Tag Archives: DSLR

So bridge cameras now have 80x optical zooms, but what does an equivalent DSLR setup look like?

In late 2014, Nikon pulled off a coup in the digital bridge camera market, by announcing the Nikon Coolpix P900 – a fixed lens camera with an astonishing 83X optical zoom range (4.3-357 mm –  which is equivalent to that of 24-2000mm on a 35 mm camera).

Nikon Coolpix P900 (Nikon stock product shot)
Nikon Coolpix P900 (Nikon stock product shot)

For several years, people had assumed bridge cameras were on their way out because they would not be able to compete with cheaper Digital SLRs and Compact System Cameras; but with the new generation of superzoom ranges, the bridge camera has come of age.  For convenience when travelling, it is easy to see the appeal of such a versatile zoom range accompanied by many DSLR type controls and features. This is doubly true when you consider the cost of such a camera may be less than the cost of a single lens of equivalent maximum focal length for a DSLR.  So can a DSLR still, really compete?

Can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?

There have been several excellent reviews of the Nikon and I would recommend Photography Life as the one with the nicest test shots. There is also a youtube video by Lothar Lenz (below) which demonstrates the full range of the zoom.

Given these reviews are already out there – I thought it would be useful to ask, can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?

As you know, this website is called Shooting on a Shoestring and generally the focus of the blog is budget photography. I should therefore say straight up, that you will almost certainly not be able to achieve such a huge range of focal lengths in a DSLR with equivalent features (autofocus, image stabilization etc.) for the same cost as the Nikon (less than £500 as of August 2015).  I do, however, want to focus on the cheapest way of achieving top quality results.

Can you achieve an 83x optical range in a DSLR?

Well… Obviously yes.  Though not with a single lens.  You will not, therefore, be able to smoothly zoom from the widest angle to the longest tele-focal distance.  Indeed, the expense of very wide angle zoom lenses and very long telephoto zoom lenses is such that you may want to consider fixed focal length lenses at the extreme. For some examples, you can check out some older and cheaper ideas here.  However it is important to have a decent range of zoom to be practical.  So, having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range of lenses for a DSLR setup, giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.

Having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range DSLR setup giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.

Let’s start at the wide end: Opteka / Kelda 6.5mm fisheye.  I love fisheye lenses and I was really keen to include one in this challenge because the Nikon bridge camera cannot achieve true optical fisheye effects.  On my Cannon DSLR (with a 1.6x crop factor), this lens gives an equivalent focal length of 10.5mm, much wider than the 24mm offered by Nikon.  True, this lens is manual focus only, but fisheyes offer such a massive depth of field, even at wide apertures, it really causes no problem at all.  I picked mine up on ebay back in January (2015) for £120.

Kelda 6.5mm Confirmation
Kelda 6.5mm Confirmation for £120

This lens is a favourite of mine for wide star-field shots and creating odd viewpoints:

Hesperia Hotel under the stars, single exposure, Lanzarote
Hesperia Hotel under the stars, single exposure, Lanzarote

Stepping things up a bit, to really compete with a bridge camera, it’s important to have a versatile lens with a wide zoom range – so a budget super-zoom seems appropriate.  In this case, I have plumped for the Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM. Note – this is the older version dating back to 2009 (not marked macro) for budget constraint reasons.  This lens is an image-stabilized, autofocus lens, which feels sturdy in the hand. It has a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 27-375mm, so is a reasonable wide-angle at the short end and still a good everyday telephoto at the long end.  Second hand, you can pick them up for around £150. I bought mine in London Camera Exchange on the Strand for that price, but to demonstrate the point, here is one on ebay today (for £174 including delivery).

Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM on ebay - 25th August 2015
Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM on ebay – 25th August 2015

This lens is one which I carry with me nearly all the time, as, while image quality is not as good as a prime lens, or even some smaller range zooms, it is still very respectable and it covers a vast array of different situations.  Alternatives would include the more expensive Tamron 16-300mm or the similarly priced Tamron 18-270mm lens.

