The Travel Series: Capturing Cities in a Different Light

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The greatest challenge in travel photography and in photography in general is capturing the essence of a person or place. The world is smaller than ever and almost everyone is traveling and taking pictures. So how do you separate yourself from the pack?

We are often told that the best time to photograph is during the magic hours of dusk and dawn. The lighting can be very gentle, even, with wonderful shades of yellow and blue dancing together. However, I think more magic can be found when we photograph at night and extend our exposure into the seconds and minutes. Now we are blending movement and drama into the image that can’t be seen with the human eye.

There are a few essential tools to help us get the best cityscape shot. Use a mirrorless camera or DSLR for the best image quality. Bigger sensors equal better quality.

Bring and use a travel tripod. Almost every tripod company is making a travel tripod that weighs as little as 2-3 lb and can hold 8+ lb. Get one that is within your budget, extends high enough for you not to bend over, and can support the weight of your camera. To eliminate operator movement, use a remote release. I’m a big fan of the Vello Shutterboss and Remote Release series as inexpensive tools that let you extend your exposures beyond 30 seconds.

Vantage Point

Finding a spectacular vantage point certainly makes taking that epic shot easier. Bridges, hills, and observation decks on buildings can offer grand views of a city. In New York City, most people go to the top of the Empire State Building; however, I think the Top of the Rock, at Rockefeller Center, offers a much better view because you can include the Empire State Building in your shot.

The Brooklyn Bridge is an iconic bridge that represents old New York. The beauty of the bridge is that it has one of the best pedestrian walkways, above traffic, that offers spectacular views of NYC and Brooklyn.  

Brooklyn Bridge - Nikon D700 with Zeiss 21mm 2.8 lens, 15 seconds, f/14 at ISO 200

I composed this vertically, with the wide-angle Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 lens, so that I could include the car trails, city lights, and 9/11 lights blazing up into the sky. I love the way the bottom half of the image is orange and full of frantic energy and the top half is a very calming blue. Orange and blue are complementary colors that often appear at night—most modern street lamps are made with sodium vapor lights that emit a warm yellow-orange color. One other consideration to keep in mind when shooting on a bridge is that they tend to vibrate with traffic. With all the cars passing below me, it definitely forced me to shoot no longer than 30 seconds. Otherwise, the image would have been blurry. Later on this night, I looked for some more vantage points under the bridge. The views were definitely nice, but I was surrounded by other photographers getting the same shot. For me, my vantage point, with the added energy and movement, made this shot a step above everyone else’s.

Reinterpret the City

When most people think of Los Angeles, they think of the bright boulevards and hectic highways. The lights are so bright that we don’t even notice the sky. If we take our vantage point to the hills that surround LA, it gives the urban landscape an entirely new perspective. The views from Griffith Observatory are spectacular during the day, but when the city lights come on it shows the true sprawl of glitter and glam. 

Moon City - Fujifilm X Pro 1 with 14mm 2.8 lens, 1 minute, f/8 at ISO 200

One's first instinct might be to shoot this with a telephoto lens. But the full moon had recently risen over LA, offering a very other-worldly cityscape. In order to include the moon and the city, I had to shoot with a 21mm lens. Wide-angle lenses will make the moon appear smaller, so I made it bigger by turning it into a “moon-star.” When you photograph direct light sources like street lamps, they tend to be white blobs of light when you use big apertures like f/2.8-5.6.  If you stop-down your apertures, you can turn those white blobs into star-points—the smaller the aperture the more star points shoot out. I applied this same technique to the moon by shooting at f/11. It made the moon seem larger, like a beacon of light, guiding the dreamers to the city of Los Angeles.  

Lensbaby: See in a New Way

Whenever I am in a photographic funk or just need a bit of inspiration, I slap a Lensbaby on my camera to see the world in a whole new way. I’ve been using Lensbabies since version 2.0, and the latest version, the Composer Pro, makes creating these dreamlike images easier than ever. The ball-and-socket design lets you simply put the sweet spot of focus anywhere in the frame. The rest of the image falls out of focus in an almost ethereal way. I teach a week-long, night-photography workshop with RMSP titled "Vegas to Zion: Dusk to Dawn". We love shooting the Las Vegas Boulevard with Lensbabies; it turns all the specular out-of-focus highlights into amazing discs of light. 

