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Painting the City with Light and Long Exposure

City Lights and Long Exposure

Any city in the world is some form of organized chaos one way or another. The concrete jungle with its towering structures remain still as the whole world seemingly moves around it. While cityscapes always seem to be very lively and dynamic environments, it is actually the inhabitants of it and the natural elements around it that bring it to life. 


There is a particular challenge in photographing city life. This is specifically with the aim of capturing the life and dynamism of the city in single photographs that can only contain so much information. That is why compelling photographs of city life requires a bit of creativity to be able to encapsulate so much life into a single image. In this endeavor where street photography and landscape photography intersect, the common factor is being able be in sync with the urban environment, feel its rhythm, and anticipate the moments when dynamic interactions between the city and its inhabitants happen. 

City Buildings Long Exposure Photography

Long exposure plays a key role and brings forth so much value in photographing city life. There is an almost limitless collection of subjects and phenomena that happens within the city and with a sharp vision, they can be turned into the most compelling images that tell the story of the place and its people. Exposure techniques can be used to conceal identities of people in a photograph, to cover or remove clutter from the overall visual design, to illustrate the movement of people, the passing of time, the state of being constant amidst an ever changing environment, to illustrate life, big and small, within the bounds of the urban jungle. 

Essential Tools for Photographing City Life

Doing photography in the city can of course be done with any camera. From the simplest smartphones to the highest end gear, the biggest determinant will be the capability of the photographer to work with whatever they have. However, it is of course more beneficial to be using more capable and more versatile gear to deal with the demands of the envisioned photograph. 

Cameras and Lenses

Any camera can be used to photograph the city, however it is definitely more advantageous to use a camera with higher resolution and one with better low light capabilities. This simply benefits the photographer in being versatile with the final output and when they intend to produce prints. The choice of lenses will always depend on the exact scene being photographed. While wide angle lenses definitely have an edge in being able to capture more of the city from within its boundaries, there are instances when longer focal lengths become more beneficial specifically when the goal is to isolate certain portions of the view from the rest of the environment and juxtapose interacting elements. Overall, the most important attribute of a camera setup is how easy it would be to manipulate to be able to achieve specific shooting methods. 

Light Trials - Long Exposure Photography

Tripods and Clamps 

Tripods can sometimes be quite a chore to carry around but they always offer a lot more possibilities when you have them. Tripods can either hold the camera for you in situations where the shot calls for multiple exposures, or when you take long exposure to illustrate motion. Nonetheless, tripods should always ensure the stability needed to keep your shot stable and clear. The only thing that ruins artistic motion blur is unintended motion blur from camera shake. At the same time, the tripod should of course ensure that your camera will be secure especially when shooting from a significant height. 

Other tripod alternatives can definitely be useful. For one, portable tabletop tripods are definitely much better than having no tripod at all. While they are often limited in height, you can use tables, ledges, and other elevated platforms to attain certain levels. Good quality tabletop tripods often have considerable payload capacity despite their compact size and that is the crucial factor for them. On the other hand, mounting clamps can be very handy as well. Clamps are used to mount cameras onto railing and ledges that are often found on rooftops and balconies. Some clamps can be paired with tripod heads or articulating arms that will give you more flexibility. Good quality clamps such as those from Manfrotto can carry up to 15 kilograms of camera gear comfortably and allow you to photograph the city from unusual perspectives. 


Neutral density (ND) filters are also useful in photographing the city specifically when shooting during the day. ND filters are essential to be able to do long exposure effects when there is more than enough ambient light. Graduated neutral density (GND) filters can help you balance the exposure when the sky is much brighter than the city or when the city lights are making the sky too dark. Circular Polarizing filters (CPL) come in handy when there are reflections that you want to enhance, especially when it is a unique way of using symmetry, as well as when glare from reflective surfaces can get in the way. 

Camera Triggers

Remote triggers make shooting creatively much easier. Most of the time, the use of long exposure effects, as well as HDR and time-lapse workflows can become quite complicated with necessary adjustments and sequences. Camera triggers can help make these processes easier. Basic remotes can help you control the camera from a certain distance if necessary but more advanced triggers can be as helpful as doing the thinking for you in terms of exposure time, and automating the process entirely. 


