Shoot a city

Head into the city just after sunset to capture colourful and atmospheric shots of illuminated buildings and landmarks

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Checklis’

What you’ll need

Tripod

ND filter

Remote release

Photoshop Elements

How long it’ll take

Half a day

The skills you’ll learn

For great cityscapes you can’t beat shooting at twilight: after the sun has set, but before the darkness falls, there’s still enough natural light to bring out detail, while the city lights will be coming on to create extra colour and interest. Twilight doesn’t last long though, so you’ll need to be in position and set up before the sun sets.

For our shoot we headed into the heart of London to photograph St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge from the Thames Embankment; for a successful twilight cityscape you need to include iconic or interesting buildings or bridges that are illuminated at night. You’ll need a tripod, and optionally an ND filter to stop down the light so you can shoot long exposures. Aside from enabling you to blur water and skies, long exposures have another use: if cars or people are passing through your scene and the exposure is long enough, they won’t appear in the image — you’ll need a shutter speed of between 15 to 30 seconds to achieve this.

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Diffraction

Diffraction is a phenomenon where light ‘bends’ around small obstacles, such as the aperture blades in a lens — the narrower the aperture, the more pronounced the effect. It’s usually regarded as a problem, as it leads to a loss of overall sharpness in an image. However, it can be used creatively to your advantage, with light sources taking on an attractive ‘starburst’ effect; small street lights in a scene are particularly prone to the effect. You’ll need to shoot at a narrow aperture, such as f/16; if you shoot at wide apertures of around f/5.6 you won’t be able to capture the effect.

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Super Tip!

The rule of thirds is just as important when you’re composing cityscapes as for landscapes: for our shot we filled the top and bottom thirds of the frame with the sky and water, and placed the dome of St Paul’s on the left-hand vertical third line; we also used the diagonal lines of the bridge to lead the eye into the scene.

Timing and location

1. To make the most of the twilight period you need to be set up ready to shoot in good time, so check the sunset time — twilight begins after the sun sets, and before the darkness sets in. Choose a location with buildings that have plenty of lights and illuminated windows, and other interesting features.

Use a tripod

2. Set your camera up on a tripod so that you can capture long exposures. Make sure you place it out of the way of people passing by, as you don’t want it to get knocked during an exposure. If it’s windy you’ll need to shelter it — you can do this with your body, or weigh down the centre column with your camera bag if it has a hook for this purpose.

Camera settings

3. Set your camera to Av mode and set the aperture to f/16 — combined with the long exposure this will produce a ‘starburst’ effect from the lights in the scene. Noise can be a problem with long exposures in low light, so keep the ISO to 100 to counter this, and shoot Raw files for maximum quality.

ND filter

4. To obtain a slow enough shutter speed to blur water and clouds you’ll need a neutral density (ND) filter. We used a variable ND, which enabled us to control the strength of the effect by rotating the outermost filter. Half-press the shutter button to take a shutter speed reading — around 30 secs is ideal.

Composition and focus

5. Switch to Live View mode to compose and focus the shot (this also means the mirror will be locked up to minimise camera vibrations). Compose the shot using leading lines such as a bridge or river to draw the eye into the scene. To focus, switch your lens to manual, then zoom in on a key feature (St Paul’s in our case) and adjust the focus to get it perfectly sharp.

Remote release

6. Use a remote release to fire the shutter so that you don’t jog the camera at the start of the exposure (if you don’t have one, you can use the 2-sec Self-timer option in the AF/Drive settings). Make sure you don’t touch the camera during the exposure, and check your image is sharp when you’ve taken it.

ACR edits

7. Open cityscape_start.dng. Set the Temperature I slider to 7650 to warm the image up, then set Exposure to +0.95 to brighten the shot. Set Highlights to -60 to pull back some of the overexposed highlights, and set Shadows to +60 to add some ‘fill light’ to the darker areas. Set Contrast to +30, Clarity to +35 and Saturation to +10.

Crop and straighten

8. Click and hold on the Crop tool icon in the toolbar and choose the 2 to 3 ratio, then crop the image to lose the fence at the bottom and tidy up the edges. Next select the Straighten tool and draw a line along the top of the river wall, then click Enter to crop and straighten the image. Click Open Image to open the image in Elements’ Expert/Full Edit workspace.

Sample a sky colour

9. We’ll use a gradient to enhance the top part of the sky. Add a new layer, then click the foreground colour swatch in the Tools panel to open the Color Picker. Move your cursor over the sky — it’ll change to an eyedropper — and click to sample a dark blue tone, then click the circle in the colour field and drag it right and down to select a darker and more saturated blue.

Draw a gradient

10. Select the Gradient tool. In the Options panel click the Edit button and choose the Foreground to Transparent option, then click the Linear Gradient button and check Transparency. Draw a short gradient from the top of the dome of St Paul’s to the tops of the buildings below, then change the layer’s blending mode to Overlay to blend the gradient in. To fine-tune the contrast add a Levels adjustment layer, and set the Shadows slider to 8 and Midtones to 1.05.

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Overlay mode

Overlay blending mode is a combination of Multiply mode, which darkens pixels, and Screen mode, which lightens pixels. Overlay applies a Multiply effect if pixels on the lower layer are darker than 50% grey, and a Screen effect if pixels are lighter than 50% grey; in this case it darkens the dark tones in the sky but lightens the lighter colours of the sky and dome, boosting the contrast.

Other examples…

Cities at twilight present you with lots of creative options — here are two more effects to try out

Sweeping city skylines are prime candidates for panoramic images, and we cropped this image to the 16:9 ratio to create a panoramic composition. You can create wider panoramas by shooting several images and merging them using Elements’ Photomerge Panorama command — for the best results shoot in portrait orientation, leaving plenty of overlap between shots.

You can bring your city scenes to life by using a slow shutter speed to create the impression of bustling movement. For the best results you’ll need an exposure of between 1 and 5 seconds — for this shot we chose 2.5 secs at f/10.

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