Vegas (Lens)baby - Nikon D700 with Composer Pro and Sweet 35mm lens, 1/10 second, f/2.5 at ISO 200

This image was taken at twilight, which is the easiest time to blend the bright lights of the city with the brilliant blue sky. 20 minutes later, the black sky swallows up the rest of the scene and creates too much contrast against the rest of the bright scene. You can work around this with HDR, but remember, time is a factor and if you are on vacation, your family may not want to wait around while you bracket 10 shots. Scout your location during the day, take advantage of twilight, and choose your lens wisely. I’m a big fan of how the Lensbaby interprets the day and night.

Keep Clicking in Inclement Weather

Amazing photographs are ours for the clicking during bad weather. Extra caution should be used when bringing your camera out into the rain or snow. Ruggard, Kata, and Think Tank all make rain covers that will wrap your camera and lens to protect them from the elements. 

The Boston Bunker - Nikon D700 with 50mm 1.4 AIS lens,
8 seconds, f/11 at ISO 200
Allegheny Observatory - Fujifilm X Pro 1 with 18mm 2.0 lens,
10 seconds, f/8 at ISO 200

Right after a rainstorm is the perfect time to photograph, especially at night when the wet streets get an added boost of luminosity from all the reflections of street lamps and cars. This can add that extra punch to your image, plus most photographers will have packed up so you’ll have the streets to yourself! I took a lot of shots of Boston’s Bunker Hill during a light rainstorm. I was playing with time, exposures between 4 seconds and 15 seconds. This made the moving cars disappear, leaving their red tail lights permanently in the image. The red reflection on the street totally makes this shot and helps lead your eye to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument. 

Shooting in the snow can be even more rewarding at night. During this 10-second exposure I handheld a flash and popped it 2-3 times—forever freezing the reflective snow in the image. I discuss this technique with more examples in a recent blog entry on my website.

Master the Long Exposure and See with your Mind’s Eye

Once you get comfortable capturing images with longer exposures, you start seeing the world with your mind’s eye. You’ll see and create inspirational pieces wherever you go.

As I walked down South Beach at night, I was curious to see how an extended exposure would capture the tide. My general rule of thumb with long exposures is to emphasize movement by placing it next to static objects: Rushing water that appears silky smooth surrounding a wooden pier, big rocks, or trees.

But in this image, I wanted to challenge that rule and create something more abstract. I took a couple of test shots and I was amazed by the many shades of blue that were revealed in the water. It reminded me of a Rothko painting and I decided to run with that idea. I increased the exposure to 2 minutes and was careful to compose and click when no lights from boats were on the horizon. I wanted a pure image of these many shades of blue. 

Miami Blue - Nikon D700 with 70-300mm lens, 2 minutes, f/5.6 at ISO 400

So as you travel this summer, and beyond, keep shooting even when the sun goes down. Don’t bore your friends with ho-hum snapshots. Create, more than capture, and these familiar places will be seen in a new light.

Biography

Photographer Gabriel Biderman has been exploring night topography for more than 15 years. Using film and digital cameras, he blends the surreal look of the night to enhance historic and urban landscapes. He is well versed in the history of night photography and teaches hands-on workshops to those willing to explore their night visions.

 

His most recent body of night work, "TIMEXPOSED", exhibited for more than a year in a traveling show at John Allen's in New York City. His pinhole work has also been published in Dark Chambers Vol. II and Pinhole PhotographyRediscovering the Historic Technique, by Eric Renner. Gabriel spends his days traveling for the B&H Marketing department, where he has been fortunate enough to learn from the top pros in the industry. He has also been presenting his seminar on night photography to sold-out classes at the B&H Event Space for more than 5 years. You can follow his blog at www.ruinism.com