Instant Inspiration (10) – Nocturnal Skyline

Hide and Seek
Hide and Seek | Hong Kong | 2 sec @ f/3.5 and ISO 100

The perfect way to start into February  is with Episode 10 of my Instant Inspirations (links to previous editions at the end of this post). Today I talk a bit about photographing nocturnal skylines and want to provide you with some inspirations to give your skyline photography some fresh angles, which of course would be also valid for shooting skylines during the day. To find out more about how you can bring some new life into your city skylines continue reading after the jump….

I’m quite sure most of you have already taken photos of skylines when visiting foreign cities, maybe even of the city you live in. Many of this shots feature, well, the skyline. While it looks impressive when you see it with your own eyes, on a photo where you lack the 3rd dimension this is often much less impressive. Due to the fact that a skyline is much wider than it is high these photos are often graced with plenty of empty sky above or uninspiring foreground below the actual skyline.

To avoid this you can shoot a panorama (will do an extra “Instant Inspiration” on that) or crop away the uninteresting top and bottom parts, although, depending on the resolution of your camera, there might not be enough left to create a satisfying print of it.

Sea of Lights
Sea of Lights | Hong Kong | 1/3 sec @ f/2.8 and ISO 200


Skyline shots taken during the day often look dull because mostly you look at a collection of mostly grey or silver buildings that often lack texture. Things improve when you have interesting clouds in the sky or if you shoot in the hour after sunrise or before sunset, then the shadows and contrasts can provide the necessary depth in the photo. But with upcoming darkness a cityscape really comes to life when the buildings are illuminated by a million of sparkling lights. Add some clouds above or water in the foreground below, both reflecting the lights of the cityscape, and your are set for some spectacular images.

Red Storm
Red Storm | Hong Kong | 1/8 sec @ F/2.8 and ISO 400

What also can contribute significantly to an eye-catching shot of a skyline is adding foreground interest that also contextually adds to the cityscape your shooting. Examples I included here are the bright red sails of the Chinese Junk “Aqua Luna” that cruises Hong Kong Harbor as well as the oversized Olympic Torch of the Summer Olympics in China in 2008. You can also play with blurring moving parts of the foreground scenery by using long exposure, to create effects like the ghostly blurred “Aqua Luna” in the top image of this post.

Fiery Night
Fiery Night | Hong Kong | 1/20 sec @ F/2.8 and ISO 1250


Nightline | Hong Kong | 1/25 sec @ f/2.8 and ISO 800

Especially when you have a brightly lit mega city skyline and a well-lit foreground you can get away shooting handheld, considering the anti-shake technology included in most modern cameras. The photo above out of the Star Ferry I took handheld as well as the one with the Olympic torch in the foreground, although I needed to increase the ISO a bit on both. For the other three photos above I put my camera on my Gorillapod travel tripod. If you don’t want to carry a (even small) tripod, you can also use a beanbag to support your camera. I like to travel light (this is why I switched to mirrorless anyway), so I don’t carry a big tripod and rather use on of the smaller support solutions mentioned above.

I hope you enjoyed these inspirations about shooting a nocturnal skyline. So next time you visit a megacity take your camera and look for a sparkling night photograph. Or just head out and try to take an image of your own city or village under the lights. Give it a try. Share your results by providing links to it in the comment section.

Go out and have fun with your photography!


Related Posts:

Instant Inspiration (I) – Get Down Low

Instant Inspiration (2) – Motion Blur

Instant Inspiration (3) – Silhouettes

Instant Inspiration (4) – Juxtaposition

Instant Inspiration (5) – Puddle Shooting

Instant Inspiration (6) – Storefront Windows

Instant Inspiration (7) – ICM

Instant Inspiration (8) -Make a portrait of a stranger

Instant Inspiration (9) – Concert Photography

37 thoughts on “Instant Inspiration (10) – Nocturnal Skyline

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  1. The idea with the bean bag… I have to try it out! Brilliant! And I was looking for a solution for ages because I cannot get a good and small tripod here where I live in an affordable price. Thank you!

    1. Glad you found it helpful, Carmen! I use it also a lot when traveling. If I have to save weight, I leave the filling at home and just buy some beans or rice or whatever in a supermarket at my destination and fill it in my beanbag. Works like a charm and is nearly free. Marcus

  2. These are gorgeous! I use a Canon EOS Rebel T3… (it’s old but it’s my baby)… but I’m pretty sure that it couldn’t take these quality photos at night. I’ve tried many times with different settings and failed. What kind of camera do you use?

    1. Thanks, Justine 🙂 ! Now I should primarily with Olympus mirrorless cams, those skyline photos of Hong Kong I took with a Canon Powershot G11. I’m absolutely sure you’re Rebel T3 is more than capable of producing similar results. These night time shots in Portland I took with my Olympus. The tramway station on Pill Hill is a great place to take the cam up and practice nighttime cityscape photography. Tripod is a prerequisite though.

  3. I like adding foreground because it makes the photos much more unique. A photo of a skyline has been done a million times – and you should still do it to have one for yourself – but adding the foreground element like a boat, person, object, makes it yours.

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. Wow great photos and I love that you tell the settings so we can try the same shots where we live. I have to say I’m sooo envious of your travels too! One day…. 😀

  5. Wow. These are amazing. Really makes me want a better camera. 😉 So awesome Marcus. Thanks for sharing! I love the red sails and the fiery night. Great tips!

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