How to photograph City Lights at Night


This article will focus on how to photograph city lights. This is a relatively easy topic and easy to do with some stunning results.


What do you need?

The first step in taking great photographs is to obtain the correct gear and software. The following indicates the required gear and software with a short description of each:
A DSLR Camera
You will need a DSLR camera with Manual capability.
Manual capability will allow you to set the ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Ensure that your camera can operate in low light, and that it has adequate noise filters and ability to handle high ISO values. I personally prefer using Canon cameras.
A Wide angle Lens
You will require as well a good lens with the ability to set it to manual focus. Manual focus is required because the camera will not have the ability to focus automatically, and you would use manual focus to focus your star to pinpoint sharpness. It would be good if your lens has the ability to have fast-aperture wide-angle lens (ideally in the f/1.4 – f/2.8 max aperture range). I like to shoot in the 18mm range, and any lower mm range would be brilliant, as you would like to shoot as much as possible of the stars.
A Sturdy Tripod
You would require a sturdy tripod due to you shooting long exposures. Ensure as well that your tripod which will not shake when there is some wind.
Ensure as well that your tri-pod’s head can rotate horizontal and vertical. This will enable you to take landscape or portrait photographs.
A remote camera trigger
You would use the remote camera trigger to trigger your shutter without you touching the camera (avoiding camera shake), and to control the exposure time (ranging from a couple of seconds to a couple of hours) You can use as well an Intervalometer.
Ensure that you take along a good flashlight and headlamp. You will require the headlamp to see where you are going and to see the back of the camera when setting up. The lamp will as well be used to perform focusing your camera at low-light conditions.
Extra Batteries
Always take extra batteries with you, as taking photos over a long time period will drain your owner, and it will be a pity if you have to stop shooting because you do not have enough power with you. (No – red bull will not give your camera extra power :-))
Extra Memory Cards
Always take along an extra memory card. Especially if you shoot in RAW mode. Raw mode always eats up a lot of storage space, so it is better to have extra memory cards in your repository.
To have something to sit-on during the process
You would require a lot of patience capturing the perfect City Lights shot


Composing your photo

Mount your camera as well on the tri-pod and take a test photograph or two to ensure that you got your desired composition correct. Ensure that you place your tri-pod as well on a solid surface – which will ensure that your photograph comes out very sharp. Another tip is to connect a 2 litre water bottle to the bottom of your tri-pod (there is usually a hook onto where you can connect the water bottle) this will assist your tri-pod to become more stable. Connect as well your cable release, as this will ensure that there is no camera movement when you activate your shutter. Camera movement will cause your photos to display blurry, no matter how well you focus on your landscape and stars.

Make sure that you include the horizon or just the City Lights in your photo – thus think about what you want to photograph, and frame it then correctly.

Composition is one of the most important parts of shooting any type of photograph, and thus plans your photograph, and this will make the difference between a good photo and an awesome photograph.


This section will provide you with the technique for setting up (usually in a hurry or very fast) to photograph the City Lights

The following steps show you how to get ready:
1.       Connect your camera to your Tri-Pod
2.       Remove your camera-strap (the wind may cause the camera strap to move and thus have an negative effect on your camera)
3.       Connect your cable release to your camera
4.       Set your camera to M- Manual mode
5.       Set your camera to continuous shooting

TIP: If you’ve forgotten your remote trigger or cable release then you can do one of three things:
1.       Put your finger on the shutter for one hour – ouch
2.       Take an elastic band and an eraser (rubber) and rig the eraser on top of the shutter button
3.       Take masking tape and a small round rock and rig it on top of the shutter button
These solutions are not elegant but it works.

Check as we how you mounted your camera onto the Tri-Pod. You may need to change batteries during your photography session, and if the tri-pod mount is situated in front of the battery door then you will have to move the camera’s direction, and trust be you will never get the exact same direction of your camera again.

NOTE: When you mount your camera onto the tri-pod mount, then leave space open for you to open the battery door. 


The next step is one of the most important parts: how to focus onto the night time scene. It is important to take the time to focus your photographs to pinpoint clarity, and it is one of the few times where you cannot rely on your camera’s autofocus system. Your camera’s auto focus system will not be able to focus on the City Lights – due to the speed of the City Lights.

Follow the following steps to focus on the scene for City Lights:
1.    If you have a UV filter fitted to your lens then remove it,
2.    Set your lens to MF (there are two options AF (Auto Focus) and MF (Manual Focus)),
3.    If your lens has image stabilization, then switch it off (the reason for this is: in the evening your lenses will constantly try to stabilize due to the low light conditions, and may soften your sharpness of your image),
4.    If your lens has the infinity symbol on the focus ring, (∞) then set move the focus to there. But if your lens do not have this setting then do not stress, just continue to the next step,
5.    Switch your camera’s live view on,
6.    Put a light source (your flashlight) approximately 7 meters in front of the camera,
7.    Point your camera to the light source,
8.    Zoom your lens out to the minimum (widest field e.g. 18mm) ,
9.    Turn your focus ring until you can see the stars with pinpoint accuracy,
10. Do not touch your lens again,
11. Point your camera to the City Lights and re-frame
Once you’ve achieved the perfect focus, and then lock your focus on your lens (another flip button on your lens. This will ensure that you have perfect focus for the whole evening’s photos. 

Note: For more information please refer to the following article:

Camera Settings


The following guide will make it easier for you to get to the right setting for your camera, but you must always take test shots with different settings until you are happy with the outcome of your photo.

The three primary settings you should use is the ISO, Aperture and shutter speed. ISO, Aperture and shutter speed combination will determine the amount of light that gets captured, and it is essential that you get the combination right.

Some settings considerations:

Live View: Switch off the Live View functionality, as this will reduce your battery power.

Noise Reduction: Turn ON your camera’s Long Exposure Reduction setting (consult your camera manual to do this).
Metering Mode: I always set my camera to spot metering for City Lights shots, due to the amount of light emanating from the City Lights. Make always sure that you take your light metering on the City Lights, and then re-frame the shot according to your own criteria.

Primary Settings to set

White Balance: I would suggest setting your camera’s white balance to Auto White Balance, as this will give you flexibility if you want to edit your photo later on.

Aperture: I would recommend using a wide aperture range to increase the depth of field – from f/5 to f/7.1. I would first suggest using an aperture of f/5 and working your way slowly to f/11.

Shutter Speed: Set the shutter speed to 10 seconds if you see the scene is too bright then decrease the amount of time.

ISO: Set your camera to a low ISO (100) – depending on your light. The low ISO will compensate for the white of the City Lights, and would allow as well for lower noise levels.

Exposure notes: If you like controlling your camera’s settings then set your camera to M (Manual), but if you are not so confident then set your camera to TV (Time priority) and play around with your shutter speed. If your camera is in TV mode then it would allow you to change the ISO as well, thus I would suggest reading the next sections as well. If your camera is in M (Manual) then this will provide you with greater flexibility to set the right conditions to your favour. 

Taking a Test Photo

It is always important to take a test shot first to see if your composition and settings are correct. Thus click away and take your first photograph. When you completed review the photo and see if you have the correct composition and exposure in your photograph. If you are not happy then play around with the aperture, and move the ISO a little bit up to 400 and play around with shutter speed until you have the desired effect.

In playback make sure that all the City Lights shots have pinpoint accuracy. If they are not very sharp then re-focus your lens until the ultimate sharpness can be obtained. If your photo is sharp then sit back and admire your first photograph. 

Taking the photographs

Star taking your photographs, and make sure that you constantly check the focusing and framing of your photograph.


That is it in a nutshell!
As always please feel free to comment on the article.

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