You can then couple this with the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD, which is now readily available on ebay for less than £600. This gives a zoom range equivalent 240-960mm on a full-frame camera.

Tamron 150-600mm, now available for less than £600 easily.
Tamron 150-600mm, now available for less than £600 easily.

Alternatives here, include the cheaper Sigma 150-500mm, which frankly, is not such a good lens, and the Sigma 150-600mm, which is nearly identical to the Tamron in spec and handling, but as it is a slightly newer model, it still tends to be a tad more expensive.

So what results can you get with these two in combination?

Knole dear park, on a miserable rainy day, shot handheld at 18mm...
Knole deer park, on a miserable rainy day, shot using the Sigma lens, handheld at 18mm (equivalent to 27mm for a full frame camera)…
And the highlighted red section, zoomed at 600mm (also handheld) using the Tamron.
And the highlighted red section, zoomed at 600mm (also handheld) using the Tamron. This is equivalent to 960mm on a full frame camera.

These photos were taken in far from ideal conditions, but they clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of the Tamron’s image stabilization and sharpness at a wide aperture, as well as the fact it can definitely be used handheld.

“The full range of lenses on cameras? You’d better buy a bigger bag.”

So – having come up with a 100x zoom range for less than £1000 – can you beat even that?  Well, yes. Quite easily actually. You might be surprised that the Tamron lens can quite easily be paired with a simple 2x teleconverter (around £100 if you look hard) and still be very effective.  True – it won’t allow you to autofocus any more but the manual focus on the Tamron lens is very smooth and easy to use with practice.

The absolute full range of this setup at 6.5mm on the wide end to 1200mm on the long end (nearly a 200x zoom range!) is best shown again, with some photos of the night sky…

Tudeley Church under the stars (shot at 6.5mm)
Tudeley Church under the stars (shot at 6.5mm)
The moon shot with the Tamron 150-600mm at full zoom with a 2x teleconverter
The moon shot with the Tamron 150-600mm at full zoom with a 2x teleconverter

So – quite a wide range of focal lengths there.

But what does this all look like?

The full range of lenses on cameras... You'd better buy a bigger bag.
The full range of lenses on cameras?  You’d better buy a bigger bag.

Conclusion: At the end of the day – there is no denying that a superzoom bridge camera is a pretty nifty bit of kit, and an 83x zoom is still pretty incredible.  Would I buy one?  Perhaps, if I had the cash… But so far I haven’t and I don’t seem to mind one bit.

Sink or swim – the key to success under water

Perhaps you’re one of those people who watched Jaws and has decided it still isn’t safe to get back in the water, or perhaps, like me, you watched it and thought “wow that’s cool!”

If the latter is the case, you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface.  And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see (whether it’s your friends and family playing in a pool, a crab, a brightly coloured fish or jaws).  So how do you do it, and how much will it cost?$

“you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface.  And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see…”

As ever, it will cost as much as you want to spend.

It’s clear that for the very best, super-sharp and well exposed images at depth, you will need an expensive camera with high ISO (light sensitivity) capabilities.  This may be a custom designed underwater camera or a specialist, dedicated underwater housing for a DSLR.  This, though, is the realm of the scuba diver, and nearer the surface (down to around 10m) you can get by with some pretty cheap and basic gear:

Underwater shooting with zero preparation

If you’re not a regular scuba diver, the times when you’re most likely to want to take photos under water are when you’re on holiday.  You might be by the sea in Cornwall, or in the Mediterranean or on the Pacific coast.  Wherever the sea is, there is the desire to jump in it and boat on it.

However, most cameras are not waterproof. Take it from someone who knows, you don’t want to take a decent camera out, even on a boat, without protection if you want it to come back working.  Ideally, you want to think about this before you go away, so that you can get a waterproof camera or some sort of housing.   The great news is, though, even if you forget, nearly all beach resorts and shops sell disposable waterproof cameras. Some of them can even be reused!

Waterproof disposable camera
A waterproof disposable camera – everyone’s friend on holiday.

