Night Photography in City Environments

City photography can be a lot of fun. It also poses some risks you wouldn’t have in less urban environments. Some cities are practically demanding you shoot them at night, Las Vegas, New York, San Diego and San Francisco are among my favorites. The skylines and building lights at night can make for some magical images. 

I have had a great deal of fun shooting in Las Vegas. The architecture is unique and modern with the exception of one particular place. Trump’s Hotel and Casino looks out of place in that it is a simple rectangular shape with no redeeming features (unless you like the color yellow). Aria, Paris, Belagio, Palazzo, Caesar’s Palace, MGM Grand and Luxor are the places I find most photogenic. The Fremont Street Hotels are also fun to visit. If you like glitz and glamour, the lighting at night in Las Vegas is hard to beat. But as in all night shooting, there are a few things to consider when shooting at night in a city;

  • Use a heavy tripod for your camera. This will serve several purposes. First, it will keep your camera steady better than a flimsy one. Second, it can be a formidable weapon if you find yourself in a compromised position. 
  • Unless you don’t mind breaking your camera, keep it on a fast release tripod head.
  • Stay alert to what people around you are doing! Once while shooting at about 2:00 AM, I noticed 4 individuals about 2 blocks away conversing. I had just started a 30 second exposure, so I watched them for a brief time and saw them split up and start heading my way. I noticed that 2 of them had moved into the shadows and I could hear them moving fast in my direction. I released my camera from the tripod, and headed down the alley towards my hotel and once inside, I saw them enter the well lit area and then retreat because they hadn’t a clue as to my location. Before heading up to my room, I asked the hotel security officer if the area was safe. His answer. “Only in the well lit areas where we have our cameras. One block away, there is at least one mugging every other evening.” When I told him of my experience, he said I was lucky as the city is an unforgiving bitch at night. 
  • Keep in mind the ISO which will produce the best amount of noise for your planned exposure. A longer exposure produces heat due to the resistance in the camera’s circuitry. A faster ISO produces heat as more current is supplied to the camera’s sensor. Heat creates noise in the image.
  • Your lens choices for night photography are made in the same manner as they would for daytime, but a faster lens will make the task at hand much easier. With night photography, depth of field is often not a major problem.
  • White balance will be dependent upon whether you want to convey a warm feeling or making the city seem cold and aloof!
  • Be highly alert for traffic. car headlights can make or break a shot. When making a long exposure, the car lights can wreak havoc on the lower parts of buildings. 
  • Know where the moon is or will be as well as its phase and plan your shot accordingly. The full moon itself is shot using the Lunar 11 rule (ISO = to Shutter Speed at F/11 when the moon fills the frame! The moonlit scene without the moon in the image is generally shot using ISO of 100 to 400 for 4 to 5 minutes at F/5.6.