Transform your cityscapes into breathtaking images by working harmoniously with ambient and city lights.
While there are a number of factors that need to work in harmony to create a beautiful photograph, one of the most important is the light. By applying even a basic understanding of light when photographing cities, you can transform the quality of your urban images.
Cities, even the iconic ones, can look uninspiring under flat light, whether caused by dull, grey clouds or harsh, bright sun. Yet, light can change everything, and thankfully in cities we have the opportunity to work with both natural light as well as numerous artificial light sources to improve and enhance our images.
If you shoot any form of outdoor photography then it’s essential to understand the basic principles of natural light and how it affects the type of scenes you love to photograph. Cityscapes, much like landscapes, look great in the ‘golden hour’ periods of sunrise and sunset as the diffused, warmer light and the angle of the sun mean the sky will often enhance rather than diminish your scene. This is also the case for the ‘blue hour’: the period just before sunrise or after sunset. This is when the sun is sufficiently below the horizon and, as the name suggests, the sky takes on a blue hue which gets deeper, darker and richer the further the sun recedes, until blue becomes black.
Artificial light sources
If we focus on the evening blue hour, as the sun recedes below the horizon, this is the time when you will notice any artificial lighting. From car headlights to office windows and street lamps, the city starts to take on a different appearance as day turns into night.
In many cities you will find that photogenic buildings and structures such as monuments, cathedrals or bridges are lit. This will often make them look far more spectacular and photogenic than in daylight. Similarly, in any cities set around bodies of water such as rivers or harbours you will find that the city lights offer a boost of colour to your images as the lights extend onto the water in hazy reflections.
Ultimately, for photographers, the added bonus of artificial lights is that those who have an understanding of long-exposure techniques, and are armed with a bit of planning as well, can utilise both natural and artificial light in tandem to create striking images.
When exploring cities, especially ones you have never visited before, there is nothing more enjoyable than simply wandering around and taking it all in. While this approach is great for daytime shooting, it often pays to carefully plan your photography for the golden and blue hours – the key times for shooting cityscapes. These periods of optimum light are short-lived, and even just a couple of minutes can transform the same scene. By doing a recce of a specific location during the day you can work out the best angles for composition as well as determine access and any restrictions you might encounter.
If you are photographing city lights, you need to work quickly and efficiently to determine the best exposure, as the dynamic between artificial light and natural light is constantly changing. This means you have to manage your settings to get the correct exposure where the highlights are under control but there is enough definition and detail in the shadows to create your final image.
Getting the exposure as accurate as possible in-camera can mean less time in post-production, yet editing is often needed to adequately represent what the human eye sees. Some choose bracketed exposures to capture the scene and merge later in Lightroom or Photoshop, while others prefer single exposures that can be enhanced in post-processing. Both techniques are equally valid, and it depends on your preferred workflow and, to a certain extent, your camera’s capabilities.
The exposure triangle
The exposure triangle is a common photography-learning tool looking at the three key settings of your camera and how each affects how much light it takes in. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO can all be tweaked to create roughly the same exposure. However, the balance of these settings can affect the quality and look of the final image, so it is important that you understand and take control of them.
Turn the camera to manual mode and select the lowest standard ISO your camera has (normally ISO 100); this will give you the cleanest images. Next, set the aperture. Depending on the scenario and what effect you are trying to achieve, if you are shooting a cityscape and want to keep the scene in focus from front to back then try a narrow aperture setting between f/11 and f/16.
At these settings, your ISO and aperture are not letting much light into your camera so the final side of the triangle to adjust is the shutter speed. The shutter speed will be completely dependent on the amount of light in the scene, so initially this is the variable to work with to get the shot you want.
In low light, to compensate for the low ISO and narrow aperture, a longer shutter speed is typically needed. This means it is essential to use a tripod to keep your camera perfectly still. Any slight movement will of course affect the image and ruin it. Based on shooting a standard cityscape such as the one taken in Seville, Spain (see pictures above), as the light changes from sunset to the blue hour you will need to continually adjust your shutter speed to compensate for the diminishing natural light and the resulting stronger artificial light.
In this example each image was shot approximately 10 minutes apart at the same ISO and aperture, with the shutter speed being the main variable. Filters were needed to hold back the light to get a similar effect in the water, but the changing light conditions are clear to see. Notice how the natural light and colour in the sky change as the sun sets, while the artificial light grows stronger which offers more contrast against the darkening sky.
As you get further into nautical twilight you may find you need to use shutter speeds greater than 30 seconds to get sufficient detail in the shadows. Simply switch to bulb mode or, if you prefer, increase your ISO slightly or widen your aperture to keep the exposure shorter.