This wouldn’t be a very helpful website, though, if I just said “buy a disposable camera” and everything will be alright.  If you want to get the best from your photos, things aren’t quite that simple.

The first thing to point out, is that disposable cameras aren’t that cheap.  True, to buy they’re cheaper than a digital camera, but they still tend to be over £10 and are only single use (or you will at least need to buy film to reload them) and you have to pay to get your  photos developed.

Here are a few pointers on getting the best results and best value for money:

  • So long as it works, there’s not much point worrying about brand – cheap ones tend to work just as well as more expensive ones.  They are all fixed focus and generally don’t have a flash.
  • Check the speed of the film in the camera – it’s unusual to find ISO 1600, but 800 and 400 are both common. 800 is much more useful, particularly in the sea (swimming pools tend to be better lit with higher visibility).
  • If you can get a re-loadable / re-usable one, do.  They tend to be about the same price, and you can choose to load 1600 film after the first use.  They’re also more environmentally friendly.  Make sure you’re careful with the rubber seals though.  These cameras really are cheap and low quality and not built to last!
  • Pay extra when you get your film developed for a CD with JPGs on it.  It’s only a couple of quid and is really useful because you can then get the best from your photos with some careful post-processing (see below).  If you have a negative film scanner, or know someone who does, this is just as good.
  • Always check the “use by” date.  Chemical film has a shelf life, which is a lot shorter in hot countries.  You may well find that these cameras have sat around for years in which case the film will have degraded.  If you can, get something (nearly) in date!
  • Try to remember that the ideal distance from your subject is 1m to 3m, because this is how the lens is normally set.  Trying extreme close-ups is a waste of time!
  • It’s more about the effect than image quality…

So what photos can you get?  – Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s hit and miss. Here are a few examples that (with a little care) have worked out quite well:

Fish in Thailand
Fish in Thailand – Thailand is one of the easiest place to go fish spotting, as they’re literally everywhere, and near the surface where the light is good.
These cameras are great for the snap shots of family and friends that simply aren’t possible without waterproofing.
A blue fish in Thailand
If you dive down deeper, you can still get some decent shots down a few metres, so long as there’s still some light. Close-ups are a lost cause, though.

I think we can all agree – the image quality here isn’t great, but it’s great for a personal memory.  However, these have all had their brightness, contrast and most importantly their white balance adjusted.

Disposable cameras in the sea will all have a blue colour cast which needs to be corrected or it can make a photo really disappointing.  This can be done in several free or inexpensive software programs (such as GIMP or PhotoScape) – but only if you have a digital copy of the image.

Underwater digital photos on a tight budget?

So – let’s look at options when you have had a bit of time to plan.  Just how cheaply can you take photos underwater?

Aqua bag - a cheap underwater sealed bag (with a £7 second hand camera)
Aqua bag – a cheap underwater sealed bag (with a £7 second hand camera)

Just about the cheapest way, is to use an underwater camera bag.  There are loads on Ebay and Amazon – and here is one I bought earlier this year for about £3 (including P&P).

I don’t know about you, but I would be very dubious of sticking an expensive camera in one of these and just diving into the sea.  The problem is, there’s not really a good way to test them without putting something electric in them and going for a long swim…  (If it doesn’t work, I accept no responsibility…)

Because I was worried, I bought a cheap second hand camera for £7.  It’s 7.2 MP and has since become a firm favourite.  I’ve dived with it several times and it still works!  At £10 in total this is cheaper than a disposable camera. BUT – the results can be disappointing.

The key problems are:

  • The plastic “pouch” over the lens is not flat or perfectly clear, which plays havoc with the cameras auto-focus.  Since manual focus is impossible with most cheap cameras, this is a real issue.
  • Using the cameras controls / buttons can be very difficult.
  • The bag is not well insulated, so your camera will get cold quickly, spoiling battery life.

