity to capture the cityscapes from an interesting angle; at nighttime. Once it gets dark in a city, the artificial lights come on and create the opportunity for some stunning shots.
Capturing Night Signs
When photographing signs at night, one of the most important factors is light metering. The combination of a bright sign and a dark background can confuse the camera, leaving you with an under or over exposed image. You need an accurate metering mode that you can control, so choose spot metering and choose a mid toned area for a balanced shot (in this case the red lettering). Place your camera on a sturdy tripod to avoid camera shake and turn off the flash if you are too close to the sign.
To take a photograph of a cityscape once the evening has come, find a spot that shows off all the buildings and office lights that are lit. Place the camera on a tripod, and turn the mode dial to AV (aperture priority) mode; we want f/8 and upwards for a greater depth of field. Use your camera’s self-timer or a cable release to take the photo with absolutely no blurring. The best time for this kind of shot is during the two “golden hours” which are the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset.
Bridges that are lit up at night look stunning when photographed well. Once again place your camera on a tripod and position it so that the bridge, the water and buildings can be seen; we want interest in the foreground and background. Set the mode dial to aperture priority mode, and choose an aperture of f/16 or more. Ideally we want a long exposure anywhere between 1-30 seconds for a silky water effect. For warmer colors set the White Balance from Auto to Daylight.
Shooting Street Portraits
Street portraits can be very interesting. You will need to place your model in the foreground and choose an interesting backdrop; something with passing cars or lit buildings. It is the one time flash is highly recommended at night, since it is needed to freeze and light the subject. Even with flash, the subject must be told to stay still, as there can be a slight delay from the time you press the shutter to when the camera fires the flash. A wide aperture helps in highlighting the subject, and makes the background softer. Above all, a good rapport between you and your subject will help you convey some meaning in the portrait. To capture some truly unique street portraits, you should use the smallest aperture possible or set the ISO of your camera to 400 or higher.
Monuments at Night
Stunning architecture takes on a new life at night time, especially when juxtaposed with movement. If attempting this kind of image you would ideally use a tripod and cable release with a wide-angle lens. Set the camera mode to Aperture Priority and choose a small aperture for a deep depth of field to make the building super sharp – f/16 and above. Let the camera choose the correct shutter speed. You can get dramatic shots of beautiful monuments if you use a narrow aperture and let your shutter remain open for a longer duration to allow more light. However, you must use a tripod to prevent camera shake.
Capturing Street Life
One of the most interesting effects you can capture at night is movement, shown through the figures of people moving and cars and buses driving past. To capture light trails successfully, use a tripod to keep them straight and the background sharp. Turn the mode dial to M (Manual) mode and use a small aperture between (f/11-f/32) for a greater depth of field. Set your ISO at 100 to keep the digital noise at a minimum. The image of the Houses of Parliament required a 6 second shutter speed, which is slow enough to capture the traffic trails. The f/9 aperture allowed the building in the background to be sharp. The more you practice the more you will become tuned to the exposure you need for the effect you want.
Night photography is a challenge, and quite often experimentation is the key to success. It is possible to handhold a camera and still shoot at night but this may require a wider aperture, a higher ISO rating and some flash so that the images don’t become blurry. You are usually working with shutter speeds of 1/15th of a second or slower. If you use a tripod then you can afford to use AV (aperture priority) mode and let the camera choose the shutter speed.
Because cityscapes are a type of landscape, a wide-angle lens is very useful. It gives a panoramic effect and requires less light than a telephoto lens. A tripod is required when shooting in low-light in order to avoid camera shake. Tripods allow you to have longer shutter times and therefore avoid using flash, which can look unnatural and harsh in night photographs. Flash is useful however, in night time portrait photography. Cable release and shutter remotes are useful to avoid touching the camera during a long exposure. You can also use special filters at night, such as a star filter that makes lights look like they are small stars.
Photographing cityscapes at night can be challenging and you should expect to be outdoors for some time, experimenting with shutter speeds and effects. Remember that you have to be patient when using slow shutter speeds. The results aren’t always predictable because the majority of the lighting is artificial and at times not stationary. Unpredictability is part of the fun of creativity.