Autumn and Spring are great seasons for making cityscapes. The weather is cool but not cold, and the sun sets early so you can make nighttime pictures at a reasonable hour and there will still be plenty of traffic on the roads for making light trails. Shooting long exposure cityscapes is enjoyable and it’s a great way to see your own city with fresh eyes. Let me share a few ideas that will help you have a better experience as you practice nighttime cityscapes.
1. Don’t Get Hangry
Not surprisingly, long exposures take a lot of time. Bring a snack along so you don’t lose your patience because you’re hungry. Making a single exposure will often require thirty seconds, then if you use the long exposure noise reduction it’ll take another thirty seconds before you’re ready to shoot again. Then you’ll realize that you need to wait for traffic to come so you get light trails…all this waiting takes a lot of patience. Losing patience is the best way to end up with mediocre compositions and shaky photographs. Be ready for the cool weather and whatever else it takes so that you can endure an hour or two making long exposures.
2. Look for Bridges
Bridges are the best places to get good views because they afford a high vantage that lets you look downward and upward at the same time. When you shoot from street level you’re always tilting the camera upward to see the buildings, but from a bridge, you may be able to keep the camera level which reduces the diminishing perspective that happens when you tilt the camera.
Bridges also have railings, which are a great place to secure your camera. Use a Platypod strapped to the railing and you’ll have a very secure and steady platform for your camera, and it’ll keep the railing from interfering in your photo. For all the pictures in this post, I used the Platypod Ultra and my belt to secure the camera to several bridge railings in Seattle, Washington. Not only does this give me a steady shooting platform, but it’s also extremely lightweight so walking around town making lots of pictures is not burdensome.
If you use a tripod, you might want to extend only two legs and lean it against the railing so you can get your camera as close as possible to the edge so you can see over the railing better.
**WARNING** Positioning your camera over a bridge is dangerous. Not only could your drop your camera and lose or destroy it, but the consequence of dropping anything onto traffic below is severe and could be deadly. Always make sure your equipment is secure. I use a strap on the Platypod or tripod and a safety strap on the camera, too. Position and secure the Platypod or tripod first, then secure the camera’s safety strap, then attach the camera last. Don’t make a fatal mistake.
The downside to using bridges is that traffic driving across them makes the whole bridge shake and ruins your long exposure. try to time your shots with the traffic, and find the sweet spots on the bridge that move the least. Often, the area directly above a stanchion is more steady the span between supports. Busses passing by are the worst.
Another place to find good perspectives without traffic shake is a parking structure.
3. Shoot Panoramas (Remember the Vertical)
Cities often look good in a wide format. If you use a wide angle lens to shoot so you can get the whole view in a single frame, you’ll see that the buildings look smaller and the things far away look very small. Instead, use a longer lens, maybe even a telephoto lens, and shoot several frames that can be stitched into a panorama. A 50mm or similar lens is a good place to start. It’ll keep the big buildings looking big and you can overlap four or five frames and get the whole scene. Here’s another article about making panoramas.
You can emphasize the verticality of a city by shooting your panorama vertically instead of horizontally. For this picture, I strapped the Platypod Ultra and my camera to the railing of an overpass for stability. I started with the bottommost frame and overlapped each frame by at least 25% (which is easily done by comparing your focal points on each side of the frame). I used the artificial horizon in the camera’s viewfinder to ensure that each frame was horizontal as I moved the camera. Each shot took fifteen seconds, so it’s fortunate that there was no traffic on the overpass to shake my camera.
These are each of the frames of the panorama:
4. Keys to Light trails
Making pictures with light trails is fun and simple, but it can be frustrating trying it cold turkey. Start by finding a place with plenty of traffic and remember that tail lights are red and headlights are white, so position yourself to take advantage of the color you want. I find that white headlights can be overwhelmingly bright in the composition, so I often favor the red taillights.
Next, set your ISO very high, like 3200 or so, so that you can make pictures with fast shutter speeds like 1/50th of a second. This will allow you to set up your composition without waiting a long time for each picture. When you’ve got your composition ready, drop the ISO to 100 or 200.
Your shutter speed will determine how long the light trails are. A long shutter speed, like 5 seconds (5″ on your camera’s display), will give long trails that blur over each other. Something shorter, like 1/10th of a second, may allow you to discern each car. Practice with various settings for different effects and mood.
Once you’ve got your shutter speed, you can use aperture and ISO to brighten or darken the whole picture. Aperture will also affect the starburst on stationary lights– a small aperture like f/11 or f/16 will yield spikier starbursts, which is fun.
Remember your basics of composition. Use light trails as leading lines and to balance other bright areas. Remember to fill the frame with your subject. Light trails are cool, but make sure your photos have distinct subjects. Alternatively, consider making abstract pictures with the lights themselves as the subject.
Making long exposure cityscapes is really enjoyable. Practice in your own town and it’ll give you new eyes for places you thought you already knew. One last tip for making nighttime pictures is to go out with friends. Not only is it a good idea for safety in the city, but it’s fun to see what others are making and trade tips. You can head out for a bite afterward, too. Get some friends and get out there and make some long exposures in the city.