One of the toughest things about photographing a city at night is actually finding a good vantage point. There are quite a few places that have viewpoints, but many will be closed at night, or won’t allow you to use a tripod. Check out postcards and see where other people have taken pictures and look out for open spaces on a map, especially those that look out across a river.
Although photographers talk about ‘night’ photography, the best pictures will actually be taken at dusk, when there is still light in the sky. If you take pictures too late, then the sky will render completely black and any floodlit parts of the buildings will tend to over-expose and bleach out. The time to take your pictures is when the ambient light on streets and buildings, the floodlit parts of the picture and the darkening sky are all balanced. This is a very short window of time, and it is worth shooting every minute or so and reviewing the results.
Camera shake is the biggest issue that you will have to deal with. It used to be that you always had to use a tripod to keep the camera still, but with modern DSLR cameras’ much enhanced high ISO performance, you can now select a higher sensitivity and hand-hold the camera. This will generally be restricted to brighter scenes and you won’t be able to use more powerful telephoto lenses.
If you are at a viewpoint that doesn’t allow the use of a tripod, then this might be the only way to take pictures, although arguably you will get better quality pictures if you shoot with a lower sensitivity and a tripod.
A tripod will allow you to use a smaller aperture to get a greater depth of field and the commensurately longer exposures will allow you to record vehicle trails: where car head and rear lights move during the exposure creating long trails of light.
When choosing a tripod, you need to make sure that it is stable. This is always a balance between weight and stability, especially for travel photography, but a flimsy tripod which will wobble in a mere zephyr is worse than useless! You will also need some sort of remote release so that the camera isn’t jogged during the exposure.
When working out the exposure, you should avoid pointing the camera directly at a very bright part of the scene as this will fool the camera into overexposing. Point the camera at an average part of the sky, and then bracket – take a few pictures at different exposures to ensure one of them is accurate.
If your camera has different picture style modes, select the night photography mode. This will help with exposures and also instruct your camera to use a slower speed and not automatically kick in with the flash. If you don’t have a picture scene mode, then you might have to switch off the built in flash to guarantee that the camera will use a slower speed.
All photos by Steve Davey. Header image: Hong Kong by Night.
Steve will be leading a photography tour of the Ladakh region of India in July 2010. For more information, visit his website. Have you ever taken an amazing night shot? Where are the world’s best skylines for photographers? Do you have any more advice to add to this article? Share your knowledge in the comments below!