Balancing the Light

Encouraged by a few questions about my photos of the Shard last week from Facebook and Twitter friends, I thought I would start a short series of posts about city photography at dusk and nighttime. Looking across my photos of various locations around the world, my favourites tend to be those of cityscapes and attractions after sunset, with light trails, reflections and star burst street lights adding magic to backdrops that rarely need them but generally benefit from them anyway. Whether it is in Lhasa or New York, Hong Kong or Manchester, Budapest or Berlin, there is rarely a city I’ve visited that I’ve left without a long exposure image or two on an SD card.

Taken with a Canon EOS 500d, 18-55mm kit lens and a Gorilla Pod.

That’s not to say I reckon myself as any sort of an expert, but the one thing I have learned is that it isn’t that hard to manipulate a city to produce a captivating image and you need very little specialist gear to do it. In fact, so long as it has an aperture priority mode (where you set the aperture and the camera sets a corresponding shutter speed), and a method to attach a tripod, then your compact camera will do the job.

Of course, if you have a full frame DSLR with a semi-pro tripod, a remote release and a range of filters, things might be easier, or the results might be more spectacular, but the image of Hong Kong above was shot using an entry-level DSLR and a Joby Gorilla Pod (a great travel tripod!). All I did was find a railing at a reasonable height, fix up the tripod and camera, compose in Live View for ease, then using the two second delay function, triggering the shutter as the traffic approached up the overpass.

There can’t be many places in the UK as good for cityscape photography at dusk than Manchester’s Salford Quays development.

The real trick to this type of image is to forget the usual Golden Hour rule – that is that for landscape photography the best light is in the thirty minutes either side of sunset. For this type of photo, the artificial lights of the city won’t be balanced against the sky until at least half an hour after sunset, and it’s then that the magic happens. So not only does the time you have to shoot extend, as camera sensors improve, they are able to capture blue in the sky until later and later at night. My final image of the Shard was shot at 23:25 last Wednesday!

For the most part composition is exactly what you would expect at any other time of the day, but there are two other benefits of shooting at night – both reflections and light trails can be used to add foreground interest to shots and lead the eye through the image.

As for settings, to make sure the exposure if long enough to produce light trails, and water is smoothed to a reflective sheen, you need a long shutter speed, so setting an aperture of between f8 and f13 is necessary depending on how well lit the city is. This has the added benefit of making every light look like a star burst. To reduce noise, always shoot at ISO 100 if you can do – especially as exposures tick up to the 30-second mark. If you have the option to shoot RAW, it is always sensible to do so and then edit the image in Adobe Camera Raw or a similar programme to bring out the best in it. If not, and you can do, make sure you set your White Balance to Tungsten light to stop the image looking horribly orange – as almost every other option seems to.

The lights of New York reflected on the Hudson – shot from Queensborough park around 40 minutes after sunset on a cold February night.

When it comes to post processing – assuming you have shot Raw – my main tip is to keep it simple. Computers are boring and cameras are fun, so I focus my time on the later not the former, and tend to process a Raw file by tweaking the contrast, levels, correcting any lens distortion and boosting the saturation and vibrancy. Outside of the Raw processing software, I then use Nik’s software to reduce noise and sharpen, before exporting to high resolution Tif and lower res JPEG for sharing online.

Finally, remember that no matter how good the shot is, it’s not worth putting yourself or your gear at risk, and frankly, there is more chance of danger in cities than the countryside, so make sure you don’t venture into dodgy areas; and let people know where you’re off to… And don’t ask me about the neighbourhood I had to walk through to get to the park I shot the image of Queensborough bridge from!

Posted in Uncategorized by Nic Stevenson on July 10th, 2012 at 8:10 pm.

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