Urban night photography
Cities and towns are often at their aesthetic best at night. Even the dowdiest city is transformed when darkness falls and the lights come on. Winter is the optimum time for night photography. Sunset is nice and early, which means that you don’t have to hang around until late o’clock to begin. City streets are also often bedecked in Christmas lights too, which add another dimension to a city’s visual appeal.
Finding a good viewpoint will help to show the extent of a city.
However, night photography (when applied to cities) is slightly misleading. It’s generally better to shoot at dusk, when there’s still colour and detail in the sky, rather than when night has fallen completely. Once the sky is black rooftop details are often lost, making the shape of buildings harder to discern.
Rivers and lakes (when relatively still) are great for producing symmetrical compositions.
The length of time that colour remains in the sky depends on your latitude and the time of year. At the equator dusk is relatively short all year round. Further north (or south) dusk is shorter in winter than it is in summer. In northern parts of Britain the sky often doesn’t get completely dark at all at the height of summer.
Look out for special events that involve unusual lighting to create never-to-be-repeated images.
Shooting at dusk therefore requires some thought to maximise the opportunity. I usually work out my shots during the day so that I can set up and shoot more quickly when dusk falls. If I need to shoot a number of shots I’ll shoot facing east first (the eastern sky gets darkest first at dusk) and then finish shooting west. If I were shooting at dawn I’d reverse the procedure. However, I don’t often shoot at dawn as floodlighting is generally turned off late at night, making dawn generally less photographically rewarding than dusk.
Night photography means dealing with low light. Low light invariably requires the use of longer shutter speeds than during the day. There are essentially two ways to deal with this problem: Increase the ISO (and use a large aperture) to shorten shutter speeds or use a tripod and not worry about shutter speed length. It’s the latter option that I prefer.
Although modern sensors are remarkably satisfactory at higher ISO settings there’s no reason to risk noise marring a photo unnecessarily. Using a higher ISO will also leave less room to manoeuvre should you need to adjust exposure in postproduction.
The use of longer shutter speeds has two interesting effects on an image. With a sufficiently long shutter speed anything that’s moving will vanish from the shot. If you want your city streets to be empty of people use a shutter speed of thirty seconds or more. To achieve this you’ll need to set your camera to Bulb mode and use a remote release to lock the shutter open. You may need to experiment with the aperture to obtain the right exposure. If the smallest aperture on your lens still causes overexposure at +30 seconds use an ND filter.
Traffic trails work best when the traffic is guaranteed to move. Don’t stand next to traffic lights!
The second effect also involves movement. Traffic that moves (assuming the vehicles have their lights on) will leave a light trail through a photo. Setting up above street level (from a building window or bridge) will help you to capture the shape of a street and the traffic flowing through it better than at ground level.