Night Photography Workflow Part I – Shooting City Lights

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Night photography offers some wonderful possibilities, and with ever-improving digital cameras, it’s becoming ever more popular.  You can pretty much find the basics on any photography website, but there’s lots of issues that you can run into that aren’t discussed.  So, I’m writing down my process – the problems I run into, and the steps i take to solve those problems.  And of course, I will update as I run into new, unforeseen problems. 

I’ll start with shooting city lights, which requires more pre-planning than I previously thought.  As in the film industry, shooting the city at night is often about shooting so that you have options during the post production process. 

Camera Settings

These are my usual settings – same as for everyone else, and for good reasons.  

  • ISO – usually 100, because i want as little noise as possible
  • Aperture – f/8 or higher.  This is for several reasons.  First, you want as much in focus as possible, so f/8 or higher will do the trick.  Second, at lower f-stops, bright lights will turn into messy blobs of light.  At f/8 or above, lights will be a much prettier star shape
  • Shooting mode – aperture priority.  Once the ISO and aperture are set, I let the camera tell me the time.  For most city scenes, the time required at these settings is less than 30s, the usual maximum bulb setting for most cameras.  If the time required is greater than 30 seconds, you’ll need an intervalometer or, if you’re out in the field without one, then you can increase the ISO and accept some more noise.  


  • Focus – I often look for text to focus on – the name of a building, text on a sign.  I focus and then go to manual.  Sometimes, I will use auto focus, but i know it’s not best.  
  • Bracketing – often, I will bracket +/- 1-2 stops.  There’s lots of good reasons for this.  
    • With bracketed shots, I have the option of HDR processing.  
    • Also, what looks like the right exposure on your camera monitor at night might not be the right one on a computer screen afterwards.
    • Often, one part of a scene might be best at one exposure, while another part of the scene would be best at another exposure 
  • Framing – often, it’s best to shoot wider than your final framing and then crop in post.  While this seems obvious, I often find that my first framing and composition is not my best.  


So let’s get to the heart of the matter, the problems that can come up when shooting city lights.  

Reflections in the Camera  

Any time you’re shooting into light, you can run into this problem.  This might be caused, at least in part, by my UV filter (duh!), so I will have to test this on my next shoot.  

This is the ceiling of the baptistery in St. Andrew’s Church, Pasadena.  As you can see, shooting into the light causes reflections, and there’s no real way to avoid shooting into the light.  In this case, I was lucky – I was able to darken the reflections and eliminate the reflections, but this was more luck than solution.  

This is a night scene of the theaters on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles.  As you can see, the far lights aren’t a problem, but the lights close to the camera are bright and causing reflections on both the right and left sides of the frame.  In this case, the reflections are too much for my taste.  

Blown Out Signs and Text

Part of what makes a night scene interesting is recognizeable signs or text – kinda like when we look at a great view and say, “there’s that building, and you can see the sign!”  So I prefer to keep known signs recognizable.  Here’s and example from a downtown Los Angeles shoot.  You’ll see that the Bank of America and Citi signs are clear, but the Paul Hastings sign, which is white, is blown out and not recognizable.  If I try to paste the Paul Hastings text from a darker photo, that doesn’t work because the area around the text – the glow – remains.  I find the glow difficult to remove; it always seems clear to me that the area has been patched.  

So what to do?  Here’s my current working solution to this problem.  

  • I bracket, probably +2 and -2 stops.  
  • I take a photo where the Paul Hastings sign is clear, probably the -2 stops shot (and in fact, an even darker shot, say -3 stops, might be necessary) and block out the Paul Hastings sign.  
  • Then, I raise the exposure 2 stops so that the darker photo now matches the main, 0 stop photo. 
  • Next, i paste the recognizable Paul Hastings text onto this photo.  I now have recognizable text without the glow.
  • Finally, I place these two layers on top of my base photo – the 0 stop photo, create a mask, and paint in the Paul Hastings text and the area around the text.  


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