How to Photograph City Lights

City lights from Altona Beach, Melbourne, Australia

City lights from Altona Beach, Melbourne, Australia

City Lights, Altona Beach, 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 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. 2-dimensional). A different approach was required.

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 de-focuses 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 shutter release is tripped. The shape of the blur evident in the above photo was achieved with my old Canon 85mm f1.2 L series lens at a working aperture of f5.6.

Morphing Reality into Abstraction

So, 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.

So whether the rendering of this scene reminds you of a fantasy world, a drunken night on the town, a migraine or some kind of heightened spiritual experience the point is that it works to draw you away from reality towards experience, even if it be prompted by a past memory. I hope you enjoy the photograph and that it motivates you to try working with a subject, technique, style or approach that's a little bit out of the ordinary every now and again. You never know where such experimentation might lead you. Just think of the possibilities. How good is that!

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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru