Never take a shot of city foggy twilights again! If you follow these tips, techniques, and equipment recommendations, you’ll never be disappointed with your cityscape photos again.
As the light fades and the twinkling street lights and office buildings start turning on at night, it is a captivating sight and certainly one of the most attractive aspects of city life. However, shooting in low light is Difficult. It’s hard to see, difficult to focus the camera, and difficult to compose a shot. Cameras don’t like working in the dark – after all, they are designed to capture light – but there are some basic techniques that will help you.
Deciding on the right equipment to use in a cityscape photo will help maximize light input, and the camera settings you choose play a big role in whether it’s handheld or if you need to shoot with a tripod. Location and time of year make a big difference to the style of cityscapes, too. So let’s take a look at what we can do to make the most of low-light cityscapes.
The best equipment for shooting in low light
Proper selection of equipment is essential if you want to take good photos in low light. Choosing unsuitable camera bodies or lenses for low-light photography can result in a lack of decent photos, so there is a favorite gear that we have to consider the best low-light photography set in town.
In terms of the camera body, we should ideally look at a camera with a full-frame sensor. The larger size of the full frame sensor can capture more light and produce better exposures in situations where light is scarce. Not only that but larger sensors in general produce less image noise which can become an issue when an ISO boost is needed due to low light. A camera with a proper ISO range (especially one that handles high ISO noise well) is ideal and will make shooting in low light easier (as we’ll see below). Some cameras have in-body image stabilization (IBIS) and come with varying stops and axis capacity. Don’t worry too much about image stabilization numbers at the moment, basically: the higher the number, the better for our situation.
If you don’t want to spend the extra money that full frame sensors usually require, just use a sensor as big as your budget. In descending order (and looking beyond the size of the very expensive medium format), it goes down to full frame, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds (which is very similar to the Super35), 1 inch, then fractions of an inch. These very small sensors should be avoided, if possible.
Lenses should have fast maximum apertures to let in as much light as possible: this means that f/2.8 and less (f/1.8, f/1.4, etc.) are ideal. The wider the aperture, the larger the aperture and the more light that passes into the image sensor. The lenses may have image stabilization (IS) as well, and this really helps when it comes to shooting dimly lit cityscapes by hand. Confusingly, not all manufacturers use the same name for IS. Nikon uses Vibration Reduction (VR), Sony uses Optical SteadyShot (OSS) and so on, so be sure to find this on the lens you’re using. Some cameras can combine in-body image stabilization with in-lens stabilization to improve stabilization and is best for this type of low-light shooting.
Filters are largely unimportant for low-light cityscapes, but Starburst filters can be used to transform light sources (such as street lights), into aesthetically pleasing star-shaped streams of light (hence the name). Though, this look is subjective, and I personally am not a huge fan. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder!
Keeping things steady: handheld or tripod?
Use a tripod, or place the camera on a bench or rock to keep the camera completely stationary during exposures. If there is nothing suitable to place the camera on, use in-camera image stabilization or a lens for handheld shooting. Experiment and push the ISO as high as possible in order to speed up the shutter speed to reduce camera shake blur.
Make sure that the legs of the tripod and head you choose can adequately support the weight of the camera and lens or else you run the risk of the camera slipping or tipping.
An external shutter release may also be useful for operating the camera while on a tripod. Touching the camera for even a second during a long exposure causes small vibrations that can cause the camera to shake and thus blur. Wired and wireless options are both acceptable, and some cameras will accept wireless playback over Bluetooth or WiFi connections to a smart device as well.
Connect to the most useful settings on a tripod
Tripod settings will be different from portable settings because in one case the camera is quite steady, while in the hand, the camera will compromise a bit no matter how steady your hands are. When we are on a tripod, we have more control over the creative aspects of photography. This is because there is no problem with camera shake blur, so we can prioritize depth of field by changing the aperture and using long exposures at longer shutter speeds, all while keeping ISO to a minimum, thus maintaining optimal dynamic range and reducing image noise.
There are some who like to turn off lens image stabilization when shooting from a tripod because it may get confused and introduce camera shake blur. However, more advanced lenses have a built-in mechanism to determine if they are on a tripod and will turn off automatically without manual input. You can find out if your lens has the ability to do this by checking its manual.
Ideal camera settings for handheld low-light photography
When shooting by hand in low light we are fighting a losing battle because there is very little light we need to extend the exposure time and thus present more opportunities for our arms to shake. Doing so increases motion blur, and while shooting by hand, it will blur camera shake because we can never quite keep ourselves still. While we can’t completely beat the action, we can win some of these battles with our camera settings.
Basically, we have to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible to reduce camera shake blur. To do this, it is desirable to open the aperture as wide as possible to increase the light passing through the image sensor. However, wider apertures provide a shallow depth of field, so this has to be weighed against the amount of depth of field we are willing to lose.
The next step is to involve any type of image stabilization (IS) possible to counteract motion. Then we should look at ramping up the ISO sensitivity at the highest possible level. High ISO values introduce noise to the image, so ideally this should be kept to a minimum, but when a faster shutter speed is our priority we will have no choice but to move this as a last resort.
Focus tips and techniques
While AF is very useful for daytime shooting, it can struggle in low-light situations. Some camera models are better than others, and the minimum exposure value for AF-detection is listed in the technical specifications for any given model, with some focusing now at -6EV and greater. However, if the AF “catches” when shooting, it may be best to switch to manual focus.
Turn on manual focus on either the lens or camera body, then switch to live view on the back screen. Zoom in digitally for a bright subject such as a street light and manually adjust the focus ring until a small point of light is reached. Move the ring back and forth slightly until the sweet spot is achieved. Then be careful not to knock the ring (it happens).
Cityscape Configuration Tips
Composition is so subjective that there are an infinite number of ways to frame a scene. However, in this example, we’ll look at shooting across town to get a broad view of rooftops and street lights. In this case, it is important to rise high, either by obtaining permission to photograph from a tall building or by heading to a nearby hill with a clear view of the city.
One way to create a frame is to search for features that can serve as anchor points for the rest of the scene. In the example below, you can see the church whose tower juts out against the surrounding lower buildings.
It is also important to consider the visual weighting of the viewer. Larger, darker targets will produce more visual weight and can distract from other nearby, smaller targets. Try to balance the scene with light and dark spots and avoid placing the brightest elements toward the edge of the frame. Other compositional techniques that may help is the rule of thirds, where we place important elements in and along the third grid lines (most cameras have the option of engaging this on the rear screen). Leading lines can help plot the path of visual interest through the scene, with the main goal at the end of the line to determine where the eye should stop.
Timing is everything
Aurora is great for getting light in the sky and illuminating street lights. This can be in the morning or evening and can be tracked either visually (by checking sunrise and sunset times by looking out a window) or using a weather app, website, or a photography-related smartphone app like PhotoPills.
If you’re targeting traffic light lanes during long exposures, aim for an evening shoot, depending on the time of year and location, there will likely be more traffic during the evening because start times vary.
Find a place with a busy street, perhaps with a bend in it, to get the light trails flowing, and make sure the camera is set with a longer exposure of several seconds. If the image is now overexposed, drop the aperture or ISO sensitivity to suit it. If this is not possible, a neutral density (ND) filter can uniformly darken the frame to allow sufficient exposure length.
Sunrise and sunset changes every day and can change drastically throughout the year, so make plans to revisit the sites to catch different variations. Here in the UK, for example, I can’t shoot a low-light city scene in July because we don’t live to night in the height of summer. By contrast, it gets dark around 4pm in winter.
Image credits: David Crowe’s head photo.