In my previous post, I discussed the fundamental basics of night-time photography, but I also offered some creative solutions, of which one was precisely “urban photography”.
The city is a very specific context; the style and characteristics of the photos you take can change completely, based on whether you visit by day or by night.
Elements that go completely unnoticed by day become the star attraction during the night, due to the unusual illumination. But the exact opposite can also occur, with elements that are very interesting during the day becoming featureless at night.
Above all, therefore, it is essential that you know the location, trusting in the knowledge of people who know it well or who can give you useful advice so that you don’t waste precious time.
THE BLUE HOUR
Everything starts with the “blue hour”, or that specific moment witnessed at sundown (when the sun goes behind the horizon but there is still a lot of light due to reflection by the atmosphere).
Usually, the artificial lighting of the most suggestive buildings and locations comes on at sundown, thus creating the first, unique colour effect of a very intense blue – but still light – sky, in contrast with the buildings already lit with artificial light.
This is called the “blue hour” and, as the name indicates, it doesn’t last very long, about one hour, after which the sky starts to become an increasingly intense, dark blue (unless there is a full moon).
After the blue hour, the sky is of practically no further interest, from a photographic point of view; in order to take any decent photos of the sky, you have to travel out of the city to avoid light pollution. Thus, within the city, you have to focus exclusively on artificial light sources.
WHAT TO PHOTOGRAPH
No two cities are the same but it is possible to trace a series of common features; artistic and photographic elements that usually make a photo more interesting than most others and that are at their best in night-time photographic conditions.
Skylines can also be defined as “urban panoramas”. Not all cities lend themselves to this type of image. The most well-known skyline is undoubtedly New York, but many other less famous cities boast this same feature.
Fundamental to a good skyline picture are:
- tall buildings and other constructions
- a viewpoint with several hundred metres of undisturbed space between you and the subject.
It is not by chance that the most famous skylines involve buildings and skyscrapers taken from significant distances, with a river between them and the camera, or from on board a boat/ship out at sea.
I recommend using a wideangle lens in such a context, in order to capture a wider landscape, or you can make use of the multiple photo technique to create a panorama in post-production.
Oh, also, a lot of cameras allow you to take panorama photos directly using an integrated setting, so have a look in your instruction booklet.
IMAGES FROM ON HIGH
In the city you want to photograph, you have to find out whether there is the possibility of taking pictures from on high.
A building open to the public (Eiffel Tower), a skyscraper or a bell tower. Whatever the opportunity, what you must do is point your camera downwards from high to low.
In this case, I wouldn’t always recommend a wideangle lens; indeed, often the best photos are obtained using a narrow field of vision on a particular area that forms an interesting composition, thus using a telephoto lens.
Flyovers can be the source of many creative ideas in terms of photography. They usually pass over railways or motorways with heavy traffic.
I suggest having a look at the ones that cross over railways just before the stations. Such contexts are very evocative, because of both the characteristic artificial light and the style of composition and graphic effects that you can create.
A wideangle lens can work well here, but a normal lens works just as well for images focusing on the area of interest.
Important: be careful where you stand! If you are taking pictures from the side of the road, it is best to wear a high-visibility reflective vest, so that the drivers of passing cars can see you.
FOUNTAINS AND PUBLIC PARKS
These are definitely the main features of every city. I don’t know one city that doesn’t have at least one public fountain or park illuminated by night… or one inside the other.
It isn’t difficult to create interesting images of these subjects; all you need to do is mount your camera on a tripod (I recommend the Manfrotto BeFree for its portability and compact size) and use a shutter speed of 10-15 seconds. The fountain will leave light trails that follow the jets of water, creating a very striking image.
One of the interesting things about cities is that a lot of resources are invested to illuminate the most distinctive buildings, or those that are of aesthetic/architectural importance.
So, when you wander around the city at night, they are easily identified and all that remains for you to do is photograph them from an interesting viewpoint.
One common error in these situations is using too-slow shutter speeds.
Your camera’s light meter is often tricked by the intense light at the windows, so it might be necessary for you to adjust the settings to lighten the scene a bit (balancing the exposure by 1 stop or slowing the shutter speed if you are in manual mode).
The aim in urban night-time photography is, obviously, to capture well-lit architectural elements.
If you find yourself before an architecturally interesting feature that is, however, not sufficiently well-lit, there is no use in wasting time taking a picture, even with a very long exposure time. You would end up with an image lacking in depth and of no real quality.
Strangely, however, if it is a place that is not particularly unusual but that is well-lit, you may find that you can get a very interesting photo. Perfect examples are photos of simple supermarket car parks!
In my next post, I will go into more detail about another popular night-time photography technique!
Freelance photographer, photography teacher, author and blogger.