Through the Gadling Lens: shooting cities at twilight

This week, I received the following rather detailed email from reader Jason:

I love your columns and have learned so much from them, thank you! I do have a couple of questions that I hope you may be able to help me with please. I am bouncing-off-the-walls excited to be traveling to New York City for my first (and likely only) visit next week. Unfortunately my only free time will be one late afternoon / evening in Midtown. I am most interested in capturing the details of well known landmarks, especially the art deco skyscrapers and Rockefeller Center, with what little natural sunlight I will have (i.e. low angle between full sunlight and when street lights start coming on with darkness), especially if clouds are present. I have my gorilla tripod already packed but expect the crowded sidewalks to make set-up difficult and time consuming and want to try and cover as much ground as possible. I have read and re-read your columns on night and cave photography and will be putting those tips to work of course, but wonder if there is anything more I can do to give myself a better chance at capturing the unique, but distant, details of these structures during twilight.

Secondly, can you tell me how to both achieve and avoid the “starburst” effect of individual lights at night while using a tripod, specifically skyscrapers at night (i.e. Empire State Building) and neon lights (i.e. Radio City Music Hall, Times Square). Is it more a function of aperture or exposure? I am practicing with available lights but the tallest building in my hometown is all of three stories and there’s not much neon to practice on unfortunately.

Thank you again for your kind reply and best wishes.

Well, Jason, congrats on your first trip to NYC! You’ve certainly given me some tough questions — I did a bit of research to try to answer them, and with a little help from the Gadling Flickr pool (not to mention a good friend), I thought I’d share what I came up with. Hope this helps, Jason.
So I started with Jason’s second question, mostly because I was interested in knowing the answer myself. I love images where streetlights show that amazing starburst, and I had no idea how to achieve it. So to find the answer, I instant-messaged my friend Josh, also known as Modern Day Gilligan, who is my personal photographer-idol:

me: Gilligan — you have a quick second?

Joshua: yeah!
:-) No worries!
Just culling through photos.
me: I just got a question from someone who reads my gadling lens posts.
and I have NO idea what to tell himJoshua: Fire away, maybe I can help.

Joshua:With the second question: Tip #1: Pull off any lens filters – especially your UV filter. Light entering the lens at odd angles has a tendancy to cause odd ghosting/flare on long exposures.
Joshua: Tip #2: To give that ‘starburst’ look, stop down your lens as far as you can. An f/4, f/5.6 simply will not be enough to give the desired effect. Start at f/8, f/9 and work your way up until you get exactly what you want.
Joshua: The starburst effect is caused by the blades of your aperture.
me: so you’re saying a smaller aperture would create the starburst?
me: right. so f, like, 16 would give you the starburst, and f 1.4 wouldn’t?
Joshua: Exactly, as the aperture tightens the blades will be visible in the light sources.

Clear as mud?

Okay, here’s a different way to look at it: you remember how aperture works, right? It controls the total amount of light that enters the camera (while the shutter controls how much of that entered light actually gets to the film, or sensor). The last time that we talked about apertures, it was mostly around “depth of field” — the larger the aperture number, the more detail you’ll see in the background. The smaller the aperture number, the less detail you’ll see in the background.

Well, the cool thing is that the same rule works with streetlights.

In other words, the larger the aperture number, the more detail you’ll see in the light — resulting in a lovely starburst. The smaller the aperture number, the less detail you’ll see in the streetlights, resulting in a fuzzy halo, or no starburst effect.

To test this, the other night, I decided to take a walk around my neighbourhood with my camera. I set my camera on “aperture control” — this allows me to play with the aperture, and the camera adjusts the shutter speed accordingly. I wasn’t trying to capture a beautiful shot, you understand — my neighbourhood isn’t exactly a tourist beauty spot — I just wanted to see if I could make the starburst happen.

Here are the results:

In this first shot, my aperture was set at 2.8 — a small number. Focusing on the streetlight to the left of the above image, you see that it looks just like a fuzzy light — nothing too spectacular.

But take a look at what happens when I set my aperture to a much larger number, 32:

See? That streetlight to the left now has a starburst. Like magic.

Now a couple of tips: you’re going to need a tripod — when you set your f-stop (aperture) to a high number, it actually means that less total light is going to go into the camera, so your shutter is going to want to stay open a long time, risking blur. Secondly, if you can adjust your “white balance” (which we talked about in this post here), then make sure you do — otherwise, the street lights will throw the colour of your image off (kind of like the images are, above).

And finally, for God’s sake, pick a prettier street than the one I picked.

Okay. Now back to your first question, about taking great shots in New York City, and “capturing unique but distant details of buildings in twilight”:

This is actually a much tougher question, because so much depends on where you’re going to be in New York City, what’s obstructing your view, and how close or far you might be to your subject. My best advice to you would be to go through the Gadling Flickr Pool (or the rest of Flickr, for that matter), and do a search for “New York City” and “twilight” or “nighttime” or “sundown” or “sunset” or the like, and see what turns up for inspiration. I always think it’s better not to go in with any set expectations about how I’m going to shoot a city, and instead just see what cool circumstances turn up (armed, of course, with lots of inspiration in my back pocket). And by the way, I have to tell you: as someone who has traveled quite a bit to New York City in the past, New York really does seem to come alive at dusk. They don’t call it the City That Never Sleeps for nothin’.

So, following my own advice, here are some of my favourites that I found:

Rush Hour. Since it’s a city that never sleeps, don’t be afraid of the crowd of people, embrace it! Capture the frenetic pace of the city by photographing the blur of rush hour. This shot, shared by nabil.s in Grand Central Station is a wonderful example:

Sundown. Rather than be too concerned about capturing the details of the buildings at sundown, consider instead capturing the mood of the city, as the light starts to filter through the streets, and the lights start to twinkle on. Two beautiful examples:

Sunset through the skyscrapers, shared by M_at:

and this beautiful shot of sunset from the top of Rockefeller Center, shared by morrissey:

Twilight. Twilight in the city is pretty magical, as you might imagine — particularly since that’s when all those fabulous lights start to come on. And of course, what better place to capture this than Times Square, as illustrated again by nabil.s (notice how the shot is taken from the perspective of looking up to the sky, rather than focusing on the lights):

Nighttime. Of course, at nighttime, it’s all about the lights. If you’re intent on capturing the details of the buildings, luckily, many of New York City’s buildings are illuminated at night to bring attention to them, as illustrated by this great shot shared by ohad* of the GM building:

But also, don’t forget that you can always go up — and shoot the wonderful nightlit NYC panorama, as morrissey did, here:

Silhouette. And finally, never underestimate the power of the silhouette. New York City has many beautiful parks that lend themselves to this sort of photography, and of course, when you’re talking about an iconic landmark like the Statue of Liberty, it’s really hard to take a bad shot — both concepts illustrated beautifully by swapnilbd and othernel, below:

So, Jason — I hope this all helps! More importantly, I hope you’ll come back and share what you shot. And for everyone else, as always, if you have any questions or additional comments, as always, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming
Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.