Lowlight Urban Photography

Some things just look better in the dark...

I shot the Golden Gate Bridge about 1/2 hour after sunset. It looks much, much better than the shots I took in daylight.

If you're interested in seeing how the light changed before and after sunset, check out Waiting for the Light.
Golden Gate Bridge after Sunset
With the right light, almost anything can be beautiful.

I like to shoot cities in low light, when the natural and artificial lights blend to create wonderful color.


Light and Time

I don't actually shoot at "night" very often. Instead, I shoot in the hour before sunrise or the hour after sunset, when there is *some* natural light. The advantage of shooting when there's some natural light is that it helps balance out the artificial city lights and lessen the contrast. And... if the sky is clear, you can get wonderful dark blue skies.
Hawthorne Bridge in lowlight
If the skies are completely clear, and conditions are just right, you can get intensely blue skies. Gas station before sunrise

Reds and Blues

Getting a Sharp Image

I use:
  • mirror lockup
  • a cable release
  • a sturdy tripod to prevent vibrations that can cause a loss of clarity. If it's windy, I may press down on the neck of the tripod to help stabilize it.


I have my camera set up to use the * button instead of the shutter button for focusing. On my Canon 5D, it's done by setting Custom Function 4 to "1." That way I can focus once on one of the brighter or higher-contrast parts of the scene, and then shoot several shots without the camera having to focus for each shot. This is helpful, because when I compose the shot, the focusing point might end up on something very dark and difficult to focus on.

Many times I may focus on an artificial light, the moon, or the horizon. With a wide-angle lens at f/8, infinity works just fine in most cases.

Other Considerations

If you're using a lens with IS, in many cases, you should turn IS off when using a tripod (it depends on the lens).

I try to shoot at an aperture around f/8, but I can be flexible about that when necessary.

I always bracket my exposures, because exposure can be tricky when there are multiple light sources, and except for a short 10-minute period, the light isn't perfectly balanced. I like to have multiple versions of the same shot to blend in Photoshop. I usually use Av mode, and set the camera to bracket "automatically," so I don't have to touch the camera between shots: I just use the cable release to take them. If I need exposures longer than 30 seconds, though, I set the camera to M mode, and try to be very careful when adjusting the settings between exposures.

In most cases I use evaluative metering (similar to matrix).

I shoot in RAW mode to preserve as much information as possible. This way, I can override camera settings such as color matrix, white balance, sharpening, etc. at the time I convert my photos from RAW.

When there are clouds or fog, you can get interesting effects and colors. River scene with clouds


First, I determine if a single exposure can provide the dynamic range required.

If not, I may paste one of my "bracketing" exposures into a new layer on top of my "main" exposure, and use Two-Exposure Contrast Masking or some other method to blend them.

Lately, I've been experimenting with HDR, using Photoshop CS2 to blend several differently-exposed images into a single HDR image (from the Photoshop menu: File/Automate/Merge to HDR), and then using the Photomatix plugin from www.hdrsoft.com to tone-map the HDR image.

Below are two early-morning images I processed that way.
There's not much natural light here, and it's cloudy, so the color comes from the artificial lights. cloudy, and not much natural light
12 minutes closer to sunrise, there's more natural light, so the color is different. Also, a breeze has smeared the reflections. 12 minutes later, with more natural light

If you haven't tried lowlight urban photography already, I hope you will. You're going to love it.