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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

One Location, Two Looks: Abstract Nightscapes – Tranquillity vs. Vibrancy

Cityscapes are a common choice for a nightscape photograph subject, but this means it is also difficult to add variation to your shots. That being said, it is still possible to produce images that leave a significantly different impression by changing the technique you use to shoot the photos, while using the same lens and the same location. In this article, I will introduce two techniques, one of which will result in a quietly beautiful, tranquil-looking shot and the other, in a shot that pulses with energy and exuberance. (Reported by: Kazuo Nakahara)


Achieving tranquility: Create a calm, dreamy atmosphere by turning the nightscape into a sea of bokeh circles

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 105mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 10 sec., EV-0.7)/ ISO 400/ WB: Tungsten light

In the example above, I set focus on the wire fencing in front of me and ventured to blur the nightscape, which is the main subject. When capturing two subjects that are located far away from each other, it is important to consider the balance between them. One way to do so is to adjust the lens focal length. 

Using a longer telephoto focal length creates a stronger compression effect, which makes the background appear larger relative to the wire fencing. Without adjusting the focal length, you might not be able to achieve the right balance as desired simply by altering the distance between the camera and the fence.

Also, the main subject may not be identifiable if it turns out too blurry, so it is recommended that you find an appropriate aperture value that gives you the right amount of bokeh effect. As the optimal aperture value varies with the distance from the camera to the wire fencing, fine-tune the aperture value after you have fixed the composition, and check the result to determine which f-number to use.

Point 1: Set focus on the wire fencing

Make use of manual focusing (MF) as the focus may fall on the background if AF is used. Here, the surrounding was dark and the wire fencing was not clearly visible through the viewfinder, so I used the Live View function for focusing. Note also that focus cannot be achieved if you move too close to the fence.


Point 2: Capture the Ferris wheel within a single frame of the fence

I adjusted the size of both the fence and the Ferris wheel by altering the focal length as well as the distance from the camera to the fence so that the Ferris wheel can be captured within a single frame of the wire fencing. Here, I selected a focal length of 105mm to make the background appear closer to the camera.


Point 3: Pay attention to the size of the bokeh effect

It is important not to lower the f-number excessively, as that may lead the objects in the background to become so defocused that they become completely unrecognizable as a result. Adjust the aperture value while you are shooting to find the right amount of bokeh. In this example, the effect was most ideal at f/8 with the objects in the background remaining identifiable.





Vibes of vibrance: Move your lens to make your nightscape pulse with excitement 

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 105mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/4, 2 sec., EV-0.3)/ ISO 50/ WB: Tungsten light

The second technique is one that adds zest and energy to the nightscape by combining the zoom burst (also known as zoom blur) and focus blur techniques. The subjects look like they're pulsing with life, but since they are actually stationary, this technique achieves the desired effect through manipulation of the camera instead.

Zoom burst is a way to produce light trails by zooming the lens while the shutter is open. You can use it to create a dynamic effect as if the subject were moving toward the camera. 
Meanwhile, focus blur is a method of blurring the focus gradually by turning the focusing ring during exposure. It can also be used to take artistic photographs of fireworks

As combining the zoom burst and focus blur techniques requires you to use both your hands in order to control the zoom ring and focusing ring at the same time, a tripod is a must-have. To release the shutter, you could use the 2-second self-timer. 

Settings wise, a smaller f-number is recommended for a more noticeable effect, but you might not have time to adjust the zoom ring and focusing ring if the shutter speed is too fast. In this case, you can lower the ISO speed to maintain the shutter speed at the desired level. You can also consider using an ND filter depending on the scene.

Point 1: The centre composition is most effective for the zoom burst effect

The light trails always converge toward the centre when applying the zoom burst effect, thus it will be most effective to adopt a centre composition that places the subject at the centre of the image. In this example, the Ferris wheel, which is the main subject, is positioned at the centre.


Point 2: Set the shutter speed to 2 seconds

A shutter speed of approximately 2 to 3 seconds is desirable to allow time for controlling the zoom ring and focusing ring. As I had already chosen a small f-number to create a large bokeh effect, I lowered the ISO speed to ISO 50 in order to secure a shutter speed of 2 seconds.


Point 3: Control both zoom and focus at the same time

To obtain the effect as illustrated in the example above, establish focus on the subject. Release the shutter. Then, use one hand to turn the zoom ring toward the telephoto end and, simultaneously with your other hand, turn the focusing ring toward the camera. You can also turn the rings in the opposite direction to change the resulting effect.


Zoom burst and focus blur effects

The following examples show the resulting images when the zoom burst and focus blur effects are applied separately. When combined, you will get an effect as illustrated in the example above.

Zoom burst


Focus blur



Kazuo Nakahara

Born in Hokkaido in 1982, Nakahara turned to photography after working at a chemical manufacturing company. He majored in photography at the Vantan Design Institute and is a lecturer for photography workshops and seminars, in addition to working in commercial photography. He is also a representative of the photography information website studio9.



Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.

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