You can get fairly good results by ensuring that the camera lens is right up against the plastic lens window.  Alternatively, you can buy a more expensive bag with a solid plastic, or better, glass, window – which if right against the lens will solve many of these problems.  The issues with battery life and accessing controls will remain the same, though.

Camera bag selfie.  a digital camera in a camera bag will get a better exposure, but focus will be a real.
Camera bag selfie. a digital camera in a camera bag will get a better exposure, but focus will be a real issue.
Alex Denny
However, if you upgrade to a bag with a proper solid glass (or good quality rigid plastic) lens window, focus and image quality get a lot better!!

A “proper” waterproof compact camera

Of course, there are a whole range of custom-designed waterproof cameras out there, and after years of being prohibitively expensive, costs of some have now come down to below £100 in many cases (though well known brands are still more expensive).  In truth, these cameras don’t tend to stand up well against similarly priced regular (i.e. not waterproof) cameras on dry land.  Image quality and optical zoom both tend to be limited. But in the water they are generally much better than other cheap options.

Again, you will want to make sure that you know how to edit your photos once taken.  A lack of light and poor white balance are classic trouble-makers with these cheap cameras, though you would be amazed the level of detail you retrieve…

Fish before and after
Before and After – A carp in poor visibility in a lake in Kent. A lot of detail can be retrieved using GIMP or Photoshop.

A key point about dedicated underwater cameras is that they have autofocus mechanisms that will work, and a quirk of underwater photography is that water is magnifying (so you can get better close-up shots).

If you get close enough... then a dedicated underwater camera is likely to expose and focus better (even if it's a cheap model).
If you get close enough… then a dedicated underwater camera is likely to expose and focus better (even if it’s a cheap model).

As a final thought (though not strictly underwater) – if you have a waterproof camera with you and quick reflexes, you may one day get a picture like this.

Easy macro lens for less than £50 – Canon only (sorry!)

I promised in Maddening Macro to return to the subject a few more times.  For a while, I have shied away from writing about this particular approach, because it is only of use to Canon EOS users (either SLR or DSLR) and I try not to be too brand-specific.  In this case, though, I think this is well worth writing about because it is one of the best and cheapest ways I have found of getting into Macro since buying my first DSLR.

The whole thing works because of the specific construction of one common lens, the Canon EF 35-80mm 1:4-5.6 USM (particularly the Mk I version) – available for well under £50 second hand.  The lens looks like this:

Canon EF 35-80 1:4-5.6 Mk I.
Canon EF 35-80 1:4-5.6 Mk I.
Easily identified by the black plastic front ring with a “nick” in it, for a screw driver to unclip it.

I don’t want to get too bogged down into the details of how or why this works, but basically, you can very easily turn this lens into a macro lens, simply by removing the front element.  This sounds really drastic (and like it would do irreparable damage to your lens) but in this case, it is really quick, and simple, and the front element can be put on in a matter of seconds.  (You don’t even need to undo any screws).  The lens will then function perfectly normally again as a standard lens.

To use this lens for macro, you simply need to pop a screw driver into the nick shown in the photo, flick out the plastic ring and twist off the front element, as shown in this video:

It really is as simple as that!

While the front element is off, the autofocus function will not work, but this is actually not too much of a problem, because the zoom still does, and at this level of magnification (macro of more than 1:1) means the focal distance is very short.  It is generally much easier, therefore, to focus by moving the camera physically closer or further from the subject.

Absolutely key to the success of this “hack” is the fact that the electric connections are still fully functional, and you can therefore set the aperture for your preferred shot, increasing or decreasing the depth of field as you see fit.  Below are some examples of the type of photo you can take with this lens (with no other added filters etc.):

Baby orb weaver
Baby orb weaver (which could not have been much larger than 4mm across).
Adult orb weaver (backlit by the sun).
Adult orb weaver (backlit by the sun).
A common hoverfly
A common hoverfly.