The MIOPS Flex is one of the most capable smart camera remote triggers in the market. This device handles a wide range of tasks creating a fool proof shooting process no matter how many variables are at play. Paired with the MIOPS mobile app, the Flex can becomes a wireless tethered shooting device through its own remote live view and device control. It can aid in long exposure shooting from as simple as triggering the exposure remotely to avoid camera shake, to computing for the proper exposure time with ND filters. The Flex also has various time-lapse functions that can help you create seamless clips while adapting to the changing environment and light. It has lightning, sound, and laser sensors that can be used to trigger exposures automatically for photographing thunderstorms, fireworks, fast moving objects, and many more. These sensors can also be integrated with time-lapse shooting. Best of all, the MIOPS Flex has the capability to create real-time previews of your time-lapse or HDR output without having to open a computer. It then stores the output on its own micro-SD storage which also serves as a viable backup. 

Essential Gear

Slow Shutter and Motion Blur 

Slow shutter is done by taking exposures of about 0.5 to 4 seconds in length. During this period, motion of objects that are moving quickly across the frame is turned into a slight trail that can seem like a single brush stroke. This is commonly used in architectural photograph to use human elements for scale without putting a distinguishable person in the photograph. The same principle can be used for anonymity in street photography. At the same time it can be used for concealing clutter in any given urban scenario as long as there are moving visual elements that momentarily cover them in their path. 

Using motion blur may or may not require the use of a tripod depending on the length of the exposure and the feasibility of using image stabilization. Nonetheless, it can be done much easier on a steady platform, controlled with a remote trigger. With the MIOPS Flex, this can even be automated by using the laser sensor that will trigger the exposure once an object crosses its path. 

Long Exposure and Dynamism 

There are many things that long exposure can achieve when photographing the city. As the city remains a still structure, there is a multitude of moving objects around it that can create an ultimately dynamic photograph. Much like any outdoor scene the changing weather can do wonders with long exposure. Either by shooting at night or during the day with ND filters, fast moving clouds in the sky create appealing textures that can either contribute to the flow of the image as leading lines or create a background that will complement the view of the city. 

Aside from the sky, long exposure can also create dynamic patterns in the foreground. The most common and most obvious element of motion in cityscape photography are moving cars. The light trails created by moving cars on the road not only paint light but actually highlight the path of the road and when taken from the right angle, they create the most compelling leading lines that invite the viewers deeper into the city. 

Long Exposure Architecture Photography

The primary determinants of the length of exposure should be the length of the road that is visible in frame, and how long it takes for the cars to reach from one end to the other or from the corner of the frame to a vanishing point. With just enough traffic the light trails can be done in 10-15 seconds. However if there aren’t too many cars on the road then it could take a couple of minutes to have enough trails to fill the frame. 

The City and the Night Sky

In advantageous weather conditions with considerable visibility, it is possible to photograph the city with the night sky as the background. Because of light pollution, the result will not be as clear and vibrant as night time landscapes taken from rural areas but it doesn’t mean that the stars can’t be visible. By shooting consecutive long exposures on intervalometer/time-lapse mode, one can capture star trails created by the rotation of the earth and these trails automatically create direction in the background. Alternatively, the output of the same shooting process can be used to create a time-lapse that shows not just the movement of the stars in the sky but also the movement of the city’s inhabitants, the turning on and off of individual lights in the city, land and even air traffic. 

Long Exposure Night Sky

Photographing the city, whether during the day or at night is like painting with light. Your brush is the camera kept still on a tripod while you let your canvas be filled with motion brought by the passing of time. With your artistic vision and the proper use of tools, the possibilities are endless. 

Blog Credit: 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.


Guide to Capturing Best Long Exposure City Time lapses

a busy city at night

Nighttime-lapses stand out from other time-lapses as they combine multiple long exposure shots into a sequence that plays back as a video. The effects and motives are infinite as imagination itself. Most cameras, from mirrorless, DSLR's and even smartphones, can achieve these results as long as they allow you to set the exposure manually.


Most of the time, video cameras are limited, as they can't expose for extended intervals like photo cameras. Of course, a great solution is using external triggers such as MIOPS Smart, RemotePlus, or Mobile Dongle.

cars passing on the bridge by night

Best time for city time-lapses

Trails of light caused by cars passing by, bicycles, lighted buildings, or any urban structures lit by incandescent or fluorescent bulbs are the best scenarios to shoot. Any city will offer multiple options, but most important is choosing the ambient light to work. Shooting at night is the best because the contrast is more notable and dramatic.

