6 top tips for taking photos of urban landscapes, skylines and car-trails

Intermediate

There’s a reason why you’ll find nocturnal cityscapes all over postcards. Whether it’s one of the world’s most iconic skyscraper-strewn skylines – Manhattan, Hong Kong or Shanghai – or a less familiar urban sprawl, the presence of tall buildings, man made lighting and moving traffic means never-ending angles and special effects are possible at night. However, night photography is also all about experimentation.

Here are some top tips to help you start capturing the vibrancy of cities at night…

Los Angeles skyline at night
With a combination of tall buildings and the colours created by man made lighting, night is an optimal time for photographing cities. Image by Dai WeiYuan - f/8 | 0.4s

1 Get active with aperture


Photography in a city at night means getting to know all about aperture. Expressed as an f-number like f/2 or f/9, it describes how big the opening in a lens is and therefore how much light is getting through. The minimum and maximum f-numbers will differ with every lens, but the higher the f-number, the less light is getting through, and the deeper the depth of field (the distance between the closest and farthest objects in a photo that are acceptably sharp). 

For cityscapes the trick is to let your camera determine the shutter speed. So use the aperture priority mode, which allows you to set the f-number. Your range for a cityscape is going to be about f/5.6 to f/16 to keep most everything in the scene sharp.

Rot Fai Ratchada night market in Bangkok at sunset
For cityscapes the trick is to keep your aperture high so the elements in the scene are as sharp as possible, and let your camera determine the shutter speed. This means shooting in aperture priority mode. Photo by Le Anh Tuan - f/8 | 1.3s
Author tip:

Always shoot in the RAW format, which retains much more image data than a compressed JPEG file. That’s important because at night you're playing with less light, so you need to preserve as much data as possible for post-processing. Be sure to use a large SD card in your camera because RAW images are very big. It can also help to try bracketing, preferably auto bracketing, which tells your camera to take the same image three times, each with a different shutter speed.

2 Take a tripod


When you’re taking long exposure photographs at night – even when opening the shutter for less than a second – you’re going to need a tripod. It doesn’t have to be expensive but it does need to keep your camera absolutely still to prevent blurred images. Another piece of kit you’ll benefit from is a shutter release cable or an intervalometer, both of which will let you open and close the shutter without touching your camera. However, when you’re starting out – or if you accidentally leave those gadgets at home – it’s fine just to use your camera’s shutter delay mode, which typically opens the shutter either two seconds or 10 seconds after you press the shutter button.

Young photographer (traveler) with tripod photographing urban skyline at sunset, Hong Kong.
Photographing cities at night naturally means longer shutter speeds–so a tripod is an essential piece of kit to get the best shots. A shutter release cable will also help you avoid touching the camera and minimise blur. Photo by Jaromir Chalabala - f/2 | 1/50s
Author tip:

Photographing at night requires patience and stillness. When your camera’s shutter is open you must not touch your camera or the tripod it’s mounted on. Position your tripod so that one leg is at the front, thus creating a gap for you to stand in. Just be careful not to kick your tripod mid-exposure!

3 Get used to manual focus


There are two good ways to focus in the dark, both of which require zooming in on ‘live view’ on your camera’s LCD screen. The first is to manually focus on a bright light and then switch your lens to manual, which will lock your focus. The second – useful if there’s no bright lights – is to ramp-up the ISO on your camera so that your LCD is flooded with lights to manually focus on. Just remember to reduce the ISO before taking any photos!

Seoul city at night, South Korea
When photographing in the dark, don't rely on the autofocus feature to get the sharpest image - manual focus will give you much more control. Photo by Perfectman - f/7.1 | 8s
Author tip:

Many people will tell you to get a full-frame camera to shoot at night. Yes, you can get a cleaner, brighter and more detailed image from a full-frame camera versus a crop-sensor camera, largely because the former can be pushed to higher ISO without images suffering from noise. However, much more important is that you have a camera that lets you independently control ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

4 Shooting cityscapes and skylines


Composing urban vistas is about finding good angles at a good time of day. Aim to be in position about an hour after sunset in the ‘blue hour’, when the light levels are dropping. With a wide-angle lens on your camera and while using a tripod, position the dial on aperture priority mode. Work around f/8 to create plenty of depth of field; the camera will set the shutter speed.

Aerial view of a dramatic sunset over Melbourne city skyline
Taking photographs just before darkness during the so-called 'blue hour' can add an additional element to your composition with beautiful twilight tones. Photo by Mohd Ezairi - f/7.1 | 8s
Author tip:

Be sure to switch-off your camera's Image stabilisation, which can cause your camera to blur the image when it’s on a tripod. Also deactivate any long exposure noise reduction mode, which takes two photos, which can be irritating. Instead, keep the ISO relatively low; cameras differ, but working at ISO 800 and under will help produce clean and noise-free photos.

5 Finding reflections


Public buildings are often illuminated at night. That can cause issues for photography because slow shutter speeds mean horribly over-exposed images. However, they do create interesting reflections in water, including in puddles, rivers and harbours. A rainy night can put-off a lot of photographers, but if you head out just after rain you’ll find cities full of slick, reflective surfaces that can look great from certain angles.

Hungarian Parliament at night in Budapest
Public buildings are often illuminated at night, and if next to a source of water, or even just after rainfall, can provide some spectacular reflections. Photo by George Papapostolou - f/22 | 20s
Author tip:

Always scout-out your intended shooting locations in daylight so you know exactly where you’re going. It’s also wise to take a friend with you – preferably a fellow photographer – because moving around a city at night with expensive camera gear makes you an instant target. It’s also handy to have someone else to bounce ideas off.

6 Car lights at night


Capturing the light trails from cars’ bright white headlight and red tail-lights while using a long shutter speed is a classic of urban photography, but it’s as much about composition as technique. Figure on opening the shutter on your camera for between about four and 10 seconds (though more if traffic is light), experimenting with apertures of f/4 to f/11, and keeping the ISO to below 3200 to prevent image noise – something artificial light can easily cause if you use a higher ISO.  That done, make sure the streaky light serves a purpose in your composition; it should draw the eye into a scene and not simply be a streak across the centre.

Night shot of traffic travelling over Tower Bridge, London
Capturing light trails is a classic of urban photography, to keep them interesting, and your shots unique, make sure they compliment the overall composition of the scene. Photo by Tom Wilkinson - f/11 | 15s
Author tip:

When working on a shot like this you need to stay safe and keep drivers safe; take extreme care near any roads, avoid junctions, wear reflective gear at all times, and never use a flash or a torch.