How to Get Outstanding Urban Night Photographs


There are some photographers that don’t go out at night. For many, the perception is that with the lack of ambient light, all your shot will turn out blurry, noisy or dark. In reality, within most city centers there is a wealth of photographic opportunities just waiting to be discovered, all using the available light.

Where to begin?

First up, you need to find a suitable location. I’d recommend a busy city or town centre that will have a large variety of potential subject matter and a selection of light sources such as transport systems, architecture and features like fountains and statues.

Start off by working in an environment that you’re familiar with, somewhere you feel safe and know where the best spots and viewpoints are. It may even be a good idea to head out with a friend, just so you can keep an eye on each other. Maybe plan out a route for yourself, stopping off at a variety of points of particular interest. This will give your outing some structure and you’ll be able to work in a variety of settings.

Photo by Simon Bray

It’s all about the timing

So once you’ve decided where you’re going, you need to consider the time at which you want to visit. Check online to find out the time that the sun will set and plan your trip around that. My favorite time to take photographs is at twilight, so I’d look to arrive around half an hour before the sun goes down. This way, you’ll be able to work within the warm twilight hour before it begins to get dark and start your work during the darkness.

Photo by JRFoto

Shutter speed priority

I’d recommend beginning by setting your camera to shutter speed priority mode, which will allow you to judge the amount of light required for specific types of shots depending upon the ambient and artificial light available.

Maybe begin at 1 or 2 seconds and work from there, depending on whether you are working with stationary or moving lights. As you are letting in sufficient light through the adequate shutter speed, you can afford to have a low ISO in order to ensure a sharp shot.

If you’re confident with using full manual mode, then I’d suggest selecting a narrow aperture, something around f/12 to f/16, which will ensure a large depth of field for the large scale shots.

Photo by Gilles K

What’s the temperature?

It’s well worth shooting in RAW, not only for the versatility of editing shots taken in difficult lighting conditions, but also because it’s extremely useful to be able to alter the white balance. The light sources available throughout an urban environment vary greatly and therefore the temperature of the light will also vary, so given the option, it’s extremely useful to be able to control the white balance in post processing.

Photo by waxhawian

Get kitted up

Upon the basis that you’ll be working with extended shutter speeds, it won’t be possible to work handheld, so you’ll need a few pieces of gear to ensure you get crisp and sharp shots. First up, it’s essential to have a sturdy tripod and paired with a remote release, which will allow you to shoot handsfree to avoid any accidental shake.

It’s also a great idea to work with a wide angle lens, this is mainly because within a city there are restrictions upon viewpoints and where you can position yourself, so something such as an 18mm or 24mm will be ideal and allow you to fit in all of the scenery before you. It’s also worth fitting your lens with a lens hood, which would usually be used in extremely bright conditions, but within a city there are a large variety of light sources which cause unwanted lens flare.

Photo by Hopscotch_mum

What’s the subject?

Within the urban space at night, anything that is emitting light can be considered a potential subject. So to start with, office blocks, hotels, shop windows and the general architecture can all be photographed. Just because it’s dark, don’t forget to consider the architectural detail.

Through using a long shutter speed, those intricacies will be revealed in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be perceived in daylight. You’ve also got the aid of street lights, which will offer supplementary light to any given situation.

Photo by Simon Bray

Capture the moving light

Apart from the stationary light sources, there are a great number of moving light sources available that can produce come extremely eye catching images. Cars, trains, buses, trams and ferris wheels can all be utilized for long exposure light trail shots.

Use your shutter speed priority setting to select an adequate time for the given light source to pass through the frame in order to achieve the light trail within your shot. One useful technique can be to count or time the light source before shooting, in order to know which shutter length to select, bearing in mind that there may be some variation depending upon the speed of the moving light source.

Amongst all the shutter speed considerations, it can be easy to forget other elements of the shot such as composition. Once you’ve got your settings as you’d wish, consider the framing of the shot, are the light trails leading the eye into or through the shot? Think about the surrounding architecture, framing your light sources and how you might be able to incorporate the rule of thirds.

Photo by WEAZ 73

Having some fun with zooms

There are also a couple of fun techniques that you can try out to enhance your urban night shots. For this you’ll need a basic zoom lens, simply select a light source and ensure that your lens is zoomed as wide as it can go.

Depress your shutter button, then during the duration of the shutter being open, turn your zoom through it’s complete turn, ending at full zoom by the time the shutter closes. This should give you the effect of the lights rushing towards the viewer. Now give it a try in the opposite direction, starting zoomed in and gradually zooming out.

Photo by SAGriffin305

City night panoramas

Taking a great panorama relies on finding a great vantage point, so head away from the city centre slightly in search of a high point in which you can see the complete city skyline. It’s definitely preferable to find your viewpoint in daylight and waiting for the light to fade to avoid searching in the dark.

Look for a strong composition, involving variation in the heights of buildings and a continued interest across the whole of the shot. Experiment with exposure times in order to gain adequate exposure, ensuring that all the lights are clearly visible highlighting the outlines of the buildings.

Photo by Simon Bray

Now it’s your turn!

So now it’s your turn. There are a vast amount of techniques and options when working at night, especially within the varied urban spaces on offer. Once you’ve captured the towns and cities that you’re familiar with, it’s well worth heading to new territory to explore the vast amount of subject matter on offer.

I find that I have a far greater visual awareness when I am working within a location that I do not already know. I’m attracted to details and features that I would have otherwise ignored if I’d just been working my way around the familiar streets of my hometown.

Photo by El Caganer

A big thanks to Mike at Manchester Photographic for the inspiration to compose this article.

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