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Bright lights, big cities: the setting of the sun needn't bring an end to your photographic exploits particularly if you're in a city. The myriad light sources that illuminate modern metropolises can lend even the most mundane scene a magical quality. And with the right equipment and a bit of experimentation, you can turn your regular stomping ground into a happy photographic hunting ground.

Look at any city guidebook and the array of pictures is guaranteed to include a selection of images taken at night. The details and colour within these scenes are made up entirely of thousands of lights from the streets, passing cars, high-rise tower blocks, neon signs and spot lamps directed onto the facades of famous buildings. When the sun goes down, it's this artificial light that illuminates the night in a splash of colour that is both exciting and functional--enabling us to sec the brand on the sign overhead as well as to be seen in surroundings that would otherwise consume us in darkness.

The proliferation of electric light has transformed our lives, inside and out, and it's only in the past 100 years that the world's major cities have forsaken the gaslight for the electric lamp. As a result, electric lights have created the impetus for nightlife in our cities and, with it, an entirely different look to familiar daytime scenes. Put simply, every city is a face with two appearances: that by day, lit naturally by our single biggest light source, the sun; and the night view, illuminated by thousands of pin pricks of coloured artificial lights, each with a specified position, strength and direction.


The sun's disappearance beneath the horizon marks the time when drivers turn on their headlights and street lamps switch on. As the evening darkens, more lights become visible on public buildings, landmarks and skyscrapers. As a result, some of the most famous city sights by day, such as the views of Manhattan, Hong Kong and Sydney Harbour, are well worth a return visit at night. Simply return to the viewpoint you chose by day, but this time don't forget the tripod. You will need a solid base for your tripod because your exposure time will be several seconds or more, and not the miniscule fraction of a second that could be comfortably held while handholding the camera.

Make sure your tripod is level on the surface, particularly if there are any horizontals in the scene, such as a shoreline. When composing your picture (ideally with a zoom lens), try to include plenty of illuminated areas within the frame. Your results will reveal that any unlit areas are filled with a uniform blackness without depth, shape or tone. It's therefore important to include as many illuminated areas as possible. For this reason, a zoom lens is ideal for making those fine adjustments crucial to the compositional balance of your image.

City lights may appear bright to our eyes, but the reality is that their different sources (fluorescent, halogen, sodium, tungsten, neon) provide varying levels of intensity as well as colour cast. The strength of these lights dissipates rapidly from the source, and while our eyes adjust quickly for such variations, a camera's image sensor is less forgiving. For once, the high speeds available on a typical shutter speed dial are made redundant by the need to keep the shutter open for longer periods to record more light onto every pixel.


Known as a time exposure, the technique of keeping the camera's shutter open for several seconds, minutes, or even hours, is a simple procedure that can produce images of both aesthetic appeal and scientific value. They can also be fun because of the experimental nature of setting different exposure times to compare results, particularly where light sources (such as cars' tail lights) are on the move.

However, it's vital that there is absolutely no movement or vibration of the camera while the shutter is open in order to sharply render the stationary parts of the scene. For this reason, the shutter needs to be fired using a remote release, or even the camera's self-timer.

Most cameras offer shutter speeds up to one or two minutes' duration; for anything longer, deploy the Bulb setting, which will keep the shutter open for as long as you like. If your camera doesn't have a Bulb setting (and many compacts don't), then select the 'night scene' mode.

A variety of light sources are used to illuminate city architecture and landmarks at night. Sodium and halogen are the light sources of most street lamps; tungsten spotlights are used on old stone buildings; fluorescent lights turn 21st-century skyscrapers into beacons of brilliance; while concentrated coloured neon lights make Piccadilly Circus, Times Square and Las Vegas the most photographed night locations on Earth.

