How to Capture Cities at Night


Previously, we spoke about shooting in large cities. During vacations, we tend to wander and explore at night. As soon as the sun goes down, the rules of photography suddenly change: You need faster apertures, you're shooting at slower shutter speeds, and the ISOs go to near BBQ levels. If you're an amateur photographer taking your DSLR along to shoot for fun on your vacation, take a look at these tips on how to photograph the cities.





Use a Fast Lens or a High ISO

Leblon at Night

Photo by Hogodg

Faster lenses (those with a wider maximum aperture) allow more light to hit the sensor. In English, this means that you can keep your ISO levels down, and capture photos with less grain/noise. Lenses with larger maximum apertures will also let you achieve that blurry background effect (bokeh) that we all dream about. (And you can shape that background too!)

Most of these lenses can be a bit more expensive, but there are many affordable ones. A popular option is the 50mm F/1.8. I've written about this lens previously, and used it to shoot some tough gigs. These lenses are often small—sometimes they are smaller than your kit lens! This means that you'll be carrying a lighter package, and that the fixed focal length will force your creative juices to start flowing, to compose/frame your image carefully.

If you don't want to be bound by a fixed focal length, you could raise your ISO levels. ISO controls the light sensitvity of the camera's sensor. The lower the ISO number (100), the less grainy your images will be, and the less sensitive the sensor will be to light. To compensate, you'll need to shoot at a slower shutter speed (which could cause blurry images, depending on the situation) or you'll need a wider aperture.

Conversely, higher ISO levels will give you grainier images but more light sensitivity. This means that you'll be able to shoot at faster shutter speeds, and that you may be able to close the aperture down. For those of you using kit lenses, and zooming in all the way to get an F/5.6 or narrower aperture, this is important.

Capture Stable Photos

Roughnecks over Long Beach

Photo by theqspeaks

Capturing stable photos depends on two major factors: your shutter speed, and the lens/sensor stabilization. There is a special rule that everyone should follow when trying to determine their shutter speeds:

"When shooting an image, your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your lens. This means that shooting with a 50mm lens on a full-frame sensor will allow you to shoot at 1/50th of a second and achieve sharp results when shooting handheld."

Many of you reading this article most likely have a camera with an APS-C-sized sensor, so your focal length needs to be multiplied by 1.6 if you're shooting with Canon, and 1.5 if you're shooting with Sony, Nikon, or Pentax. If you're using Olympus or Panasonic, you're looking at a 2x multiplication factor. To help with the math (just in case you hate it as much as I did when I was growing up) that means that shooting with a 50mm lens on an Olympus or Panasonic camera will give you a 100mm lens equivalent, and that you'll need to be shooting at a minimum of 1/100th of a second to achieve sharp images. Keep this in mind when you want to capture a photo of a gorgeous water scene.

However, there is a bit of a wild card to this, in the form of image stabilization. While Canon, Nikon and Panasonic keep their stabilization in the lenses, Pentax, Olympus and Sony put theirs in the sensor. With the latter, any lens you put onto the camera will be stabilized.

There are pros and cons to both sides of the arguement. Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic believe that the image stabilization can be tailored specifically to the focal length to achieve steadier results. You can read about image stabilization here.

When shooting cities at night, you'll need to take extra care to ensure that your images are free from blur which is caused by camera shake. What could help is shooting in Mirror Lockup Mode—for Canon this is activated as soon as you switch the camera into Live View.

Know Which Focal Lengths are Best (for You)

December 26, 2010 Nightwalk Gastown

Photo by

One night, when shooting from the top of Rockefeller Center, I encountered a tourist who was shooting with a D700 and a 14-24mm F/2.8, in Program mode. He had no idea that his camera was shooting at two-second-long exposures, and he believed that this focal length was best for portraits of his wife as well.

Being the good B&H employee, I told him about apertures, shutter speeds, and how longer focal lengths are better for portraits of his wife. Indeed, the wider focal lengths were making her nose look larger than life. Longer lenses (around 85mm and above) flatten the perspective of the image, so that a person's features look flattering. Normal lenses (around 50mm) are versatile, and can often be used for just about anything. Wider lenses can cause distortion, but can still create very cool effects.

Think about your focal lengths carefully: if you're shooting at 14mm, will you really want to get up close and personal to everything you're shooting? Or would you prefer instead to stay further back and use something like a 135mm? Does the 18-55mm zoom lens that you have really give you enough of a range to cover everything you want?

These are questions you often need to consider. My old boss wanted to borrow my 5D Mk II and some lenses, just to shoot for fun at a wedding. When he asked for my 35mm F/1.4, I told him no. Why? Because I know that he hates getting up close to people and taking their picture. He is, indeed, much more timid than I am. As for me, that's the lens that just about lives on my camera. I used that lens exclusively when I tested the Canon 60D.

Don't forget to also choose creative perspectives and angles to create interesting photos that people will want to look at. In big cities, there are always different ways to shoot a photo. Using Gorillapods, for example, can help you get to places that you otherwise couldn't reach. Keep this in mind if you want to tell a story.

Questions? Let us know in the comments below, and we'll do our best to help you. Also, you can show us your night city photos on our Flickr group.


So where's the informative part about actually shooting in cities at night?

Just asking.

Boss or not, I wouldn't let anyone borrow my Mark II and "some lenses" to shoot for "fun" at a wedding or anywhere else.