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Friday, November 25, 2011

Tips for photographing a city skyline at night and at twilight.

I love photographing cities and I particularly love photographing city skylines at night. There is something just mystical and magical about all those thousands of lights glittering silently in the night. The bigger the city is, of course, the more impressive the skyline and when it comes to cities like New York or Chicago, the skyline is downright breathtaking at night.

I recently had the chance to shoot the Manhattan skyline (most of what you're seeing in this shot is the financial district in lower Manhattan) from the New Jersey shore along the edge of the Hudson River.  I chose to shoot the view from New Jersey since the view from Jersey City is quite an amazing view. There is a beautiful boardwalk that runs along the entire waterfront in Jersey City that makes a perfect shooting location--it's a devastatingly beautiful vantage point. I shot this picture from a continuation of that walking path that runs through Liberty State Park--one of the state's most beautiful parks.

The trick to getting a great photo of a city skyline at night is not to shoot it at night, but rather at twilight. Depending on which direction the skyline faces (and where you're shooting it from) you can often get a beautiful mix of sunset colors, twilight sky and city lights all mixed together. It's incredible. Probably the very best time to shoot is just after the sunset and during a very brief magic window of opportunity when the twilight sky glows an almost turquoise blue and the city lights are beginning to come alive. This photo was made a few minutes past the peak of the sunset and honestly I should have begun shooting about 10 minutes or so before, but even as the sun was setting there was a driving rain falling--it was a wild mixture of light and weather. In fact, just a few minutes before I shot this the rain was pounding so hard that I almost abandoned the shot!

Even on the best of weather days, this kind of beautiful twilight/sunset light only lasts about 15-25 minutes, so you really have to be in place with your tripod set up and your camera all ready to shoot a half an hour before sunset. Once the sun starts to set the buildings (at least with west-facing buildings like these) take on some spectacular colors and as the sky darkens a bit the city lights get brighter and brighter. If you can capture the exact moment when all of the lighting conditions are peaking, you'll get some fantastic shots.

You'll definitely need to use a tripod to get shots like this because you're going to need a relatively small aperture and a correspondingly long shutter speed (this shot was made at f/10 at 2.5 seconds). At such long shutter speeds, I also suggest using either a remote control (wireless) or the self timer, and possibly also locking up the mirror. Even though this shot is pretty sharp, I'm not totally satisfied with the sharpness and I'm not sure if the softness came from the lens I was using (a Nikkor 24-120mm lens, which is not a particularly sharp lens unfortunately) or lack of depth of field. I'm going to go back and re-shoot this with a different lens (probably a prime lens) and I'll probably begin shooting a bit earlier and also using a smaller aperture to get even more depth.

You can, of course, continue to shoot after the blue has faded from the sky, but skylines just aren't as pretty with a black sky as they are with that nice blue glow. Also, if you shoot much after dark you'll be using much longer exposures which causes the lights in scene to blur together and create pockets of bright glare.

Twilight is the primo time, so just get to your location well before sunset, choose your shots and then be ready when the worlds of sunset, twilight and city lights begin to collide--it's an absolutely stunning mix!