Night photography. The type of photography that makes cities shine, plays with light and even makes the most dull corners of your town look romantic. Sounds like simple photography, doesn’t it?
Well, it actually is, if you follow a few guidelines 🙂
15 minutes of glory
One thing to keep in mind though is that time is not your friend. Too early, and the sky is too bright and the city lights are dull. Too late, and the city lights are very nice, but the sky is black. You only have about 15 to 30 minutes if you want the city lights to sparkle in front of a dark blue sky like diamonds on a satin sheet. And because you want to use these few minutes for taking pictures you should:
Scout the location during the day
Get there early while the sun is still up. Decide where you want to take the shot, what you want to have in your composition and what not while you can see everthing. Decide for your lens, snap a few test shots. Just make sure that when the sun is gone, you know what you want to shoot and how you want to shoot it.
Shoot the dark side first
Nope, we’re not talking star wars here. But if there is more than one spot you want to take pictures of, take the shots facing east first, then those facing west. If you take the shots in the morning, do it the other way around. Reason is, that those 15 minutes of glory are first in the east in the evening and quite a bit later in the west. If you’re well organized, you can squeeze about 30 to 45 minutes of dark velvet sky out of one sunset.
Use spot metering
Even with the sky going dark, you will still be facing a very contrasty scene. Use the spot metering of your camera to find the brightest spot in the scene and then overexpose / push this spot as far right in the histogram as you can. Best tool for this is an external light meter with a spot meter. I use a Sekonic L-758 and it makes figuring out a good exposure really a walk in the park. In the shot above, all I had to do in post work was to pull the highlight slider to the left to get the details back in the store windows I metered for.
On most modern digital cameras you can push this bright spot up by 3 stops, on a modern sensor even 3.5 to 4. Provided of course, that you shoot RAW.
White balance is a tricky thing in night shots and you will most likely want to tweak it to get the mood you’re looking for. The lights in the scene will have their light temperature all over the place and there simply is not one single white balance that fits all the lights in the scene. So be prepared to use that white balance slider in Lightroom quite a bit. Once you found a setting you like, just apply it to all other shots taken of that scene.
Other stuff to remember
- Use a tripod. You know why
- Use the lowest ISO your camera offers. You want as little noise as possible in your shots
- Shoot in RAW format. You want all the flexibility you can have in your postwork
- When in doubt about the right exposure, bracket your shots.
- Wear warm cloths. Yes, once the sun sets, the cold creeps in
- Don’t be afraid of werewolves. They don’t exist. However, robbers and thieves do, so consider the location you take our shots and maybe better don’t go there alone.
- Evening is usually better than morning. Many cities only illuminate buildings in the evening and turn the lights off later to save energy (which is a good thing)
Oh, and while you’re on location, waiting for the sun to go down, just be prepared to get some nice sunset shots. Even if you’re there for night shots, don’t be single minded 🙂