The Importance of Timing

Being at the right place, at the right time, is a critical to getting good images. We can often control the decision to be at the right place, but being there at the right time may be more difficult, especially for us hobbyists. Sometimes we only get a weekend trip somewhere, and we have to shoot whatever the conditions. But there is one area of travel photography where we can consistently pick the right time and come away with good pictures.

And that is cityscapes (or city skylines). I like shooting what I call the “postcard shot” in most places I visit. Yes, I know thousands of others have shot the same scene, but there is a satisfaction of shooting it the way I want it, myself.

In urban travel, that postcard shot for me is usually a city skyline all lit up and sparkling. I find this easier to do at sunset rather than sunrise for a few reason. First of all, I am not a morning person (blasphemy for a photographer, I know). It can also be difficult to get to a shooting site in the early hours of the morning when many public transportation services haven’t started yet. And lastly, in the morning, the city lights go off, so you’re in a race against not only the natural light but also the artificial lights. At sunset, since the lights are coming on, your main time pressure is from the natural light.

Many people, when they shoot nighttime cityscapes, shoot when it’s dark, long after sunset. But that is may not be the best time to shoot. There is a small window after sunset when the scene is most colourful. This is called the blue hour — the time after sunset when the sky still retains the glow from the sun below the horizon, and the city lights are coming on. Blue hour varies depending on the season, weather, and your location, but generally it starts about 30-60 minutes after sunset and last for 10-20 minutes. If you shoot too close to sunset, you get a nice colourful sky, but all the city lights may not be on and they may not be very bright or colourful

Too soon after sunset – the sky is pretty, but the city is still too dark

If you wait a long time after sunset, the city lights will be nice and bright, but the sky will be mostly devoid of any colour (this does work for some forms of photography — more on that later).

Too late after sunset – the city lights and reflections are very pretty, but the sky and any non-reflecting water are quite blank

In between the two, during the blue hour, the city lights are in full force, as are any reflections. In addition, the sky is also colourful and holds some interest.

Just the right time

So, how do you go about shooting such scenes? There are many ways of capturing such images, but here is my general approach…

My cityscape planning is relatively straightforward. My first concern for picking a location is the view of the city skyline. Sometimes I’ll scout out a location myself beforehand during the day; other times, I’ll explore using Google Street View to figure out what areas might provide a good vantage point. In looking for a location, the orientation is important as well. I try to get a view looking at the city westward (towards the setting sun), rather than looking at the city away from the sun (eastward). This is because after the sun has set, the western sky still stays aglow, creating a nice backdrop for the skyline. Shooting east, the sky becomes dark pretty quickly without much of a colour show, so it may not be as good for a background. I don’t get too hung up on the exact direction of sunset, since the sun won’t be in my picture. As long as I’m generally facing west, I’m good. If there’s a body of water between me and the city, even better, because I can then get some reflections.

Daytime location scouting in Istanbul

Next comes timing. I look up the sunset time for my intended day. Blue hour usually starts around 30-60 minutes after sunset and lasts for maybe 10-20 minutes (depending on the season and weather). But I like to get to my location before/around sunset. A big determinant is the location itself. If I’ve scouted it out beforehand (and therefore know exactly where I’m going to shoot from) and it is not a busy touristy spot, then I might get there right at sunset. If, on the other hand, I haven’t been there myself before, or if it is a touristy spot, then I might get there 30 minutes before sunset. When I was in Florence, I’d scouted out my location in Piazzale Michelangelo during the day and noticed that it’s a big tourist attraction. So when I returned for my evening shot, I went about 45 minutes before sunset — and I was glad I did, because it was packed and it took me a while to get to my preferred spot. Once I was there, I set my gear up and enjoyed the views while waiting for the right time. So plan accordingly and leave yourself enough time.

A daytime visit to Piazzale Micheangelo in Florence confirmed that this would be a very busy spot and I would therefore need to arrive early for blue hour

I set up my gear. Tripod goes on a steady surface, camera goes on tripod. One thing to be aware of when shooting in a touristy location is the possibility of bumps and vibrations from others. I avoid putting my tripod on/against metal railings for instance. I usually then alternate between several focal lengths to decide which one will work best for the composition I have in mind. If there is a body of water in front, I try to make sure I get as much of the reflection as possible. Note that a wide-angle is not always the best choice. I sometimes opt for my 70-200 lens and shoot several frames at long focal lengths to create a stitched panorama. Once my lens is set, I choose my settings.

I always shoot such scenes in manual mode because it gives me the exact control. I always shoot in raw (gives me more flexibility in processing) and at ISO100 for the least noise.

I usually set my aperture at around f/14 – f/16. Different lenses have different sweet spots and you’ll have to determine yours. While I want a small aperture (high f-stop) to get everything in focus, small apertures also produce diffraction, which creates some softness; so you do not want to use the smallest aperture on your lens. A smaller aperture also produces nice starburst effects, so that is an added advantage. Each lens is different, so you’ll have to figure out the right spot for you. Generally, if you’re between f/8 and f/16, you’ll probably be okay.

In terms of shutter speed, I try to go for a longer exposures for several reasons. Longer exposures create light trails from any traffic. They smooth out water and strengthen reflections. They create stronger starburst effects from points of light in the scene. Because it is rather dark when I shoot, I don’t use an ND filter. I’ll shoot anywhere between 30 seconds and 2 minutes (although sometimes I’ve go as short as 2 – 5 seconds). It all depends on the amount of light in the scene.

One advantage of shooting evening cityscapes is that the weather is less of a factor. Even in cloudy weather, you can get good images. Low clouds reflect city lights back down, often creating an interesting sky.

Note the smooth water due to the long exposure; while the starburst effect on the bridge lights is due to the small aperture, the effect is strengthened due to the long exposure; also, a cloudy sky did not distract from the scene [16mm, f/16, 2min, ISO100]
With every set, I then wait for the right time and enjoy the views. If it looks good, I take some shots of the sunset and golden hour.

Sunset over Istanbul

When you’re standing in one place looking at the same scene, you may not notice that the right time has arrived. So I try to take a few shots every now and then as the city lights come on. A long exposure in the camera can look different from what our eyes see, so it’s useful to check what the camera is seeing. Once it looks like, the sky is still glowing and the city lights are on, I start taking my shots. Depending on my goal and mood, I’ll take several shots. Maybe some for creating a panorama. Perhaps some focusing on a specific part of the skyline. Regardless, I usually shoot a lot until the sky loses its glow.

After that it’s a matter of loading them on the computer and processing them as needed, to produce the final image.

Florence [35mm, f/10, 6s, ISO100]
Istanbul [200mm, f/8, 2s, ISO100]
London [25mm, f/16, 60s, ISO100]

As I’d mentioned earlier, I don’t mean to suggest that this is the only way or time to shoot cityscapes. It’s just the way I like to shoot mine. But there are numerous alternatives as well. For instance, if I shoot after dark, when there is no light left in the sky, I often like a black and white treatment.

Paris after dark – a black and white treatment takes away the fact that the sky has no colour [16mm, f/10, 8s, ISO100]

So there you have it. A little info on how I shoot my cityscapes. Hope you got something out of it.


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