Great shots of cities at night? You need to learn to let go!

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been on holiday to some amazing places, but come back disappointed that you didn’t get enough (or any) good photos.  This might be because you were too busy having a good time, in which case great, but it might also be because you didn’t feel you had the right kit, you didn’t want to carry around a tripod or you didn’t feel you had time to make the effort.  But it needn’t be so!

For today, I’m going to focus on night time shots, because I think this is often when cities look best.  The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti. All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.  In general, though, I think that a little bit of thought can help with your photographs at any time of day.

Again – let’s break it down to some simple “rules”.  The camera you use is pretty irrelevant here – an expensive DSLR, a bridge camera or compact can all take pretty nice shots.  For a couple of reasons that will become clear, though, mobile phones can struggle in this area.

“The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti.  All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.”

Rule 1: Learn to let go!

Shooting shots at night means slow shutter speeds if you’re going to get a reasonable looking shot.  Shooting handheld is a lost cause (you are never as still as you think you are).  Find something to put your camera on and let go of it completely.  This will normally mean not even pressing the shutter button yourself – try using your cameras self timer (just a 2 or 3 second delay is fine) so that you don’t nudge the camera when taking the shot.  You don’t need to walk away from your camera and leave it unattended in a strange city, just make sure you’re not touching it!  (One of the problems with trying this with mobile phones is that they’re now so thin, they tend to fall over!)

Bordeaux by night - sometimes, if you just find a place to rest your camera, you get some odd angles.  Often you can correct this using software, but sometimes it can create an interesting effect!
Bordeaux by night – sometimes, if you just find a place to rest your camera, you get some odd angles. Often you can correct this using software, but sometimes it can create an interesting effect! (Shot with a Fuji s8000fd bridge camera) 

Rule 2: Turn your ISO down and turn your flash off!

Okay, so rule 2 will only work if you’re already following Rule 1 (or if you’re using a tripod).  Otherwise you’ll end up with some really blurry photos! But as a general rule, flash will not be helpful when shooting night time urban landscapes, where everything is too far away to be usefully lit.  Instead, manually set your ISO low (if your camera allows you to do so) to keep image noise to a minimum and let the exposure be nice and long.  Some simple point-and-shoot cameras don’t allow these to be manually adjusted, but generally if you select flash off and night mode, it will do the rest for you quite successfully.

Budapest from above - shot with a Fuji A800 point and shoot camera (back in 2007).  Modern cameras will give better definition, but the image was nicely exposed.  A flash would have simply picked up the plant growth in the foreground.
Budapest from above – shot with a Fuji A800 point and shoot compact camera (back in 2007). Modern cameras would give better definition, but the image was nicely exposed. A flash would have simply picked up the plant growth in the foreground.

Rule 3 – Head for the high ground!

This isn’t really a rule, but I think a good piece of advice (particularly for high rise cities).  I would summarise it like this – Everything looks better from above (except for the stuff that doesn’t).  In New York, head to the top of the Rockefeller or Empire State buildings, (actually do both – Empire State at night, and Rockefeller in the day).  In Tokyo, there are lots of choices, but the Tokyo Tower seems an obvious choice.  In London, head to the top of the shard…

New York from the top of the empire state building. (Shot with a Canon 1000D)
New York from the top of the empire state building. (Shot with a Canon 1000D)
Tokyo
Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Tower (shot with a Fuji Finepix s8000fd)
London
London – from the top of the shard (shot with a Canon EOS 1000D)

All of these were shot without a tripod, but a few words of warning regarding the Shard.  Firstly, it is really expensive to go up.  Secondly, they won’t allow you to take a tripod, even if you want to!  Which leads to the third point, there are no flat surfaces in the Shard. My earlier advice was to find something to rest your camera on, that simply won’t work at the top of this building.  Therefore, you either need to get very good at bracing yourself against the wall, or take a bean bag and balance your camera carefully, or sneak in some kind of miniature clamp-on or flexible tripod.  Lastly, the shard is in glass all the way around and it’s very difficult to deal with the reflections.  Get as close to the glass as possible and be prepared to remove reflections by selectively adjusting the levels using software later.

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