It is recommended to do city time-lapses in winter because the sun sets earlier, providing a dark sky that is more suitable for capturing lighted motion. However, shooting in summer also has its advantages, providing different effects, such as working during the blue hour, which provides more fainted tones. During this time of the year, backgrounds are more full of life, like trees and bushes full of leaves, which can be more visually appealing. Also, combining day and nighttime-lapses can lead to interesting results. In the end, it all depends on the desired effect and the availability of time.


Consider shooting in raw

If you are an experimented photographer, it will be obvious that shooting in RAW is a must, but for a beginner who doesn't know the difference between using RAW and JPEG, it is important to acknowledge that saving nighttime-lapses in JPEG has a significant limitation. The main issue is, with JPEG files the dark parts of the image will be too underexposed, and the bright lights are often overexposed.  Raw photo sequences, which allows you to adjust exposure and contrast much better in post-production, reveal a lot more details that are otherwise lost in the shadows or highlights when saving them as JPEG files.

cars passing next to Allianz Arena at night

Resolution matters

As mentioned, even smartphones are capable of shooting time-lapses; however, the high resolution of the DSLR and mirrorless cameras allows you to crop and adjust the angle and position of the sequence even when creating a 4K video. Using keyframes, the time-lapse can be animated easily, making the shot look more interesting than leaving it static. That's where the Capsule Slider comes in handy. For example, you can animate a zoom or simply simulate a tracking shot.


Daytime-lapses are usually captured with a neutral density filter attached to the front of the lense. For nighttime-lapses, different filters can be very handy as well, for example, light pollution filters. These filters are designed to block out the wavelengths of light emitted by Sodium Vapor Lamps, the main cause of light pollution. A quality light pollution filter will allow the colors and light emitted by the subject to reach the camera sensor and block out the nasty brown glow of a washed-out sky. The design of the filter includes layers that block specific bandpass lines of the visible spectrum.

cars passing by arc de triumph at Paris

Other considerations

The aperture value (Av) refers to the lens opening's size, which determines how much light makes it through the lens. Since aperture values (or f-stops) are represented as fractions, smaller values provide a larger lens opening – and a larger lens opening means more light will pass through the lens. To shoot the night sky and its surroundings, it is highly recommended to use a lens with a maximum aperture value of at least f/2.8 if possible.

Slower shutter speed allows more light to reach the image sensor (great for night photography), and when shooting nightscapes, it is recommended to use a very slow shutter duration of between 20 and 30 seconds. Of course, further adjustments should be made according to the current circumstances.

When shooting still frames for time-lapse, it is important that the camera doesn't change focus every time it takes another picture, so it is important to switch to manual focus mode when shooting time-lapses. When shooting at night, achieving proper focus can be a challenge. Therefore, use the Live View zoom and magnify feature to make your subject larger and lock your focus properly.

This type of photography can lead to impressive results with patience and practice. As an example, and if considering the exposition time mentioned above for taking pictures every 30 seconds, it means that the camera will be shooting two frames every minute. If 180 pictures are needed, then the camera should run for 90 minutes.

cars passing by a pink lighted building

Related Article: What is the Easiest Way to Make Good Timelapse Videos?

About The Author Manuel Delgado:

Manuel Delgado is an award-winning photographer with a specialization in travel and documentary photography. He writes for Contrastly and is a Mentor for NGO Photographers Alliance, having led workshops in Africa with a focus on ethical and humanitarian photography. His work has been exhibited in Europe and the Americas.

Driven by an innate curiosity for his surroundings, Manuel´s process is mainly focused on capturing people in their natural environment; translating through his lens the subtle threads of daily life that are shared across cultures, borders, and races. Depicting people from diverse backgrounds, his work is united by a shared aesthetic that serves to tell each individual’s story. Manuel is currently living in Düsseldorf, Germany. 

Manuel Delgado Instagram Profile

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[faq q1="what is night time-lapse?" a1="Nighttime-lapses stand out from other time-lapses as they combine multiple long exposure shots into a sequence that plays back as a video." q2="what is the Best time for city time-lapses?" a2="Trails of light caused by cars passing by, bicycles, lighted buildings, or any urban structures lit by incandescent or fluorescent bulbs are the best scenarios to shoot." q3="which Filters should be used in time-lapse photography?" a3="Daytime-lapses are usually captured with a neutral density filter attached to the front of the lense."]