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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Architectural Photography #4: Photographing Buildings at Night

Buildings lit up at night make for an especially appealing subject to photograph. In the final article of this series, we look at how to take photographs of buildings at night. (Photos by: Takeshi Akaogi, Edited by: Etica)

EOS 6D / EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 24mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/40 sec)/ ISO 10000/ WB: Auto
Location: Tokyo Station (Marunouchi Exit), Tokyo


Basics of nightscape photography

Having covered the basic concepts of architectural photography, using wide-angle/telephoto focal lengths, and effective composition techniques in the previous lessons, this lesson looks at the basics of photographing buildings at night.

There are a few things you need to take note of when photographing at night:

- Shutter speed slows when you shoot in dark locations, which makes your images susceptible to camera shake
In dark locations, the shutter speed is slowed down due to the lack of light, so camera shake occurs more easily. To counter that, increase the ISO speed so that you can shoot at a high shutter speed even in low light, and hold your camera steady. These two points are critical when shooting at night.

- Increasing ISO speed tends to increase image noise 
If you want to take higher quality images, it is necessary to use a tripod or other means of securing the camera. If using a tripod, camera shake can still occur as a result of the impact of pressing the shutter, so I would recommend setting the self-timer to 2 seconds when taking shots.

- Your camera could overcompensate for bright light sources such as street lights and decorative lights, resulting in a dark image
When capturing sources such as street lights and decorative lights, your camera’s exposure meter could be fooled by the bright lights into thinking that the scene is much brighter than it really is. It will therefore overcompensate for the brightness, which may cause your photos to have a dark finish. Although it depends on the intensity of the light source and the distribution of the light within the frame, if you feel that your photos look too dark, try applying positive exposure compensation and taking the shot again. By doing that, the dazzling lights should stand out in your shot.

- In nightscapes, lights are attractive to the human eye. Use that to your advantage when you compose your shot
In nightscapes, our eyes are easily drawn to objects that emit light, such as street lights. It is a good idea to consider how to arrange such objects when you compose your image. In the example, I placed the street lights on the left and right edges of the image so that they formed a line of lights converging toward the centre, lending to the illusion of depth.


How to set the ISO speed

"ISO" button → Use touch operations or turn the dial to change the value. * Differs depending on camera model.


Get great shots without increasing the ISO speed

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 50mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/4, 1/50 sec)/ ISO 12800/ WB: Auto
Location: Tokyo Station (Marunouchi Exit), Tokyo


EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 59mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/4, 1.3 sec)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto
Location: Tokyo Station (Marunouchi Exit), Tokyo

Look at the 2 photos above. Notice that the one taken at ISO 12800 looks a bit grainier?

The higher the ISO speed, the more the the image noise. Newer cameras have increasingly better high ISO noise reduction capabilities, but it is still not yet possible to completely eliminate noise. For that reason, most photographers make it a point to shoot at the lowest ISO speed possible before noise sets in, often by tweaking other settings such as aperture and shutter speed.

Setting the ISO speed to a lower value will result in a slower shutter speed, which allows you to take clear images with minimal noise. If you secure the camera by mounting it on a tripod or stand, your shots will not be affected by camera shake even at slow shutter speeds. 


Use long exposure to capture light trails for a magical effect

Setting the shutter speed to an extremely slow speed, often in units of tens of seconds, is referred to as "long exposure". When exposing the sensor to light for a long period of time, the vehicles that pass by while the shutter is released are captured as light trails, creating a beautiful effect. When using long exposure, it is essential to secure your camera with a tripod so as to avoid camera shake.

For more tips on capturing light trails, read:
[Part 1] Standard Technique Using Light Trails

Or check out the following for more ideas on how to photograph nightscapes:
Camera FAQ #10: What is the optimal shutter speed for shooting nightscapes?

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 35mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/20, 30 sec)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto
Location: Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Marunouchi, Tokyo


Use White Balance to change the colour of nightscapes

The colour balance can significantly affect the impression of a photo. Warm colours give a feeling of warmth, while cool colours give a cool impression. The white balance function of the camera was originally used to faithfully express the colour of the subject irrespective of the light source. However, it can also be used to take images with a bluish colour if you set the colour temperature to a low setting (Tungsten light, etc.) or a reddish colour for a high setting (Cloudy, Shade, etc.). Using the white balance settings to change the colour tone of your photos can produce some interesting effects. This is applicable to any scene, so it is a technique that is not limited to just nightscape shooting.

If you are a newbie to white balance, learn about the basics here:
White Balance Basics to Achieve Your Desired Colour Tone!

More experienced users may be interested in finding out how to render colours with the White Balance Correction function.


Shooting with the White Balance set to "Tungsten light"

EOS 6D/ EF50mm f/1.4 USM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/5.6, 3.2 sec)/ ISO 1600/ WB: Tungsten light
Location: Inside Tokyo Midtown, Roppongi, Tokyo


Shooting with the White Balance set to "Cloudy"

EOS 6D/ EF50mm f/1.4 USM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/5.6, 3.2 sec)/ ISO 1600/ WB: Cloudy
Location: Inside Tokyo Midtown, Roppongi, Tokyo


How to set the White Balance

"WB" button → Select from preset modes such as "Daylight", "Cloudy", and "Tungsten light". * Differs depending on camera model.


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Etica Co., Ltd. not only run photography classes under the name “Tanoshii Camera School", but also edit publications and plan media and events related to cameras and photography, with a focus on themes related to child care, animals and food. Their motto is "Photos make people happy!" and they are engaged in communicating the charm of cameras and photography.

Takeshi Akaogi

Takeshi Akaogi

As a photographer, Akaogi works mainly for magazines and writes books introducing photography and practical tips. He also teaches at photography workshops.