5 mins

Bright lights, big city: 5 after-dark photography tips

Renowned night-time photographer Lukasz Palka shares his top tips for capturing incredible shots after the sun goes down...

Tokyo Tower glows in Japan (Lukasz Palka)

Big cities often serve up an almost endless expanse of concrete, skyscrapers and neon. Consequently, trying to sum up what makes them distinct in a single shot can be daunting for photographers, especially after dark and in a city like Tokyo, which doesn’t have a clearly defined skyline.

I wanted to make an image that portrayed the dreamlike chaos of Japan’s capital. I took the above shot during the aptly named ‘blue hour’, which takes place just after sunset, when the golden light is gone but the upper atmosphere is still illuminated by the sun’s rays. In these conditions, the city’s lights are on but the sky is still a deep indigo, which made for a good contrast with the orange glowing beacon of Tokyo Tower.

The blue hour doesn’t last long, so versatile gear is a must. I only brought one lens and one body, to ensure I wasted no time with kit. I also arrived early, so that I could shoot as the light changed, using a low ISO and smaller aperture but with a longer exposure time, to capture as much detail as possible.

1: Get there early

Reach your planned shooting location early, when the sun is still well away from the horizon. For this shot, I waited for hours, and as the sun went down, the light kept changing, so I took photos constantly and didn’t leave until the night set in.

2: Don't only go to the famous spots

Most big cities are filled with skyscrapers, which mean plenty of viewing points and observation decks – some of them are even free. But the most popular ones are not necessarily the best. I did my research and chose the lesser-known Mori Tower, located in the heart of the city, because it had good access to the rooftop, which allowed for a view unobstructed by glass.

3: Prepare to improvise

I wanted to shoot this at f/8 and ISO 100 – this would give a crystal-clear image but would require a tripod for a longer exposure. However, the place I shot from didn’t allow for tripods, so I improvised. To get around this, I braced my camera against the railing, so that I could get a two-second exposure in the low light.

4: Don't stick with just one focal length

Just because it’s a cityscape doesn’t mean you must shoot it at 14mm. I tried many different focal lengths for this shot. It’s tempting to try to squeeze everything in or completely fill the frame with your subject, but it’s important to experiment and try many focal lengths. A good zoom or telephoto lens is invaluable for this.

5: Never give up

The day I took this photo, the weather was bad. I’d planned to get a nice sunset over Tokyo and hoped for the sky to clear. The break in the clouds never came but my opportunity arose when the overcast sky began to glow blue. That’s when I focused on photographing Tokyo Tower, set against the indigo haze of the sky.

Top Tip: It’s best to explore a city on foot. Whether you’re up high, capturing skylines, or down low, shooting street scenes, wandering is often when you discover moments of magic.

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