When you’re done, you simply twist the front element back on, and replace the plastic ring (again, the work of seconds):

For more information on using these lenses for macro – there is a long-term thread on the Canon user forum thread here. This also talks through the use of other lenses (such as the Mk II and Mk III version of the 35-80mm Canon lens) which can be used for macro in this way, but these lenses tend to be slightly more expensive – and you need to undo some screws.  The Mk 1 version here can easily be carried and used on the go for macro, because of the ease with which the front comes off.  It really is almost as easy as changing a filter!

When using the lens normally (i.e. with the front element in place), it is a perfectly serviceable little autofocus lens.  It’s focal length on a APS-C sensor gives a slightly odd range of zoom, but it sits quite nicely alongside other common lenses like the 18-55mm kit lens or 75-300ish tele-zooms, as a reasonable portrait length lens.  If you want to use if just for this, you will find better (but not many cheaper) lenses.  If you want to shoot macro on a Canon camera, I have found few lenses that exceed this in terms of image quality and none which are anything like as cheap!

WARNING:  This is something new I have recently found on the internet – there are a number of ebay sellers and other websites which are now selling these lenses “already modified” for macro – charging a huge premium (around £90 – £100 rather than the more common price of £30 – £50 for an unmodified Mk 1 lens on Ebay today).  These modified lenses do not normally retain the full front element and therefore they can’t be used for non-macro work.  Some have been modified to allow limited autofocus, but the extra cost you would pay is (in my opinion) not worth it.

As ever – happy shooting!

The £200 challenge… A full DSLR kit for a range of situations, for the same cost as a bridge camera?

A friend of mine recently asked me the simple question: “What sort of camera should I buy?

I looked at him a blankly and was initially very unhelpful.  Not deliberately, mind you.  It’s just that there are so many different types of camera out there, with different advantages and disadvantages, prices and sizes.  After a few minutes I managed to ask him what sort of photos he wanted to take, and what he wanted his camera for.

Everything.” He said.

Now, I love a challenge, and I got to thinking about what sort of cameras you can use for everything – or at least what sort of camera you can use in the majority of situations.  Obviously, budget has to be a consideration, so I asked him how much money he had to spend, and he decided that about £200 was a good figure to settle on.

To a lot of people (me included!) £200 is a lot of money to lay out in one go, and a lot of people would never dream of spending so much on a camera (me not included). But as high-end professional cameras can be in the tens of thousands of pounds, clearly some compromises need to be made somewhere when coming up with our solution to “everything” for £200.

My first suggestion was therefore a bridge camera which tend to be “good all-rounders”. There are some very powerful options available for around £200 either used or new, with zooms in the 30x to 50x range.  (Particular favorites of mine would be the Fuji Finepix HS range, with manual focus and zoom rings, like a DSLR, but there are great options out there from all of the major camera manufacturers).

Nearly all of these new superzoom bridge cameras have DSLR-like controls for Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO etc., and will come with an electronic viewfinder.  However, they tend to have smaller maximum apertures and smaller sensors, so they are not as good for beautiful soft, out-of-focus backgrounds and their lenses tend to struggle at long focal lengths in difficult lighting conditions.

But is there another option?  Is it even possible to get a DSLR, with a set of additional lenses, to give you the versatility of a bridge camera for the same price?

The challenge

I should set some rules out for this challenge before I get it underway, because there are clearly going to be differences in the overall specifications and results achievable between  Bridge Cameras and second hand DSLRs, the point is, though, that the ultimate quality of the end image must be acceptable.  Here are my ground rules for the challenge:

  • The equipment bought/identified does not have to be new (since the cheapest DSLRs are commonly more than £200 with a kit lens new).
  • The equipment does have to be in fully working condition (cosmetic ware is fine, but no scratched lenses, or broken screens etc.)
  • The final kit does not have to take up as little space as a bridge camera – but it does have to be portable, and transportable in a single bag.
  • The final kit must be capable of taking photos of at least 10.1MP (considered the minimum for proper “photo quality” A4 / 8″ x 12″ photographic prints).
  • The final kit must be capable of at least ISO 6400 (which is at least faster than traditional film, though not much to shout about compared to some modern Bridge cameras).
  • The final kit must be capable of a wide-angle to super-telephoto zoom (ideally of over 30X).
  • Evidence of the availability of the item at that price (as at September / October 2014) should be shown – no open ebay bids!
  • The kit must be capable of macro.

