Best camera settings for night cityscapes and traffic trails

Even though there are sometimes street lights to help you see, it’s difficult to change settings on your camera when shooting cityscapes at night, so pre-setting as many as possible will make it much easier to get great shots

Things you can pre-set

Before you set off on a night shoot in the city you can pre-set many of the settings on your camera. The combination of dark shadows and bright highlights you’ll encounter means that it’s best to set your camera to manual exposure mode, as the automatic modes will struggle to get the correct exposure.

Once you have selected manual exposure you can set the shutter speed to around 30 secs and the aperture to f/8, and the ISO to 200. You might need to change these once you’re on location and can see exactly what light is available, but they are a good starting point for many night shots.

Because the main light sources at night are street lights, car headlamps and other artificial lights, you should set the white balance to the tungsten/incandescent pre-set.

You may need to tweak this when you process your images, so it’s also best to select RAW file format, as this gives you the option of altering the white balance on your computer later.

Finally, you should set focusing mode to manual and drive mode to single shot, and enable long exposure noise reduction in the shooting menu.

Settings to change on the day

Although you’ll be shooting at night, the lights of most city locations are just bright enough to focus manually successfully. With your camera on a tripod and fixed in position, you can use the viewfinder or switch to Live View and zoom in on any of the brighter lights to gauge sharpness more accurately.

After you have focused manually on the lights in your cityscape you’ll need to take a test shot to check the exposure. If you use the histogram display in these situations you will often find that the bulk of the graph is bunched to the left of the image.

This is fine, though, as it indicates that there are large areas of the image that are dark, not necessarily that the image is under-exposed. To check the overall exposure you should look at the right of the graph.

There should be a ‘tail’ that indicates the small amount of highlights in the image, and this should just reach the extreme right of the graph. If it doesn’t reach the end of the graph, the image is under-exposed, and you need to use a longer shutter speed or increase the ISO.

If it goes over the end of the graph there will be some detail lost in the highlights; this is fine for the ‘hotspots’ of very bright lights, but if the lights are really blown, you should use a faster shutter speed or reduce the ISO.

Typical camera settings for night cityscapes

File format
RAW

Exposure mode
Manual

Aperture
f/8

ISO
200

Shutter speed
30 secs

Focus mode
Manual

Drive mode
Single shot

White balance
Tunsten