Getting started with nighttime long exposures

 In Architecture + Cityscapes, Photography Tips

I spent much of this week so far working on some long exposure techniques. I wanted to play around with some different angles and heights that wouldn’t always be accessible.

Lucky for me, I had access to a few rooftops from a client for one night, and Out of Chicago Conference instructor Michael Muraz was in town for a visit.

That’s where the fun began.


You’re going to need a few things for long exposures, that you might not pack for a normal shoot.

First, the basics. You’re going to need a tripod. I have a hefty carbon fiber Vanguard tripod that holds both my D750 and D800 with ease (even with battery packs on).

Secondly, you’re going to need a remote. For me, I use the Wireless Mobile Utility for my D750 on my iPhone. It’s super basic, but it gets the job done. Ideally, I’d have either a wireless or cord remote that I could hook up directly to my camera. If you don’t have a remote, you can play around with exposure delay mode as well.

Third, your camera gear. I always have my Tamron 15-30 and 24-70 lenses in my bag. I rarely shoot long exposures with a telephoto lens, though sometimes it might be necessary depending on your subject. You typically won’t need any ND filters or polarizers, because it’ll be dark when you’re shooting.

The technical stuff

There’s usually a sweet spot for the sharpest images from your camera — typically an aperture between f/8 and f/11. I played around with that range throughout the night, but was pleased most when my aperture was set to f/11.

For your shutter speed, this is more flexible. Take into account the amount of light that’s present. At the start of blue hour, you might be able to get a 2 or 3 second exposure. As the night wears on, you can increase this number. By the end of the night, I was doing a 4-minute exposure.

And of course there’s your ISO. Keep this low. The highest ISO I was at throughout the night was 200.

I strongly recommend shooting in manual focus mode. I usually start with auto focus, specifically focusing on the foreground of the image. Then I switch to manual focus. This way, you can keep your focused image without having to guess in the dark about how sharp your image is. And you can keep the exact same focus point throughout the duration of your shooting.

Finally, if your lens has vibration reduction, turn it off. That’s what your tripod is for!


What to look for

With long exposures, your emphasis should be thought out well in advance. If you don’t already know the location you’re going to be shooting, download Google Earth and check out all the different angles you’ll have access to. And if you can visit the location in advance, even without a camera, do so.

For me, I knew that on this rooftop, I wanted to capture city life. Car trails, stop lights, building lights, etc. In Chicago, this isn’t the most challenging in the world. In Grand Rapids on a Tuesday night…probably not the most ideal time to be shooting city life at night.

There was construction and a giant crane that was very visible from the rooftop. I didn’t want this in my shot. That meant I wanted to go a bit tighter, so I stuck to my 24-70 for that location.

Getting “the shot”

Sometimes you just have to get lucky.

Not even 10 minutes after making our way to the second rooftop of the night, I got “the shot.”

I was looking down on a 4-way intersection downtown, and there was a large museum that was glowing purple to the right side of my shot. A stop light was in the middle, cars were traveling every which way, and another building was lit to the left.

I exposed for the darker buildings, deciding to bracket my shot so I could get different exposures for the right side of my shot (with the museum).

I decided to go with a 3-second exposure. Not too long, but the cars and building lights were really providing a lot of light, and I wanted to capture the movement of the street more than anything.

Then I heard sirens, and saw flashing lights in the distance. This is that “being lucky” part I was talking about. I knew I needed to capture this — it’s rare to be where I was, photographing a long exposure, with emergency vehicles whizzing by.

I was bracketing, and two police cars whizzed by. I was able to capture them in two different shots. Along with a third “normal” shot of regular cars driving, I was able to layer the three photos on top of each other and apply masks in Photoshop to bring all the car lights into the scene.

By the way, car trails are awesome. But they’re even more awesome if the cars are turning left or right, and you can capture the curvature of their lights!

Obviously you don’t always have emergency vehicles speeding down the road. But you can still get some cool-looking car trails. And even if it’s a lighter-trafficked night, if you bracket, you can combine these images so it appears the street has more traffic than it actually does.


Other things to keep in mind

Later in the night we went down to the river and photographed the Blue Bridge with the city in the background. It’s probably one of the most photographed locations in West Michigan, and I had shot here several times prior.

This is when I brought out my wide angle, as I wanted to capture the entire bridge and the building to the right of it.

I also wanted to really have a slow shutter speed. I decided to go with a 4-minute shutter speed here, and really play around with freezing the water. I knew it would also enhance the shadows on the blue light reflections that were on the water. You’ll also see some minor star trails above the skyline.

Regardless of my settings though, I wanted to encapsulate my city as best as I could. The Blue Bridge was perfect for that, especially with the night city behind.

And the 4-minute exposure even got rid of those pesky Pokemon Go players!

Recommended Posts