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Night photography tips – take better travel pics

I want to share with you some night photography tips that will hopefully be useful for both beginners like me and for advanced amateurs – like my boyfriend, who often taken the pictures for this blog and who also wrote this post for me after attending an interesting workshop.  It is definitely a skill to have, as a travel blogger, to be able to capture the moment when it comes to a city landscape at a particular time, so without further ado, here’s the wisdom from the workshop laid out for you. 
Basics: cityscapes, gear and common pitfalls
Being a total gadget geek, I’ve always been into digital cameras for their constant tech spec race to either improve sensor pixel count, sensor size, body size, image stabilisation, fast lenses etc.  While my interest in digital cameras started from what some people refer to as Gear Acquisition Syndrome (Yes i have GAS!), I am always on the lookout to up my skills on photography  especially since I’ve started taking more shots for the F-World blog. I was excited when I was invited to the “Capturing London on Camera” Photography Workshop at Nikon School in Soho London sponsored by SmugMug, a cloud photo storage and e-commerce company. The workshop was run by Neil Freeman from Nikon and Alistair Jolly from SmugMug, and it also covered the basics of photography like Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO, Exposure, Depth of Field and Composition.
The most interesting part of the workshop for an intermediate level photographer like me was the focus on taking night time “cityscapes”.  A cityscape is basically a landscapes of cities and urban environment. What makes cityscapes so special is possibly due to its images typified by sharp focus, high contrast noise-free images with  attractive colours of the gradient sky and light trails.
I was quite eager to learn from the pros as this is something that I had never managed to achieve in my photos. Most of the night time landscapes that I take usually come out either blurry or having noisy image quality (the colour speckles that look like mosquitoes). The contrast and focus are usually far from where I want them to be. Sounds familiar?
How to take good night landscape pictures and cityscapes
cityscape tips

A picture of Rome riverside at night, taken using the photography tips I recently learnt

At the workshop, Alistair shared with us the secrets of taking good night time cityscape shots; especially if you don’t have a fancy camera, you’ll be pleased to know that some of them are so fundamental that they have nothing to do with the gear at all. Here are some of the tips that I found most insightful:
1. Make the most of the Golden Hour
One of the most important thing I learnt on the course was that there is no substitute for good natural lighting. In the case of night time cityscapes, the best natural lighting happens at what photographers call the Golden Hour. The Golden Hour is the time of the day when the sun is setting, to the point where you can barely see the sun in the horizon and the sky is glowing. The best point according to Alistair is also during the point at which the street light and building lights start to appear thereby creating a scene of interleaved contrast between the light and shadows. Alistair also jokes that it’s usually at a time when most people have their dinner and thus miss the most amazing time to take a shot. Photographers usually camp out an hour or two before the Golden Hour to pick the best scene for their shoot.
2. Pick a Small Aperture Size
Set the camera to a small aperture size by picking a large F number (f-stop). The smaller the f-stop the larger the aperture. They are inverse, go figure! The simplest way to do this is to use the Aperture Priority mode. Aperture priority is when you set the aperture size and letting the camera automatically determine the appropriate shutter speed. Using a smaller aperture means that we will have a longer exposure and a large depth of field. Cityscape photography is all about long exposures. Depending on the light, it’s usually between 10-30 seconds but can go into the minutes if you choose to shoot a dark scene. Camera lenses usually have a “sweet spot” for sharpness. Most lenses are at their sharpest at F8 to F11.
3. Choose a Low ISO
Higher ISO usually mean more noisy images. Since we want to achieve a noise free images in night time cityscapes, we need a low ISO. A lower ISO will also give better colour depth in your images.
4. Use a Tripod
The combination of a small aperture, low ISO and long exposure means that any camera shake will be very visible in your photos. To obtain a pin sharp focus at these conditions, a tripod is a must. If you don’t have a tripod, Alistair recommends using your folded jacket as an improvised tripod to prop up and stabilise the camera.
5. Put the Timer On
One of the biggest causes of camera shake is caused by pressing the shutter release during longer exposures. To eliminate this use the timer function to delay the shutter release such that the shutter release delayed till after the camera has stabilised.
6. Adjust Exposure for Light Trails
Last but not least, Light effects during long exposure such as Light Trails are what makes night time cityscape photography so attractive and unique. For this you’ll have to use your intuition on how dynamic the scene is and decide how long the exposure time should be. Use a shorter exposure for fast moving scenes and longer one for slower scenes.
Out in the Field 
We put our new skills to the test by taking some night time cityscapes out in the field – at the middle of a busy Oxford Street during Christmas shopping season. I got to try out the lovely Nikon D600 with a sturdy carbon fibre tripod. Here’s one of the results.
Regent Street Xmas decorations

Regent Street Xmas decorations

Overall I had fun and learnt a few fundamental skills for night time cityscape photography. Most of all it made me appreciate the way I thought about the Golden Hour and how to capture the beauty of it.
Special thanks to Nikon and SmugMug for sponsoring me to the Workshop.
Smugmug is a photo storing and sharing website for professional and amateur photographers, now available in the UK. The service enables you to store and share securely, present them beautifully in a portfolio to promote yourself, keep your best images safely in the cloud and create prints and gifts with them. All from as little as $5/month ($40/year).
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  1. Nicely informative read. If you routinely leave a protective filter on your lens, I recommend that you take it off for night photography. Especially if there are large bright lights pointing directly at the lens close by. Check out a phenomenon called ‘sensor reflection’ for details. I won’t bore you here!

    • Hi Ming, Han here. Thanks for the kind word and the tip, I’ll check out the sensor reflection thing

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