How to shoot a night time urban photograph

Photographer Andrew Brooks shows us how to shoot a night time urban scene.

|  Cityscapes
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Words and images by Andrew Brooks.

Whether you are trying to develop a night scene of a modern City or an urban view, to capture some of the energy and dynamism it always helps to shoot at night - that way the skyline is defined by lights and the glow of the city lights bouncing back from the sky.  Modern DSLR and high end compacts are getting better at capturing great detail in low light, and with a little control you can create images that have the same drama and impact as the actual view you are looking at.  

Evening panormaic by Andrew Brooks

  • So long as you can keep the lens of your camera open for up to 10 to 15 seconds then it's possible to achieve excellent urban night time photography with most good cameras.
  • Wide lens - Having a fairly wide lens, such as the Nikon 20mm f2.8 D AF, is useful for capturing large expanses of a city within one exposure.
  • Tripod - This is a vital piece of kit as you will be working with exposures of a few seconds (you may want to bracket the exposures to bring out lots of detail in the darkest areas of the shot).
  • Photoshop - My cityscapes involve many levels of post production to create such vivid views.  To achieve this I work solely in Photoshop CS5 using no automated stitching software or a HDR software. Each image is built using a combination of carefully positioned layers and very detailed layer masks.  But you can use an older version of Photoshop and also create strong images using less captures.


Urban lights at night

Photographing the scene

To help create my hyper real cityscapes I work with multiple exposure composite photography – some of my images have 500 images contained within them.  Using this technique means that once I have the camera pointing at a section of a view I can capture a whole range of bracketed exposures. Later in Photoshop I can select the detail I want and paint it though.  
On top of this bracketing work I also pan the camera around, up and down, left and right to create a kind of grid of images, all of which slightly overlap the section next to them,  this means that in Photoshop I can really start adding to the amount captured within one finished photograph.  

Building the base composite image

To join together all of these different captures, both bracketed and panoramic, I use Photoshop.  The first stage is always to pick what I want to be my middle image, then I use the crop tool to extend the canvas by cropping outside the image.  
Now copy and paste from an image you want to add to the main picture - this will arrive as another layer. From here you can position it by lowering the opacity and then using the transform tool.  Once positioned create a layer mask and with a black brush paint the image away on the layer mask so that you are left with only the bits of this layer that are useful to the image.  You can use the white brush to paint the image back in if required.  Keep adding images in this way until you have the right mix of detail. The same transforming and layer masks can then be used to bring in both the panoramic and the bracketed captures.  Once everything is positioned you can then flatten the image in the layer menu.


Improving the scene

As you build your composite image, some bits will never quite join up. Through careful use of the Transform tool (you can select sections of the main image and carefully tweak there positioning) and the clone tool you can slowly hide these errors in the composite work,  slowly making the scene look like a more realistic version of the view.
Urban scene in evening


With night photography you can really play with the light, adding extra glow by making selections and using curves to brighten the image so the city seems to radiate light (See Hong Kong Island picture).  You can also take colours from the view and enhance them, maybe picking a blue arc light and increase the vividness of an electric blue glow. This can help you to create a much more enhanced version of the view.


At night as you will be working with longer exposures. It is good to use this as a way of stretching time and blurring any movement within the scene. To get car head lights fitting into your end image in the right place, point the camera at an area of road and take many long captures as a car passes right through the shot. That way, when you start pulling the images together, you will have an array of car positions to select from and you can even use the light blur from the same car twice.


With my work, the key to creating a strong image is to add atmosphere at the end of the image. With cityscapes it's very possible to create and atmospheric view, simply by choosing which colour you make prominent. For example, in the image you can create a neon lit scene or a cold blue icy view. When you have finished the final composite work use a combination of curves, hue and saturation with both the colorize box and fade tool checked. This will bring in new colour elements and drastically change the overall feel of the final image.

Words and images by Andrew Brooks.

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