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How to Get the Best Exposures for Detailed Cityscape Images

How to Get the Best Exposures for Detailed Cityscape Images

The world is filled with so many wonderful views to photograph. In almost any corner of the globe, there are always outdoor scenes to be discovered and photographed to be shared with the world. That’s one of the many joys of being a photographer. 

There’s a vast variety of scenes to be photographed in both rural and urban settings. Of course, photographing landscapes at a natural location has very different dynamics compared to photographing urban scenes. Though techniques can be quite similar, the challenges to be overcome and the elements to work with can be quite different. 

Shooting cityscapes is a very dynamic process. As you begin to shoot during the daytime, the city and the details around it are relatively backlit compared to the sky. The blue skies, the clouds being blown by the wind, and the sun that casts a constantly changing quality of light, all come together to infuse movement and life into your still images. 

As the sun sets, it casts warm light onto nearby clouds that create vibrant environmental wonders. The moment the sun dips below the horizon, the light environment continues to change as it transitions to the blue hour and the city begins to glow. As all the changes in the environment happen in half an hour or so, a diverse collection of images can be taken to embody the busy life of a city.

Every few minutes, the light changes, the movements change pace, and the challenges of shooting also vary. For a novice photographer who may be shooting the scene, the goal is often to shoot at the right moment when the brightness of the sky almost matches the luminosity of the cityscape. Being able to do so would lead to very detailed images with vibrant colors.

However, for a more experienced urban landscape photographer, each one of the different states of the changing landscape can offer crucial ingredients for a masterfully done image and this intent-driven creative process can often be very rewarding. 

The charm of photographing cityscapes always comes from the ever-changing light. With that, the challenges of shooting bright urban scenes almost entirely come from the limitations of the camera when it comes to dynamic range. The goal of executing well-exposed urban landscape scenes is to be able to manage and properly capture high dynamic range situations. 

Dynamic range is the range of visible light present in the scene. Most simply, this is the spectrum of light in a given scene that ranges from the darkest black to the brightest white. Dynamic range is affected by a multitude of factors. Some scenes have a very narrow dynamic range which ultimately produces rather flat images. 

Some scenes are very dynamically lit and have a very wide dynamic range that goes beyond what the cameras can record in a single frame. What makes dynamic and contrast-rich images, no matter what genre of photography, is a proper balance of bright and dark elements in a frame and being able to produce an image that captures the entire dynamic range of a scene thereby preserving and rendering the details well. 

There are various ways to achieve balanced exposures in landscape and cityscape photography. The simplest way is to wait for the right moment during the blue hour. 

Depending on where you are in the world, there is a specific amount of time when the brightness of the sun’s afterglow in the sky (the light it casts onto the sky even if it has dipped below the horizon) reaches a point of balance in the luminance of the foreground or this case, the cityscape. 

This may last as short as 10 minutes and as long as an hour depending on how geographically close you are to the earth’s equator. In places near the equator, the “blue hour” is just a very brief 10 minutes and the chances of getting that perfect timing to shoot becomes slimmer. 

Another way to achieve balanced exposures is with the use of filters. While solid neutral density filters are used to slow down the shutter speed to do long exposures, graduated neutral density filters are used to reduce the amount of light on one end of the frame. By placing the darker part of the GND filter on the brighter (often upper) part of the frame, you can virtually reduce or compress the scene’s dynamic range to one that can be perceived and recorded by the camera’s sensor. 

There are various kinds of Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters with different edges. Hard-edged GND filters have a very drastic change in density in the middle of the filter. Hard-edge GNDs are mostly applicable for scenes where no visual elements are crossing the horizon because the filter’s effect would be obvious and unnatural because of the change in the luminosity of that particular object. 

For locations where objects are crossing from the foreground and beyond the horizon, Soft-edged GND filters are more suitable. These filters have highly subtle graduation or change in density making it less apparent on the scene. 

A more advanced way to achieve balanced exposures is a method called exposure bracketing. Exposure bracketing is done by capturing multiple images with different levels of exposure (and different exposure settings.) These consecutive exposures have to be done exactly from the same angle so it is imperative to shoot on a tripod. 

