The city at night is a fantastic place for photography. But you’ll want to get there just after sunset. In this tutorial we explain how the twilight hours are perfect for capturing atmospheric pictures of illuminated buildings and city landmarks.
For great cityscapes you can’t beat shooting at twilight: after the sun has set, but before the darkness falls, there’s still enough natural light to bring out detail, while the city lights will be coming on to create extra colour and interest. Twilight doesn’t last long though, so you’ll need to be in position and set up before the sun sets.
For our shoot we headed into the heart of London to photograph St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge from the Thames Embankment; for a successful twilight cityscape you need to include iconic or interesting buildings or bridges that are illuminated at night.
You’ll need a tripod, and optionally an ND filter to stop down the light so you can shoot long exposures. Aside from enabling you to blur water and skies, long exposures have another use: if cars or people are passing through your scene and the exposure is long enough, they won’t appear in the image – you’ll need a shutter speed of between 15 to 30 seconds to achieve this.
How to shoot a night city scene
01 Timing and location
To make the most of the twilight period you need to be set up ready to shoot in good time, so check the sunset time – twilight begins after the sun sets, and before the darkness sets in. Choose a location with buildings that have plenty of lights and illuminated windows, and other interesting features.
02 Use a tripod
Set your camera up on a tripod so that you can capture long exposures. Make sure you place it out of the way of people passing by, as you don’t want it to get knocked during an exposure. If it’s windy you’ll need to shelter it – you can do this with your body, or weigh down the centre column with your camera bag if it has a hook for this purpose.
03 Camera settings
Set your camera to Av mode and set the aperture to f/16 – combined with the long exposure this will produce a ‘starburst’ effect from the lights in the scene. Noise can be a problem with long exposures in low light, so keep the ISO to 100 to counter this, and shoot Raw files for maximum quality.
04 ND filter
To obtain a slow enough shutter speed to blur water and clouds you’ll need a neutral density (ND) filter. We used a variable ND, which enabled us to control the strength of the effect by rotating the outermost filter. Half-press the shutter button to take a shutter speed reading – around 30 secs is ideal.
05 Composition and focus
Switch to Live View mode to compose and focus the shot (this also means the mirror will be locked up to minimise camera vibrations). Compose the shot using leading lines such as a bridge or river to draw the eye into the scene. To focus, switch your lens to manual, then zoom in on a key feature (St Paul’s in our case) and adjust the focus to get it perfectly sharp.
06 Remote release
Use a remote release to fire the shutter so that you don’t jog the camera at the start of the exposure (if you don’t have one, you can use the 2-sec Self-timer option in the AF/Drive settings). Make sure you don’t touch the camera during the exposure, and check your image is sharp when you’ve taken it.
The rule of thirds is just as important when you’re composing cityscapes as for landscapes: for our shot we filled the top and bottom thirds of the frame with the sky and water, and placed the dome of St Paul’s on the left-hand vertical third line; we also used the diagonal lines of the bridge to lead the eye into the scene.
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