Night Photography: How to Capture Beautiful City Lights

No more blurry abstractions; no more black rectangles! It’s simple: amazing nighttime cityscape photographs are attainable for anyone whose camera has a Manual Mode.

Check out the simple rules listed below and start taking sharp, compelling photos:

1. Use a tripod. The shutter speed during night shoots is too slow to handhold the camera. An average sober person can hold a camera steady for not much longer than 1/60th of a second (and 1/200th if you are using a telephoto lens). In the case of nighttime cityscape photography, the shutter speed will be at least several seconds.

If you forget your tripod at home or simply don’t have one, just place your camera on any even, sturdy surface. I often shoot straight from the ground by tucking my cell phone under the lens to give the camera a desirable angle. This ground/cellphone method is great if you have no other options, but a tripod grants you a lot more flexibility.

2. Set up the minimum. ISO. Usually, it is 100 or 200, depending on the model of the camera. The higher the ISO, the more noise in the photo – and that is something we do not want!

3. Close the aperture to f8 – f11. It is right enough to get a beautiful star effect from bright point-lights. You can close the aperture even more if you want to set up a longer shutter speed and to catch more light lines from moving cars. However, keep in mind: the longer the sensor is exposed to the light, the more noise will appear. To get more traffic lines, I prefer to take several images and then combine them in Photoshop.

4. There are two options for shutter speed. Option one for lazy photographers: set your camera to Aperture Priority mode (“Av” on Canons and “A” on Nikons) and rely on its electronic brain. For true photographers, my recommendation is to set the camera to the full Manual mode and try different values. Enlarge the exposure time if the photo is too dark, and shorten it if is overexposed. Repeat this until you get your desired result.

5. Use a remote release or set a self-timer. Every time we press a release button we cause slight camera movement, so avoid manual release to get sharp, well-focused photos.

6. I do not recommend waiting for complete darkness to start shooting – start shooting even before sunset (the dramatic golden radiance is just as beautiful as night lighting). Right after the sunset you will have between 30-120 minutes of beautiful twilight depending on the season and your geographical location. Some provident photographer might be able to shoot all night if they are lucky enough to be present somewhere close to the North or the South Pole. I am not jealous at all! I rather enjoy my warm and short Californian evening, much more so than the polar twilight in the permafrost area. Why do we want to shoot before solar midnight? Just because dark blue skies are much prettier than solid black ones.

7. If you, like me recently, are trapped on the top of the Eiffel Tower with no tripod and no way of securing your camera on an even surface; only then should you break these rules. Being caught in such an unfortunate situation, bring ISO up to 1600 or 2000, open the aperture as wide as possible, and try to keep the shutter speed at least 1/30 of a second.

That freezing night, tapping out La Marseillaise with my teeth, I still was able to capture some interesting photos. You can take a look at the whole series on my blog post “The Planet Paris”. If only I’d had a tripod, those images could have been not just interesting, but gorgeous.

Once you master the settings, it is time to repeat these composition rules. In the case of night photography, search for busy roads, any body of water (light reflections look gorgeous), and unusual, artistic angles of view.

Save the picture bellow and you will never forget how to capture beautiful city lights

Do not hesitate to experiment, and take great photos!

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