The different exposures can be 1/3 to 2 stops of light (EV) apart and can be done with 2 up to 7 consecutive exposures depending on the need and the overall dynamic range of the scene. By doing this, you would have at least one exposure where the darkest part of the frame is bright enough to be detailed, and at least one exposure where the brightest part of the frame is dim enough to be detailed as well. 

In post-processing, these different exposures and their best-captured details can be combined into one single frame either manually or through an automated process using a variety of available post-processing applications. 

Perhaps the more tedious process to achieve such balanced exposures is a method that involves capturing exposures of the same frame minutes or even hours apart. This method is popularly called “Time blending” which was coined and popularized by the renowned landscape and travel photographer, Elia Locardi

This method aims to capture the best lighting for each crucial section of the frame. Typically, one exposure would be to get the best lighting for the cityscape or the details of the buildings, another exposure to get the most dynamic lighting for the sky, and possibly a few more exposures for specific parts of the foreground. 

This gives the resulting image not just more dynamically lit details but also gives the photographer room to shape the light to complement the composition. Through a well-planned and thoroughly executed manual blending process, the photographer can definitely achieve the most picturesque portrayal of the location possible. 

How to shoot using exposure bracketing with the MIOPS Smart+ 

The MIOPS Smart+ camera trigger is a feature-filled smart device and a very capable device for all photographers across many different genres. For a landscape or cityscape photographer, the MIOPS Smart+ has a lot of features that can make the shooting process automated and much more efficient. 

The Smart+ is the perfect tool for long exposure photography, night photography, time-lapse photography, lightning photography, and as well as capturing high dynamic range situations. This app-controlled camera remote shutter has a dedicated HDR mode that gives you full control of an automated shooting process that would be perfect for exposure blending shot with multiple bracketed exposures. 

With the Smart+ connected to your camera via the designated cable, set your camera to bulb mode to allow the trigger to take full control of the shutter speed. Determine your base exposure EV and set it as your “Center” exposure. This exposure will be in the middle of the sequence and properly setting that will give you a better range of images that would capture the most detail in the scene. 

Next, set your EV interval. A bigger EV interval generally captures a broader range of exposures and with a camera that has a good dynamic range rating, this should lead to a better selection of photos to extract the most details possible no matter how harshly lit the scene is. You can then choose between 3, 5, or 7 frames for each sequence. 

Shooting more frames would of course give you more photos and exposures to choose from. You can also set a particular time interval for up to 5 seconds per exposure. 

With the newly released MIOPS Flex, you can take this automated process a step further. The all-new MIOPS Flex is an app-controlled remote camera trigger that can totally speed up your creative process without having to transfer your files to a computer for post-processing. The Flex is capable of combining your multiple exposures for you through the app and show you a preview of your output in a matter of seconds. 

The MIOPS Flex can also help you capture very dynamic time-lapse videos that adapt to the most drastic changes in lighting and environmental conditions. Just like its HDR function, this device can give you a “Preview on the go” and allow you to preview your time-lapse clips on the app without having to move your files to a computer. 

The Flex also pushes through the limits of your lightning photography. The most effective way to capture lightning strikes is through MIOPS’ sensor-driven lighting mode that triggers the camera right as the lightning strikes. 

This feature was first introduced through the revolutionary MIOPS Smart+ camera trigger. With the MIOPS Flex, you can now combine and stitch together all of your exposures to assemble one very dramatic lightning storm scene on the mobile app itself. 

Photographing nature photography, landscape, and cityscape photography can be both challenging and rewarding. Being able to manage the limitations of what your camera can capture allows you to break through the limits of your creative process as well. 

The best and most remarkable images in the world are those that show unique perspectives and those that breakthrough technical challenges and that is exactly what our photography gear should be doing for us.  

Blog and Image Credits: Nicco Valenzuela

Nicco started his photographic journey in 2007 practicing the craft as a hobby. Currently, he shoots for various local and international architectural firms and construction companies. Out of his love for sharing his knowledge, Nicco began writing about photography and various pieces of gear.