So here goes…

Apologies to any Nikon fanatics out there – but I have plumped for Canon in this test for two reasons.  Second hand Canon gear tends to be a bit cheaper, and because I am a Canon user myself, I can vouch for how well the items mentioned here work.

The Camera: Either a Canon EOS 400D or Canon EOS 1000D.  Both available for around £100 – £120, including a 18-55mm kit lens:

Canon EOS 400D
Canon EOS 400D – The evidence, listed on Gum Tree for £100 with a Mk II 18-55mm kit lens (the type with no image stabilization, but one I own and have used a lot).
Canon EOS 1000D
Canon EOS 1000D also with an 18-55mm kit lens (the first DSLR I ever owned!) – this one is £120, though I have seen them on sale for less occasionally.  They are available for around £80 without the lens on gumtree today.

The Lenses and adapters:

  • Canon 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens (free with body) – a wide angle to portrait length zoom lens – which can be found from as little as £25 without Image Stabilization, if you buy the camera body separately, such as the 1000D, available for £80.
    Canon 18-55mm
  • Canon 75-300mm F/4.5-5.6 Lens, £45 (inc P&P):

    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6
    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6 Lens – available for around £45 (or less if you have patience bidding on ebay).  Also look out for the excellent Tamron 70-300mm lens.
  • Jessops 2x teleconverter (Canon Fit) – £40 (also available from Kenko and similar brands).  WARNING!! These can be very variable in price, so you will need to do a lot of searching to find a bargain!  Also do not buy a screw fit, filter ring type. They do not do the same thing, and they do not work anything like as well! They’re frankly rubbish.

    2x teleconverter
    Jessops 2x teleconverter
  • Set of 4 macro / close-up lenses – £7.50.  In this case, for a 58mm filter ring size – which will therefore work with both the 18-55mm and 75-300mm Canon lenses.  If you were to, instead, buy something like the Tamron 70-300mm lens, you would want a 62mm thread size and a step-up ring for the 18-55mm lens.

    Diopter lenses
    Set of four Diopter lenses (+1, +2, +4, +10)
  • 0.45x fisheye / wide angle conversion lens – £8.75, (also 58mm thread size)

    0.45x Wide Angle lens
    0.45x Wide Angle lens for use with the 18-55mm lens.

So, that gives us:

  • Camera and 18-55mm kit lens – £100
  • 75-300mm lens – £39.50
  • 2x teleconverter – £40
  • Macro lenses – £7.29
  • Wide Angle lens – £8.75

Total Cost: £195.54

The kit has a focal range of 8.1mm to 600mm (technically a 74X magnification from widest angle to longest focal length) – and a 35mm equivalent range of 13mm to 960mm focal lengths.

But how much space does it take up? Does it fit in a bag?

Yes it does (just!):

The full kit - for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).
The full kit – for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).

But is it any good?

Well – I think it is!  A lot of this is equipment which I use pretty regularly in the tests throughout this site.  There are a number of macro images already online, so I won’t dwell on these – but the full extent of the 600mm zoom hasn’t been demonstrated before.  Sure, there is some chromatic aberration, but it would be much worse on a bridge camera:

Red Robin
Shot with at 600mm on a Canon EOS APS-C sensor camera, which gives a 35mm equivalent focal of a whopping 960mm. This was achieved with a cheap 75-300mm tele zoom and a 2x teleconverter

Then at the extreme wide angle end things look like this – which is wider than can be achieved on a bridge camera without a similar converter:

Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse – which is too big and surrounded by trees to be conveniently shot without a fisheye – in this case a cheap 58mm screw-fit adapter on an 18-55mm kit lens.

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 from the top of the Tokyo Tower (shot with a Fuji Finepix s8000fd)
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.