Some people love the recent explosion of light in downtown Dallas. Some people hate it – it isn’t likely to matter. Some buildings are adorned with subtle white crowns, others bright stripes and other flashy designs. One of the most prominent is the Omni Hotel which is covered in LEDS which constantly change colors, textures throughout the evening. The recent trend appears to have begun with the completion of the One Arts Plaza and Hunt Oil Tower in 2007 and touched public consciousness with the more extravagant Omni with its myriad of Vegas style LED stripes. Meanwhile, such venerable buildings as the Chase Bank and Thanksgiving Tower have added color highlights. And Reunion Tower, which for 30-some years twinkled with white light, has been conducting color tests.
Dallas has gone through such periods before. Elm Street during the ’20s and ’30s, had a row of theaters there that really showed off the power of neon. Office buildings have also sported light through the decades.
The Pegasus sign, outlined in red neon, dominated the Magnolia building beginning in the 1930s. The Republic office towers had a beacon at the tip of its idealized rocket ship in the 1960s; The Nations Bank Plaza (now the Bank of America building) was outlined in green neon soon after its completion in 1986. Its neighbor, the older Renaissance Tower, got its signature crisscross lighting during a remake a year later. But such buildings remained the exception in a largely darkened downtown. The lighting itself was usually an incidental feature. What is new is not just the recent proliferation of lighting, but designs that are increasingly bold and colorful. The trend has been driven by the development of light-emitting diodes as a decorative light source. Although more expensive than incandescent or neon lighting, LED is far brighter, more programmable, more energy-efficient and longer-lasting.
Here are some tips for shooting Cityscapes at night:
Some Preparations: If possible, scout the location in advance during the day keeping an eye open for traffic patterns (light trails at night) and good vantage points. Make sure you are familiar with your camera and its operation as you will likely be making adjustments in the dark – bring a small LED flashlight with you so you can look at your controls and setup. Any camera that allows manual operation and focusing will be fine. Having a stable support such as a tripod is essential. Using a remote shutter release trigger is a lot easier than using the cameras self timer – touching the camera can cause vibrations which will cause the image to blur. In some more advanced DSLRs, one can also use the Mirror Up setting, which locks the mirror in its open position in front of the sensor as the movement of the mirror itself can cause vibrations. Also, make sure you have a spare set of batteries – nothing more frustrating than running out of power once you have found the best location and composed your shot!
Your Camera: Set your camera to Manual Mode, turn off out focus if possible and image stabilization. Set your camera’s ISO to its lowest setting in order to get the finest “grain”. If possible, shoot in camera RAW format (or NEFF for Nikon users). This allows you to make important exposure and white balance adjustments later. JPG is a compressive format and severely limits what can be done later once to shoot is over. The RAW files may be large, but today, memory is cheap. Start with a shutter speed of 10 seconds and aperture of f8 and check the image after the shot and make adjustments by looking at the Histogram (if you can) or just eyeball the exposure. If your camera can shoot brackets (several shots with varying exposures) do so – night lighting is tricky and sometimes even the farthest light can result in blown out highlights.
Tricks: If there are interesting moving lights like cars, use a slower shutter speed to capture a nice blur, and adjust the aperture for correct exposure. Tail lights of cars paint a nice image without blown out highlights that you will get from bright headlights. You can also use your LED flashlight to “paint” objects in the foreground with light. When the shutter is open, just shine your light on whatever the object is – experiment and shoot a few frames. If you have a portable flash with you, you can “pop” this off at any object or close by scene to light it up. Be creative – run into the scene yourself and pop the flash on yourself or your assistant or perhaps some subtle lighting with the LED flashlight. Multiple images are easy, just move, pop, move, pop when the shutter is open. Experimentation is the key and discovery of what worked and did not when looking at the results later is half the fun. Always be safe and if at all possible, shoot with a Buddy, especially in some sketchy urban locations… and have fun. As you practice this technique you will refine your images and be surprised by what is possible shooting at night – it is magic!