Ten Tips For Shooting Night HDR in the City

Article by Chris Smith

Photographers usually get into HDR photography because they love to edit images. But before you get them to your computer, you need to properly capture your exposures. And that is especially true when you’re shooting HDR images at night. Here are ten tips for shooting night HDR images in the city.

1. Shoot enough brackets

HDR works well with night photography because the dynamic range of your scene can be extremely large. But shooting a set of automatic brackets may not give you all of the range that you need. I like to shoot my brackets in manual. Use live view or your histogram to be sure that your darkest exposure has detail in the highlights and your brightest image has detail in the shadows.

 2. Focus manually using live view

When there is very little light in a scene, your camera’s autofocus will struggle. I rarely use the viewfinder or autofocus at night. I use live view to compose, focus, and set exposure.

3. Shoot in RAW

White balance makes a huge difference in the feel of your final image. Shoot in RAW so that you can change it later.

4. Use a tripod and a cable release or 2-second delay

For any type of night photography you need to be using a quality tripod and a cable release. I don’t like things hanging off of my camera so I use the 2-second delay.

5. Buy the right lens

When choosing a lens for night photography, sharpness should be a priority. For night photography, how the lens handles flare may be just as important. Lens flare is one of the most difficult things to try to remove from an image.



6. Don’t use a filter

When shooting in the city at night, you will inevitably have streetlights in or near your frame. If you have a filter on your lens, that light can bounce around between your filter and lens and leave ghost images on your image. Leave your filters off to avoid this.

7. Use a lens hood

Lens hoods are meant to block light entering your lens from the edges of your frame. You might think that at night you wouldn’t need one. But when you have a bright light just out of your frame, it will cause flare as bad as the sun during the day.

 8. Clean your lens

Dust on your front element will scatter the light that hits it onto your sensor. This leads to what looks like falling snow in your image. Clean your front element before shooting at night.

Ghosts, flares, and snow may not completely ruin your image, but the HDR process will magnify these flaws.

9. Avoid streetlights

Avoid streetlights in the foreground. Even using HDR techniques, there will be no way to see any detail in that area of your picture.

10. Find the ideal ISO for your camera.

High ISO’s and long exposures both lead to noise. You need to find the best compromise of these two settings for your camera. At ISO 100, your exposures will suffer from long exposure noise. Shoot around ISO 400 to keep the shooting time and long exposure noise under control.

How many of these things do you do already? If you do all ten, I promise that your night HDR images will improve.

I love to shoot the city of Chicago, teach photography, and help other photographers shoot HDR and the city at my site, www.OutOfChicago.com. You can also follow me at Google+, Flickr, and Facebook.

  • Paul M

    Excellent article, but I do question #9. Shooting the city at night and there will usually be street lights. With enough exposures any lighting situation can be overcome.

    • Chris Smith

      Thanks, Paul. You’re right that there will be streetlights in most scenes. I should have explained myself better. You don’t want a streetlight right in front of your camera in the frame. Do you agree with that? Even taking more than 14 brackets, I have struggled making the shot look good in this situation. I’ll post an image when I get to my computer that shows you what I mean.

      • Paul M

        Aahh, explaining that its the position of the light rather than the light itself. I agree with the light being in a bad position will result in a large flare that is hard to fix. Having a lens hood is the best defence against up close street lights.

  • Jason Mordecai

    One comment is i find it hard to overcome noise in my images at night and have to use Lr or processing to remove this. #9 of these I use already but haven’t tried HDR in the night only nightscapes. My question is why not use a filter if screwed on properly? it removes the color cast from the street lights i’ve found…

  • ThePeopleofDetroit

    Good article. One quibble:

    “At ISO 100, your exposures will suffer from long exposure noise. Shoot around ISO 400 to keep the shooting time and long exposure noise under control.”

    Not if you enable Long Exposure Noise Reduction.

  • http://frankalexanderphotography.com Frank Silva

    Thank you for the great article! Do you use software to combine your bracketed images, or do you use a tool such as Photoshop and manually mask/blend the images?

    Also, when you’re bracketing your photos using fully manual mode, I’m assuming that you’re only adjusting shutter speed and leaving aperture the same?

  • http://www.nozumjam.com John Nozum

    Interesting article! Here are some of MY tips that I found. First of all, I need to use at least 4 or so different exposures. Around 5-6 seem to be recommended from my own experimentation. Also, Adobe Photo Elements does nicely on this, using PhotoMerge and then exposure. I think Adobe Photo Elements runs around $75 (US dollars). It doesn’t break the bank. Also, TIGHTEN your tripod to help prevent movement in between exposures. If things are not real good here, you may notice a light colored or white line at one or more sides of your resulting photo. Of course, this can be cropped out, if necessary.

    From John Nozum