Photo Tip: City Lights

Across Victoria Harbour, (photo by Alex Havret)
Across Victoria Harbour


Dramatic Images of towns and cities can be taken when places are illuminated in a blaze of lights. This is true not only for skylines, but also of individual buildings and areas. The Las Vegas strip is invariably shown as a night shot for two reasons – it doesn’t look that great in the daytime and there’s plenty of neon to blast it into prominence at night.


Long exposures

Being able to take a good night shot is a real art, with many aspects needed to get it right. A tripod is usually essential due to the length of exposure (1–30 seconds). The other option is to up the ISO to 800 or 1600, then keep the shutter speed as fast as possible. However, depending on your camera, the quality of the night shot may be grainy or noisy, so you need to find out in advance the limits of your camera. A further option is to rest the camera on something like a beanbag or monopod, or even a wall with a guidebook or some small item of clothing underneath for padding.

With DSLRs use shutter priority and let the camera work out how much light to let in through the lens to give a good exposure. 

Bracketing can help

A good, fast fixed-length lens (f1.4 or f2) is needed to get the best quality in low light. There is no set shutter speed to suit every situation, but experiment with different timings of, say, 10, 20 and 30 seconds. Areas of bright light naturally dominate darker sections of a photograph, creating harsh contrasts that are hard to compensate for. Judging the correct exposure in low light conditions can be difficult and this is where bracketing comes into play. Take a shot at the “correct” exposure the camera is indicating, and then take more shots incrementally at 1/3 or 1/2 of a stop higher and lower. One of these shots should be the best balance for highlights and lowlights, from
which you can then use software to adjust as necessary.

Dusk is best

The ideal time for a wide city shot is just after sunset. Lights start to come on, but there is still enough ambient light to pick out shapes of buildings. This dusk time can be even more stunning with a dramatically lit sky. Reflections of lit buildings in rivers and lakes can work really well, the stillness or movement of the water determining how much blur is created. The skyline of Manhattan reflected in the East River with the Brooklyn Bridge, Hong Kong in Victoria Harbour, Sydney in its harbour and Toronto in Lake Ontario all offer splendid possibilities. Also, after rain, look out for reflections in puddles in the streets.


Night-time shots in almost complete darkness usually work better where a specific area is illuminated with artificial light. Think of shop windows in downtown areas, or neon signs in a clubland district. On their own, illuminated signs can generate striking images especially in the bright, gaudy colours of neon.Sometimes the strength of this artificial light can be so great that exposures are short enough (1/30–1/60 seconds) to freeze human movement without any blur, for example people moving in and out of a brightly lit theatre foyer or cinema. A remote shutter release can also be helpful to avoid camera shake, otherwise use the self-timing device to trip the shutter.

Trails of light

One fun aspect of night photography is capturing moving trails of light. The headlights and tail lights of cars and buses will be traced across your image if you shoot them whilst they are moving with a slow shutter speed (anything from 2–20 seconds). Release the shutter just before cars enter your frame and use their trail of lights to lead the eye in the correct direction, such as into the heart of Times Square in New York.


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