There is nothing I have come to enjoy more over the past few years than photographing the many neon lights and majestic shapes of a beautiful city skyline. Sure the "big city" is a great place to hang out with friends, take in the many sights and catch a ball game or two, but if you are a photographer then you have one more thing to love about the big city - great photo opportunities everywhere!
My hope is that you will, if you don't already, learn to fall in love with city and skyline photography. Here are a few tips I have learned along the way that have helped me to come away with some beautiful skyline and cityscape photos, and I am sure will help you too.
Tips to Photographing City Skylines and Cityscapes at Dusk or Dawn
1. Google It First
2. Take a Good Sturdy Tripod
Photographing skylines and cityscapes at night (or in the pre-dawn early morning) will require longer exposures to be used. This means that you will not even want to attempt a shot without one. Hopefully you have one that will adequately hold the weight of your camera well for long periods of time without moving or shaking. If not, then you can get a really good one for a decent price at any of the following online retailers - B&H, Adorama or Amazon.
A good tripod is an essential for any photographer, but a must if you want to get some of those awesome skyline shots you are after! (Tip: If your camera has a mirror lock-up function, use it. It will help to prevent any mirror shake, which will help result in crisper images)
Simply put, ISO tells your camera how sensitive it needs to be to the lighting conditions it finds itself in. A low ISO essentially requires the camera to take more light in (longer shutter speed), and the opposite is true for a higher ISO.
When some people think of taking night photographs they often think that the lower the ISO the better. While this is true in most circumstances, a super low ISO is not always the best way to take long exposure pictures either. The reason is because there are often lights that we don't think of that can cause a shot to come out really bad if the ISO is too low.
Some examples are the direct moon light, street lights, star light, city lights and car lights to name a few. If you just put your camera on the lowest ISO setting then you could end up with a really bad exposure. I usually start with an ISO of around 200 dialed in and then adjust it up or down depending on what the exposure looks like it needs. Within a couple of shots I usually get the exposure I am pleased with.
Now, there are times when the lowest ISO setting may work just fine. But play with it, and be sure to zoom in on your monitor after each shot to see if the sky looks natural. If not, then adjust accordingly until you get the look you want.
3. Play with the ISO, but keep it pretty low
4. Use a Remote Shutter Release or Timer Function
While a tripod will help to reduce camera shake during longer exposures, it's a good idea to use a remote shutter release (if your camera takes one) or the timer function to really cut down on blurry images. You might not realize it but each time you manually press the capture button on your camera, you move your camera.
Now while this is not a big deal when you are shooting with faster shutter speeds, slower shutter speeds aren't as forgiving. I personally use a remote shutter release on all of my city and skyline shots. However, if I am ever so clumsy as to forget my remote shutter release, I simply use the camera's built in timer to avoid me having to manually hit the capture button.
6. Look for Water of Any Kind
City skylines at night have some of the most amazing colors and lights to be certain. So to emphasize these amazing attributes of a cityscape I always try to place some water in my foreground to give the city lights something to bounce off of and to seemingly expand the view of the buildings and lights.
As you can see from both the Indianapolis skyline shot (below) and St. Louis skyline (above), by placing some water in the foreground I was able to give the city lights a little more room to shine and I love the feel that the water gives to the overall image.
Have fun with this tip and look for creative water (or other reflective) sources to place in the foreground of your skyline photograph. I think once you start seeing what a little reflective light can do for your low light photography you will fall in love with doing this for most of your low light photography shots!
7. Try to Shoot in the Raw (photographically speaking that is!)
his is not required to get good city skyline photographs in low light conditions...but it sure does help! JPEG is the common format that many photographers use to take their pictures, and is usally the default setting your camera will use as well. So then why do I recommend shooting in RAW? The reason is because a RAW file allows much more forgiveness than does a JPEG. Without getting into too much detail, allow me to explain.
If you shoot a picture in JPEG (which is really just an already processed RAW file that your camera processes for you quickly and easily) you can always take it into a photo-editing software and "tweak" it until you are pleased with the outcome. However, since it is has already been processed by your camera then you are working with a file that has had a lot of the original information your image sensor captured stripped out of it (due to already being processed). That information that your camera "processed out" is gone...never to return again! When you shoot RAW, however, you are photographing as most professionals do, because they want the most flexibility when they go into their digital darkroom later for post-processing.
Before you get too excited about this do remember that this does mean that you will be the one required to do the processing...not your camera. So you will need to have a RAW file converting software of some kind. I will not get into the ins and outs of RAW files in this article but all you need to know is that shooting in RAW will allow you to work with all of the information that your camera originally captured.
This is great because if the image looks underexposed, or overexposed, at first glance you can do much more than you would be able to with a JPEG file to get the image to look like the scene you originally looked at through your viewfinder. You will also be able to adjust white balance, regardless of what your camera was originally set to. These are just a few of the advantages of shooting RAW, but some that will apply directly to photographing cityscapes in low light conditions.
Related Tags: city photography, how to shoot skylines, cityscape photography, slow shutter speed, long exposures, how to photograph cities, camera tips, long exposure techniques, urban photography
Anytime I am heading into a city that I don't know very well (or even if I do), I always look up other photographers' images in hopes to get a good starting point for where I will find some of the best spots to shoot the skyline. Once I get a good idea of what some of the most popular locations are, I start to see how I can make it my own and take a shot different and unique than others that have photographed from the same spot before.
When photographing at dusk or dawn, it is especially important to make sure you do your research, as time will be limited to capture the special twilight hour.
Take the picture below of the city of St. Louis for example. I knew I would be driving through the city during the early morning hours so I wanted to stop and see what kind of image I could capture. Some of the most iconic photo spots of the St. Louis Arch were across the river, but since I knew that the sun would be at a bad angle in the morning to get the kind of look I wanted, I looked around on the map for other possible spots. I noticed that there was a fountain right in the middle of the city, that gave off a beautiful reflection of the sun rising behind the arch. The final result was something I was very pleased with to say the least.
While some of the best photographs will always have some amount of luck involved, a little research time before you go is always beneficial for improving your odds. It will help you save precious time, so you can spend it on capturing the image you want and not scouring all over the city for a good view.
5. Use Auto Focus then Switch to Manual Focus
Something you will surely experience when you are trying to capture a photograph of a city skyline at night is how difficult it can be to get a razor sharp image. So this tip I use all the time, and it saves me a ton of headache.
The darker it is outside, the harder it is to focus your camera on your subject and the harder time your camera will have locating a good focal point. There is nothing more frustrating than taking a bunch of great looking shots on location (and that look pretty good on the little LCD screen) only to get home and find out that all of them are too blurry to use.
So what I do to prevent this from happening is to set my camera lens on auto-focus before I try to capture the image and just try to focus the camera on something that I know will be a part of the main subject. For example, I usually pick the lights of a city building as a focal point, and then once I lock in the focus on it, I switch the lens back to manual focus.
This helps me to ensure that the camera is going to maintain focus on the important parts of the skyline and buildings and won't try to readjust its focal point once I start shooting. This little trick has saved me a ton of agony for sure and has helped me to get some very clear and sharp night city photographs.
If you would like to view some of my city and skyline photographs click here.
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