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How I take night photos in cities

Gdansk by night. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

PICSPIRATION SUNDAY: Night photography in cities is fascinating. Here are photos from Gdansk in Poland – and how I took them. 

My work in Schibsted Tech Polska brings me to Gdansk from time to time. It is a beautiful city with architecture in Hanseatic style.

Usually my work keeps me busy until late in the evening – and it is only after dark I have the chance to go out with my camera. But after dark can be very rewarding in cities, especially if they have beautiful skylines.

What I bring for night photography in Gdansk

Photography after dark implies long exposures – and that means I always have to bring two things with me:

  • A tripod
  • A remote trigger

At home in Norway I have a solid, but rather heavy tripod. During travels I prefer to bring a lighter one. My travel tripod is Slik Pro 624CF.  Because it is made of carbon, it is quite light, which is important when traveling as much as I do.

Remote trigger is necessary to avoid shaking the camera when pushing the shutter release. I use a cable and app from Triggertrap – with my iPhone as remote control. I am very satisfied with this solution.

Old ruins in Gdansk are lit in different colors. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Old ruins are lit in different colors. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

The Gdansk photos are taken using HDR

Followers of my photography know I like using HDR when taking landscape photos. But this technique is also very suitable for night photography in cities, in my experience.

Usually I use around four exposures or more. I have earlier explained how I use the camera´s bracketing function to get the different exposures.  In city night photography, as these photos from Gdansk, I do it a little differently. Because of the dark, exposures will sometimes have to be several minutes long. In a situation like that the only way is to do it manually.

I start by setting the ISO (as low as possible) and aperture (sometimes very low to get the star effect, see below). Instead of measuring or calculating light I just do a test shoot, let´s say with a 10 seconds exposure. I check on the histogram – and usually want the first exposure to be on the very dark side. It is very important that no hightlights are blown out on this low-end exposures.

When I have a basis dark exposure I take new exposures, each time doubling the exposure time all the way to no details are anymore completely dark – and the highlights are blown out.

The exposures are later merged using the software HDR Efex Pro. I do further adjustments in Lightroom, but only rarely use Photoshop for these kind of photos.

One big challenge in post-production is usually to find the best white balance, not the least because there are so many different light sources with varying color temperatures. This can take quite a bit tweaking, and sometimes I adjust only parts of the photo with Lightroom´s brush function.

Two important details in city night photography

Detail 1: Do you notice the star effect on the main photo in this article? To get these stars it is necessary to use as small aperture as possible. The main photo is taken with an aperture of f/22.

Detail 2: Be careful where you put your tripod. The ground has to be 100 % solid.  I have several times been surprised to find all my exposures blurry because the ground was not as stable as I thought. Bridges, for instance, will often move a little even if you don´t feel it.  Trams can also make the ground vibrate enough to destroy pictures. The best way to check on location is to zoom as much as possible in on the screen on the back of your camera to make sure details are sharp.

Other night photos from Gdansk

Below are some of my other night photos from Gdansk.

St. Mary´s church in Gdansk, taken from the window of the apartment hotel where I stayed. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

St. Mary´s church in Gdansk, taken from the window of the apartment hotel where I stayed. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

A variation of the main photo in this article. Taken on same night in Gdansk, but with a different angle and white balance. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

A variation of the main photo in this article. Taken on the same night, but with a different angle and white balance. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

The same area in Gdansk as the main photo in this article, but taken from the opposide side a few months earlier. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

The same area in Gdansk as the main photo in this article, but taken from the opposide side a few months earlier. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Winter photo from Gdansk. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Winter photo from Gdansk. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Night in Gdansk. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Night in Gdansk, taken from the window in my hotel, Holland House Residence. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Here is the location in Gdansk the main photo was taken from

About the author: Communications officer, journalist, author, digital strategist, photographer, traveller…and more.

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