City of Lights


From a height, every city looks like a grid of lights. Choose your frame carefully to highlight this. Exposure: 1/4 sec at f/6.3. ISO (1000). Photograph/Anirban Brahma

From a height, every city looks like a grid of lights. Choose your frame carefully to highlight this. Exposure: 1/4 sec at f/6.3. ISO (1000). Photograph/Anirban Brahma

As the day comes to an end, the city truly comes alive. Chandni Gajria tells you how to capture stunning cityscapes at twilight and night.

This article was originally published in December 2011.

Mumbai. Kolkata. New Delhi. Or well, even Hong Kong and Singapore. What is the first visual that comes to your mind when you think of any of these cities? One common association we think of, is the way the city looks in the evening and at night. As the street lights glimmer and shimmer, have you ever asked yourself how you can capture the mood through photos? Here are a few points you should keep in mind when you take your camera for a little city tour tonight.

Find the Perfect Location
Have you ever wondered where you will get the best possible view of the city you live in? Ask your friends, take help of maps or local guides. Always remember that the best locations may not be easily accessible, or you may need to take special permissions.

Leave the House on Time
Reach the location at least half an hour in advance. Do not expect to start shooting the moment you reach. It may take you time to set up the tripod, visualise the best possible frame and calculate the required settings.

Start Shooting Before Dark
The best cityscape shots are often made in the short time period between sunset and complete darkness. This is when there is still some natural light left in the sky, but the city lights have already switched on. The time window may be as long as 45 minutes, or as short as 10 minutes. The trick to getting your timing right, is to shoot at a time when the natural light in the sky and city lights balance each other perfectly.

Observe the Changing Scape
As night falls, the sky changes its colour from shades of orange and red to purple, blue and then finally to a dark blue and black. Each of these colours lend their own mood to the cityscape, so shoot as many pictures as possible.

What is the Perfect Exposure?
Since the light is rapidly changing, keeping a track on exposure is not very easy. Remember that there is nothing such as a ‘perfect’ exposure. What you do need to keep in mind is that your choice of exposure and lighting conditions determine the way in which the viewer will see the image—what part he will notice first, how the eye will travel through the frame and so on.

Getting Everything Sharp
A common mistake while shooting cityscapes is to not pay attention to depth. As the light is low, our first instinct is to shoot at the widest aperture. However, most cityscape frames demand a large depth-offield, for which you should use a narrow aperture. But then, do not use f/22, as most lenses show softness at this setting. Use an in-between setting like f/11 or f/13.

If You Use a Compact Camera
Try Scene modes like the Night Landscape mode that automatically use a long exposure. The Sunset mode gives saturated colours, while the Sweep Panorama mode can be used for wide vistas.

Do Not Forget that Tripod
As you narrow down the aperture, the amount of light entering the camera reduces, and so, you need to use a much slower shutterspeed. This is where the use of a tripod becomes crucial. Use one that is sturdy, but not too cumbersome to carry around and set up. If you do not have a tripod, put the camera on a brick or a rock.

Safeguard for Mistakes
Metering systems can get fooled while shooting cityscapes. There are many streetlights in the frame and a large part of the scene is dark. To get best results, bracket the exposures.

Towards night, the city wears new clothes, and acquires a new character. Enveloped in street light, it exudes a mood of mystery and romance. Keep the technical basics in mind and ask yourself what your city means to you. Once you know the answer to that, great photos will automatically follow.

Tags: night, lights, Low light, Chandni Gajria, Tripod, October 2011, cityscape