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Photography: How to shoot a cityscape at night

Duncan Longden, the photographer of our Singapore feature for the June issue, explains how he got this shot of the cityscape at night

Photography: How to shoot a cityscape at night
Marina Bay at night, Singapore. Photography: Duncan Longden

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Shutter speed: 1/13
Aperture: F4.5
ISO: 5000

Marina Bay is a modern, well-known part of Singapore that’s popular for a 13-minute light show every evening, best viewed by the waterside. As I had to include the bay area as part of my assignment, the challenge was to capture a fresh image. On the list of places to shoot from was CÉ LA VI, a bar that’s elevated above the SkyPark Observation Deck of Marina Sands Bay. I knew there’d be some great lines from the lasers cutting across the darkness of the water in the bay, but one thing I hadn’t accounted for was my tripod being taken off me on entry to the bar.

I had my favourite travel camera with me — my Fujifilm X-E2 — which I love for being small, light and robust. It also has a Fuji X-Trans sensor that not only renders skin tones beautifully, but also saturates colour with Velvia film simulation. When it comes to shooting in low light and high ISO, it really takes the conditions in its stride. As the camera is small, I can usually find somewhere to prop it in place and keep it steady, even at longer exposures.

For this shot, I found myself in a busy bar with a limited area to position myself, no tripod and tricky lighting conditions. To combat this I’d researched timing for the light show, gained sharp elbows and I’d brought a brilliant tool for the job, my camera.

Although my shots of the harbour may all look similar, they’re quite different in exposure and settings. I made one with a slower shutter speed to allow more light and colour into the frame. With these settings, it wasn’t the easiest shot to make handheld, but I practised using different techniques, controlling my breathing and wedging into anything around me that could help me hold steady. For this one, however, I needed to use a fast exposure to capture the lasers, and keep everything sharp and defined. With the Fujifilm, I’m not concerned with image noise (a grainy effect) at a high ISO, so I set it to 5000.

I was high up and a long way off from most of the elements in the shot so the f­stop didn’t need to be high — a setting of f4.5 was more than enough. These settings, combined, gave me a shutter speed of 1/13th of a second, so quick enough to freeze the lasers, expose the city lights correctly but have a little blur in the fountain.

We always talk about composition, and this for me is the most important aspect of making a good photograph. There are rules that should be learnt, but they can also be broken. Essentially, the aim is to keep the viewer’s eye moving around inside the image, and draw attention to the subject you want; it’s about controlling the experience of looking at and taking in the image. With this image, I wanted to use the lasers to extend the lines from the roof of the building, leading you into the image, and then the skyline to guide your eye back around.

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Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine