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Guide To Capturing Better City Skyline Shots

Once the sun sets and the lights come on, a city takes on a whole new feel that's well worth capturing with your camera.

|  Architecture
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Photo by Joshua Waller

City life's not for everyone but as the sun begins to set find yourself a vantage point where you can see most of the city skyline and you'll soon have a photograph that may make you rethink your dislike for cities. One of the best times for photographing city skylines is when the sun's begun to set so there's still a touch of blue in the sky but the light's not too harsh so make sure you're on your chosen vantage point well before sunset. 


Gear Choices

Pack a wide lens for capturing the big picture and a telephoto for singling out individual buildings and pulling distant objects towards you on your evening jaunt. Taking a tripod with you is advised but do leave your flash gun at home and turn your on-camera flash off as if it fires, it can ruin your skyline shot.

Most cameras, even compacts and phone cameras, are capable of producing night shots of a decent quality but if you're planning on using much lengthier exposure times, you'll want to pack a more advanced camera. 


Where To Stand With Your Kit

While on holiday (if you have a room with a view) make use of the balcony to give you a high vantage point of the city. You'll also find buildings with observation decks, bridges to stand on and if you're in a city such as Sheffield which has the peak district on its doorstep, try heading for the hills to give you a sweeping shot of the whole city. From high locations you'll be able to capture patterns you can't see at street level such as the lines street lights form as they turn on or the shapes created as city dwellers switch on their lights at home. Street lights look particularly good twinkling against the deep blue sky still lit by the setting sun. Just be careful where you meter from as you don't want the sky or building lights to 'blow out'. Keep an eye on your histogram and take a reading from a darker part of the frame. Another option is to take multiple exposures of the same view so you can combine them to create a shot with a balanced exposure where there's not under- or over-exposed areas in the image. 



Photo by David Clapp


Taking Photos Through Glass

If you've got to capture your image through glass do check for marks and smudges that will spoil your shot. If you can't remove them, experiment with your aperture to see if one particular f-number will remove them from the shot. You'll also need to put the lens as close to the glass as possible and cup it with your hand, a cloth or whatever else you have that will reduce the amount of interior light reaching your lens. If you don't, you'll end up with reflections and flare could spoil your shots. 


Depth Of Field 

You'll want to use an aperture that gives your shot plenty of depth of field, around f/8 is a good place to start, and try to stick to lower ISOs where possible. You may find you need to adjust this to increase shutter speeds but if you're using a tripod, longer exposures won't be an issue. If you have it available, the depth of field preview button can help ensure your shot is sharp from front to back. 

Foreground interest can add another level interest and 'fill' empty space that can occur when focusing on subjects in the distance. However, do make sure it's not stealing the spotlight and pulling the viewer's attention away from the skyline. 


Shoot Silhouettes 

Silhouetted cityscapes are popular subjects and they work well against a plain but bright background. Even though they're a little clichéd sunsets do work well particularly if it's one that's rich with colour. To create your silhouette you need to expose for the background and not the buildings you want to silhouette. You may need to fool your camera when it comes to metering as using the camera's automatic metering won't always give you the silhouette you're after. Try half pressing the shutter button while focused on the brightest part of your scene before moving back to frame the shot but this means your camera will focus on this and not your subject. Manual focus or using a smaller aperture can combat this problem. Talking of manual focus, you should consider using this even when not shooting silhouettes as it'll always produce better results, plus auto-focus tends to struggle as light levels fall. 



Photo by Joshua Waller

Shots At Street Level

As well as getting up high working at street level can work well in the evening too. Try using long exposures (20-30 seconds) to set the dark sky and buildings against the streak of lights that come from the traffic as it moves through the city streets. You could even combine multiple traffic streak shots to increase the sense of speed and movement in your city shot. Another way to add a creative twist to your city skyline shots is by incorporating reflections from rivers, lakes or even wet pavements after it's rained. 


Tall Buildings & Straight Horizons

Pay attention to your horizon and the angle of the buildings as you don't want them to be slanting to one side of the image. A tripod with a spirit level can he handy although many cameras now have these or gridlines built-in. When home, check your city shots for distortion but this is something that can be easily fixed in image editing software. Playing around with the colour balance can enhance and evoke mood, too so don't be afraid to experiment with this. 



Photo by David Clapp



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