Sponsored Content

How to Take Photos of a City at Night

Nikon photographer Flash Parker shares his travel-tested techniques for shooting photos as vibrant as the night scenes you want to remember.

How to Take Photos of a City at Night

Disney Concert Hall in L.A. at dusk (see tip number 1).

When the sun goes down, street lights flicker and cities come alive with a whole new energy. But capturing this electric buzz in photographs can be challenging. Light often changes quickly and unpredictably, and moving objects can resist staying sharp and in focus. With a little patience, a camera that performs well in low light, like the new Nikon D7500, and a few technical tips and tricks, you can up your night photography game.

Beginner-Friendly Tips…

1. Have a Plan, but Be Flexible
My plan for the Disney Concert Hall in L.A. was to photograph it in the dead of night, assuming the contrast between the shiny architecture and the black sky would be striking. That didn’t work out; my images were flat and dark. I tried again just as the last light of day was waning, and the result was a vivid image of one of LA’s most well-known landmarks.


In Chicago, I wanted a photograph of the skyline that would be both timeless and unique. It wasn’t until I arrived at Lincoln Park that I found my solution: a combination of city lights and a slow shutter speed to smooth the crashing waves. The stunning fog helped, too.

2. Experiment with Silhouettes
Where there’s dark, there’s a silhouette waiting to be captured. When the night sky is completely dark, I look for high-contrast scenes that offer up atmosphere and character. In Yangon, Myanmar, I came upon this crossing lit by oncoming traffic. I waited until a pedestrian walked into the frame, lined him up with the headlight from a motorbike, and shot this image. The result would be totally different if I’d exposed for the pedestrian; the silhouette lends an intrigue to the scene


For More Advanced Shooters...

3. Compose Dramatic Vistas
I took the next image during my “Dark Knight phase,” when everything I shot seemed to be dark and brooding. Countless skyline images are taken at Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak; I knew I wanted mine to have a cinematic, constrained quality. To achieve this look, first I had to deal with the buildings in the foreground; if I exposed for them, the towers in my second layer (and background) would be blown out to near white, and the image would seem lifeless. Instead, I exposed for the buildings on that second level, so that only a few lights in the distance were overexposed. Then I used a slow shutter speed to add just a touch of smoothness to the clouds and the water in the bay. The result is a moody frame that suited my taste at the time.


I had the same thought process here—the only difference is that I went with a brighter tone throughout the image and a longer shutter speed to smooth out the water along Shanghai’s Bund. It can be difficult to keep ambient light from over exposing your images when shooting cityscapes; remember to use your Nikon camera’s exposure compensation when dealing with tricky mixed light like this.


4. Read and Adjust for the Light in Every Scene
During an annual festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand, thousands of paper lanterns are set ablaze, flitting into the air like a flotilla of fireflies bent on conquering the dark skies. I had my camera at the ready but had to decide which part of the image I wanted exposed properly. If I chose the sky, my entire image would have been washed out to white. If I chose the white paper lantern, my image would have been too dark. I knew the matrix metering would struggle in this situation, so I switched to spot metering, and exposed for the light on the hands; that’s what helped take my sky to black, and gave me rich, even light throughout the scene. To keep my subject sharp, I lowered my aperture to f/2.8, pushed my ISO all the way to 4000, and shot at 1/500 of a second. Nikon cameras can deliver amazing results at high ISOs, so don’t be afraid to experiment.


5. Experiment with Light Trails and Motion Blur
Light trails are an effective way to add color and dynamism. All you need is a stable shooting platform (this is where a travel tripod comes in handy), a handle on your camera’s shutter speed, and good timing. I set up on a street in central Seoul to take the next photo. Shooting in manual, I dialed in a shutter speed of 4-seconds, an aperture of f/9 (so my image would be sharp from front to back), and ISO 200. I waited until two buses were about to enter my field of view, and then clicked the shutter; the buses streaked through the frame, leaving only their lights behind.


Panning (also called shutter drag) is one of my favorite travel photography techniques. It’s perfectly suited to cities and particularly effective at night when ambient lights add depth to your image. You can pan just about any moving object, but it’s best to practice on things that move smoothly across your field of vision at a constant rate of speed, like vehicles.


In this example, I wanted to communicate the hustle and bustle of New York City at night by shooting iconic taxis. Shooting in Shutter Priority, I dialed in 1/13 sec., and following the car from right to left, shot a series of images in the hope that one would come out sharp. I was pleased when the pedestrian crossed in front of me, adding another layer to my frame.


When shooting in Hanoi, Vietnam, at dusk, I focused in on the man with the white goatee, and followed him across my frame from left to right. He’s in sharp focus, while those around him are blurred, due to traveling at different speeds. You’ll arrive at your own preferred formula for panning, and decide whether you like your subjects sharp or a little soft and your backgrounds totally out of focus or only slightly blurred.

More From AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
From Our Partners