How To Photograph City Lights

An abstract view of city lights in Melbourne, Australia.

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 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.

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.

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 just never know where such experimentation might lead you. Just think of the possibilities.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru