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How To Photograph City Lights

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Have you ever tried to photograph city lights? There are many ways to do so, not all of which are obvious.

This post explores an interesting (in camera) approach that will allow you to photograph city lights in a way that produces a very impressionistic result.

City Lights Abstraction, Melbourne, Australia

The City of Melbourne, like most cities, is a beautiful place with vast opportunities for the enthusiastic photographer.

Yet, sometimes, to make photographs of familiar and frequently photographed places we need to approach the scene, whether that’s through technique or composition, in an unconventional manner.

This photo of the Melbourne skyline, made from Altona Beach, provides a case in point and an example I think you'll enjoy exploring.

It was a cool summer's evening and quite windy. I made the above photo with the smell of approaching rain in the air.

As night had well and truly fallen I needed an exposure of 6 seconds at ISO 200 to make the photo.

I realized that an exposure of that length would blur the fast moving clouds that the wind was pushing across the sky.

I also realized that, at this distance, the city was going to look quite flat (i.e., two dimensional). A different approach was required.


Defocusing An Image | The Technique

I decided to switch my lens onto manual focus and turn it as far away from the infinity distance setting as possible.

This technique defocuses the image to such an extent that the city lights blur into a range of colors.

The shape of those colors is controlled by the shape formed by the aperture blades within the lens after the camera’s shutter release is tripped.

The shape of the blur evident in the above photo was achieved with my old Canon 85 mm f/1.2 L series lens at a working aperture of f/5.6.

If I’d made the image at the substantially wider aperture of f/1.2 the shape of the out of focus highlights would have been rounder.


Morphing Reality Into Abstraction

While the image includes enough visual clues to tell us that we're looking at a de-focused view of the city skyline at night, hopefully the photo may also suggest when and why such a scene might appear the way it does.

And I don't just mean the technique used to make the photo. I refer here to the kind of blurred vision one might expect to experience when disoriented by whatever means, fair or foul.

Here’s a few possibilities:

  • a fantasy world
  • a drunken night on the town
  • a migraine
  • a heightened spiritual experience

For this photo to work, as an abstract image, it needs to draw you away from reality towards experience, even if it’s been prompted by a past memory.

I hope you enjoy the photograph and that it motivates you, every now and again, to try working with a subject, technique, style or approach that's a little bit out of the ordinary.

You just never know where such experimentation might lead you.

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