Shooting cityscapes at night can produce gloriously evocative images, but there’s always a chance that they can just look like over-exposed mistakes, too, with their various light sources resembling little more that shapeless patches of light. With some clever exposure management and use of appropriate kit you can create much more meaningful images that contain optical starbursts and light trails.
Although you can buy a starburst filter, the easiest (and cheapest) way of creating these interesting highlight shapes, where rays of light appear to fan out around each light source, is to shoot at a small aperture, say ƒ/16 or smaller. The small aperture causes the light to flare at the point at which the iris blades in the lens meet, creating a distinctive “star” effect around point sources of light.
Usually, the number of “rays” formed for each star is equal to double the number of aperture blades in the lens, so if an aperture has six blades, there will be 12 rays. This technique doesn’t work with lenses that have rounded aperture blades, or when the difference in luminosity between the light source and the background is small, but it is very effective with manmade lights in night-time cityscapes.
As well as setting the aperture to produce starbursts, you can use the shutter speed to add creativity to your nocturnal city shots, in this instance by shooting with a slow shutter speed so you record light trails left by moving elements such as cars and other vehicles. Shutter speeds of several seconds work really well, and long exposures such as this are a natural pairing to the small aperture settings required for starburst effects.
Extreme Exposure is David Nightingale’s guide to unshackling your photography and refreshing your approach to picture-making by taking a more extreme view of exposure. It shows you how to get the most from your camera and exploit its full creative potential, how you can shoot images that are impossible to see with the naked eye and deal with difficult exposure situations, and provides you wish pages of inspiration.
Extreme Exposure, by David Nightingale
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This PDF version retains the styling of the original print book.
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