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When we talk about cityscape photography, one of the most basic and trademark shots is the full skyline; the artificial horizon, made of buildings and towers jutting up and down into the sky above. Skylines can be jagged and coarse, or faint and smooth, often depending on the nature of the city itself.
Follow these tips for better skyline photography:
To find the city, escape it. One surefire way to capture a city skyline is to leave the city itself. If it’s sitting on a river, hop across; if it’s in a valley, climb the mountain outside. There are terrific vantage points outside cities, like hills, islands and boats, but all will involve a fair bit of travel time and some physical stamina to keep moving until you find a wide enough angle.
Take, for example, downtown Los Angeles: to capture this magnificent skyline, most photographers would hike up a nearby hill or visit the Griffith Observatory until they find a good angle. If you want to include major sites, you’ll need to go even farther: take a boat down to the islands south of Toronto, and you’ll find a clear shot of the CN Tower amid one of the world’s most recognizable downtown skylines. You’ll have to venture to uncommon places to find these angles.
Finding the right focus can be difficult with the city miles away, especially in low light. In LiveView mode, use the LCD screen to zoom in on the corner of a building, and then manually focus until it is crisp.
This will help ensure that your skyline comes out crisp, and not fuzzy with the autofocus guessing game.
Skylines can light up right after the golden hour, in what’s known as the Blue Hour, that short moment in twilight when the sky is still blue, but the city lights have already turned on. Shooting in pitch-blackness is harder to get good results, and not as visually stimulating, assuming you’re keeping your shot in color. Blue Hour will give your skyline a hearty azure backdrop, and make your image that much more interesting.
For skylines and cityscapes, focal lengths between 12mm-35mm are a good bet. It’s not a necessity, but you will appreciate the wide angle more often than not. This will allow you to capture a nice skyline without having to be miles outside the city.
If you want a deeper depth of field, you’ll need a narrower aperture, something like f/11 – f/16, which will create a consistently detailed image.
Typically, when capturing cities and landscapes, deeper depths of field is more desirable, so every detail of the frame appears in focus. This calls for a narrow aperture, or high f-stop.
Sometimes even with a wide angle lens skylines are too long to fit in one photo, that’s when you’ll find a perfect opportunity to try capturing it as a panorama.
A panorama is where you take multiple photos in a row with overlapping edges, then stitch them together to make a single image. Naturally, this shot is wider than most, long and narrow, it can capture a full skyline, bypassing adding in too much excess sky or ground.
Just after sundown, I usually try and take five bracketed shot sequences in cities; the variety of light, between the bright street lights and the cooling sky, makes for a full palette of color and light that should be captured as accurately as possible. By capturing all these exposure levels you can ensure you are capturing all the light in the scene. You can choose which is best later or combine them with HDR processing techniques.
Later into the evening, as shutter speeds get longer, I usually condense that to just three bracketed shots because of time. Sometimes even single exposures can do the trick, if I’m spending too long on a shot.
If you set your 2-second self-timer, and use a DSLR with exposure bracketing features – you can click the shutter and the camera will fire off all the shots without you needing to hold it, which risks blur from shaky hands (very useful on a cold rooftop).
Hope these tips have been helpful getting you started, have fun out there!
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