Just like with most other forms of photography, light—or the quality of light—is the most important factor. For this reason I like to wait for the blue hour: the twilight period shortly after sunset or before sunrise. During this time the sky often changes to a vibrant blue colour before it gets too dark, or what we refer to as night. Unfortunately, the blue hour doesn't last long and takes place at slightly different times each day.
Recommended Gear for Cityscape Photography
5. Attach your camera to your tripod, ensuring the camera strap is not flapping in the wind (this may also cause an unsharp image).
With cityscapes in particular, it is important to level your camera both left and right and up and down, using either the level on the tripod or, if available, the electronic level in camera. If your camera is pointed too far up, city buildings will start leaning inwards and if aimed too far down, they will lean outwards.
6. I prefer to capture cityscapes in A or AV mode (Aperture Priority) where I set the aperture (f-stop or depth of field) typically between f8 and f16 and the camera automatically sets the shutter speed to achieve the correct exposure. As the night sky gets darker the shutter speed will get longer and longer.
For manual shooters, the process is much the same. Set your ISO to 100, aperture between f8 and f16 and use your exposure meter or histogram to set the shutter speed and achieve the correct exposure. As the sky gets darker and the city lights brighter, you manually adjust the shutter speed to maintain the correct exposure.
7. Since a tripod is being used and during blue hour there is usually still quite a bit of light, you can set the ISO to the lowest available value – usually 100 or 200 depending on your particular camera. I sometimes like to reduce the ISO to 50 if not using ND filters. This will allow you to achieve slightly longer shutter speeds to smooth out water or clouds earlier in the night.
8. I achieve the best exposure by exposing for the highlights: the bright city lights. You can do this easily by using your live view display or EVF (electronic viewfinder) and moving the focus area box over the brightest part of the frame. For advanced users, you can use the histogram to check for any spikes on the right-hand side. I may also use exposure compensation to adjust the exposure up or down slightly.
Lately, I’ve also been experimenting with the Sony Alpha ‘Highlight’ metering mode in combination with 1 or 2 stops of + exposure compensation.
9. For focusing, I like to keep things simple and don't worry about the often talked about hyperfocal distance or focusing 1/3 of the way into the frame. I simply change to manual focus and using the LCD or EVF (on mirrorless cameras), zoom in using the + button on the back of the camera to a city building near the back of the frame that has a well lit sign. Then I slowly turn the manual focus ring to achieve focus. As long as you don't adjust the focal length (zooming in and out) the correct focus will be maintained.
10. With all of the above set, it's now just a matter of capturing a frame with the perfect light – something that doesn't always happen, but remember, there is always another day.