It's worth remembering that all of these light sources have a different colour temperature to daylight, thereby producing a different colour cast. This can be corrected by changing the white balance (WB) on your camera to the appropriate setting for the relevant lighting. Keeping the WB setting to daylight will result in a distinct colour cast on the image: orange for tungsten, green/blue for neon or fluorescent. It's worth experimenting with the WB setting with artificial light and checking your monitor to see how the colour casts affect the resulting image.


As with any photography outdoors, it makes sense to check the weather forecast before you set out. A cloudless sky should mean a dry night, and, even better, the possibility of a well-lit moon appearing in your pictures. Most of us are familiar with daily sunrise and sunset times, but how many pay attention to the moonrise and moonset times, or to the phases of the moon? The opportunity to include a clear sky, a smudge of orange twilight and a full moon rising over a line of brightly lit city towers doesn't occur that often, but mixing these natural, celestial light sources with the colour of our own electric creations is worth being prepared for.

All is not lost if it rains at night either. Think of those sodden puddles on the street or footpath as a mirror to any neon ribbons of colour above and include them in the foreground of a wider composition. Alternatively, you could zoom in on the puddle itself to depict another angle of well-trodden city paths: grey and grimy by day, but a scene of switched-on colour by night.

Dos & don'ts of photographing cities at night


Use a tripod on a stable surface and make certain your camera is level when fastened to the tripod

Experiment with choice of shutter speeds. Vary the amount of time you keep the shutter open and check the results on the camera monitor


Use a zoom lens and try a range of different focal-length settings to see which composition has the greatest impact


Always have the white balance set to auto. While it's usually reliable, try settings that are specific to the type of light source and experiment

Press the shutter button with your finger--use a remote release with the Bulb setting, or even the self-timer set to longer exposure times

Set ISO ratings too high. While noise-reduction technologies have improved results at higher ISO values, there is no advantage to be gained when you're making a time exposure of several seconds or longer


Essential option: TRIPOD


The basic design may not have changed in decades, but a tripod is still the most effective means of keeping your camera and lens absolutely still, thereby ensuring that the detail recorded on your image sensor or film isn't blurred by vibrations or hand movements. It also means you can use very slow shutter speeds and still get crisply focused images. Remember to fire the shutter using a remote release or the camera's self-timer. Good makes to look out for are Manfrotto, Gitzo, Giotto's, Benbo, and Alta Pro.


Camera option: LEICA D-LUX 4

Digital compacts lave always been well specified, but a new range of high-end models are now available that offer a quality of image that is comparable to an SLR. The new Leica D-Lux 4 is a prime example: it's built around a 10.1-megapixel image sensor, has a slim yet rugged aluminium body and features a built-in 2.5x f/2-2.8 5.1-12.8mm Vario-Summicron zoom lens. Although lacking an optical viewfinder, there is the choice of three aspect ratios--3:4, 3:2 and 16:9--at the flick of a switch to extend your creative composition options. Guide price is around 765 [pounds sterling].



There's no shortage of wide-angle zoom lenses on the market, but Tamron's new SP 17-50mm f/2.8 lens (530 [pounds sterling]) is worth attention. As well as the constant f/2.8 maximum aperture throughout the zooming range, this lens also includes built-in vibration control that works with Nikon and Canon SLRs. The focal range is ideal for the street and travel photography, as well as landscapes. The lens is compatible with Nikon and Canon SLRs that use the smaller APS-C image sensor.

Essential option:,,,,

Camera option:

Lens option:


NIGHT VISION: The Art of Urban Exploration

by Geoff Manaugh

CHRONICLE BOOKS, PB, 16.99 [pounds sterling]


by Lee Frost

DAVID & CHARLES, PB, 14.99 [pounds sterling]

CREATIVE NIGHT: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques

by Harold Davis

JOHN WILEY & SONS, PB, 19.99 [pounds sterling]
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Title Annotation:GEO photo
Comment:Bright lights, big cities: the setting of the sun needn't bring an end to your photographic exploits particularly if you're in a city.
Author:Wilson, Keith
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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