They say a city comes to life when the sun goes down, so there’s really no better time to go out and shoot iconic locations in a new light.
The lack of sunshine means long exposures are naturally available, so you won’t need expensive ND filters to blur cloudy skies or to smooth flowing water. The best time for shooting nightscapes is actually at twilight. This time is also referred to as the blue or magic hour, and is the hour after the sun sets. Although it’s called the blue hour, it’s actually more like a 45-minute window of fantastic light, when you’ll often see great blues and pink hues in the sky.
I always research the time the sun will actually set in my chosen location before I get there, using The Photographer’s Ephemeris app. This app tells you when the sun will rise and set each day, and also which direction it will rise and set in. This is great for when you’re working against time and you want to get the best light. Another popular app to try is PhotoPills.
I got into the habit of going out to shoot landscapes in the golden hour (the hour before the sun sets) as well as the blue hour. This gave me a vast range of tones and colours of the same subject, each one with a different mood and look.
For the best results you’ll need a tripod – a small, travel option is the most practical solution. If this isn’t an option, you might be able to prop your camera up on a nearby wall to keep it stationary while shooting your long exposure. If you go down this route, be sure to keep a tight grip of the camera strap while you are shooting, just in case it falls off. Mini devices (like Manfrotto’s Pocket Support MP1) are portable and let you frame up a bit better on these kind of impromptu surfaces.
If, however, you are using a tripod then you’ll want to extend it to the desired height. Extend the thickest legs first for best stability, as the thinner leg sections are the most prone to wobble. Always put up the centre column last, as this also makes images more susceptible to shake. Now mount your camera and frame up.
There should be enough light to autofocus on your point of interest in the blue hour. When you’ve focused, head into aperture-priority, set your ISO to its lowest setting (usually 100) for the best possible image quality and lowest noise levels. Open your aperture as wide as it will go, usually f/3.5-5.6 on a kit lens. Turn on the 2-sec timer and press the shutter button – this stops you jogging the camera and introducing unwanted blur as you press down on it.
With the low ISO and reduced light levels you’re likely to get a shutter speed of around 10-20secs even with the aperture wide open. If you check the picture on your LCD and notice there’s not enough blur, you need to close down the aperture a little and have another go.
Remember to keep your wits about you when shooting at night. I always shot in areas where there were plenty of people about just to be in the public eye. I’d also go out with a friend or group of people for peace of mind, and to keep myself and my camera safe.
Dan Mold is a professional travel and wildlife photographer and a regular contributor to Practical Photography and Digital Photo. He has recently returned from an epic adventure around Asia and Australia. See more of his work here.