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20 Oct 2013

Insomnia has returned to haunt me over the past few nights, and so I have been going out in wee hours for night photography - hopefully getting me tired enough to sleep.

I never had taken photographs of Singapore night cityscape. So I visited the Bay East Garden, first time ever since it was built. It was a big park, and too dark at night to appreciate the beautiful park (perhaps I should come back again during the day). However, I was thrilled by the excellent lighting of the cityscape view over the Kallang River although could have been better without a gloomy-looking sky.

I have prepared some tips as reference point for anyone new to long exposure night photography.

Survey the Environment Before Setting Up the Equipment

I typically do not jump to set up and take my shots when it comes to landscape or cityscape, cause they are not going to go away any moment. I would always walk around and survey the environment before deciding on the best spot for the composition that I want.

Essential Equipment/Accessories


Needless to say, tripod is the fundamental needed accessories for long exposure shot. If strong wind is expected (e.g. taking Hong Kong cityscape from The Peak), additional weights such as sand bags or a heavy bag, would be needed to weigh down and secure the tripod to prevent shakes of the camera caused by the strong wind that could ruin the long exposure shot.

Remote Trigger

Important to minimise shake caused by pressing the shutter release, and definitely essential if shooting on Bulb mode with exposure longer than 30 seconds. If a wired remote is used, the remote should have a trigger lock feature so that you don't have to press and hold the trigger for the amount exposure time exposed. For wireless remote trigger, it should have a timer release so that the amount of exposure time can be set.

Wide Angle Prime Lens (Preferred)

Prime lens are ideal for night landscape photography as they typically have lesser number optical elements within the lens to prevent potential lens flare caused by bright light source from street light and buildings. Wide angle lens (35mm or less) provide a greater field of view for your landscape - zoom lens can also be used but it means lesser field of view.


For long exposure shots, I always use the stop-watch function on my mobile phone as it it probably too dark to see the timer display on the camera itself. Even if the camera has a feature to light up the LCD panel display, it is recommended not to use it during exposure time, as pressing the button to activate the light may introduce shakes to the camera.

Settings on Camera

Turn On Long Exposure Noise Reduction and Use Low ISO

Long exposure can introduce quite a fair bit of noise to the pictures taken. Access the camera menu and settings to turn on long exposure noise reduction. Also, to counter the potential noise from long exposure, ISO should be set to the lowest (i.e. 100).

Use Bulb Mode with Remote Trigger

For long exposure shot, I typically use bulb mode to control the amount of exposure time that I require. In bulb mode, I always use a remote trigger as I do not want to have any potential shakes caused by the need to press on the shutter release on the camera.

Turn On Mirror Lockup and Use Self-Timer

Each time when the shutter is pressed, the camera will flip-up the mirror and open the shutter. The mirror flip-up action may cause unnecessary vibrations on the camera. So to reduce this, I always turn on mirror lockup for long exposure, and set my trigger on a 2 seconds self-timer release. This means that the moment the remote trigger is pressed, the mirror will be flipped up and after 2 secs, the shutter opens.

Note: Mirror lockup option can be accessed from the camera menu/settings option.

Shoot in RAW

I always shoot in RAW format as it allows me better control over my editing during post-processing. RAW allows greater non-destructive editing such as adjust white balance, sharpening and noise control, and to better recovery of images that could be over or under exposed.

Set Auto-White Balance (AWB) to Tungsten (~3200K)

Long exposure night shot of cityscape will typically turn out to be "orange" in color. This is caused by color cast of street and building lights. By setting the AWB to Tungsten (typically around 3200K), the lighting in the picture will look more "correct and normal". Although I can correct this in my RAW during post-processing, I still set it to Tungsten.

Use Small Aperture (i.e. Big F-Number)

Typically a small aperture starting from F11 or higher to maximize the depth of field (DOF) when photo-taking cityscape or landscape. Personally I do not encourage going beyond F20 as the sharpness of the picture may end up too "soft"due to severe diffraction of lights passing through too small an aperture.

Having said that, the primary consideration on the aperture to use should be how far the subject is. If the subject is really far-far-away (e.g. shooting a mountain), then it does not matter what aperture is used as the full depth-of-field can be achieved. There is also a need to consider hyperfocusing distance if there is a subject much nearer to you in the foreground that you want to capture it in the picture.

In this particular case, the cityscape buildings are probably about 1-2 km away from where I stand, separated by the Kallang River (i.e. no foreground object that I want in my picture) - so, I've used an aperture of F16-F20 for most of my shots.

Taking the Shot

Gauge Exposure Time by Using Aperture Priority (AP) Mode

It is often hard to gauge the right amount of gauge time needed for a long exposure, and there is no other better way then trial and error. However, I follow a particular method to narrow down to a suitable exposure time and do fine adjust from that point. The method is:
  • Switch to Aperture Priority (AP) Mode.
  • Adjust the ISO to the highest available on the camera (e.g. 6400). Just to note that ISO-6400 is 6-stops higher then the eventual ISO-100 that I will be taking (i.e. ISO Stops: 100-200-400-800-1600-3200-6400).
  • Look at the exposure time recommended by the camera using F20 at ISO-6400. Let's assume that the recommended exposure time is 2 seconds @ F20 and ISO-6400.
  • This means that to take the picture at ISO-100 using F20, I will need to increase the shutter speed by an equivalent of 6-stops. I do so by doubling the recommended 2 seconds for 6 times (or mathematically 2^6), which will give me a value of 128 seconds (i.e. 4s-8s-16s-32s-64s-128s).
  • Switch back to bulk mode, and set camera to ISO-100, F20 and take a test shot with exposure time of 128 seconds. 
  • Look at the test shot and adjust from there ...

Look at the Histogram of the Taken Picture

The taken picture that shows up in the LCD display can be very deceiving and I usually do not rely on it to check the exposure of the picture, except for checking the composition of the picture or zooming in to check details of the fine details/sharpness of the picture.

For exposure, I rely on the histogram of the picture to ensure that the graphs is not too clipped to the extreme left (i.e. under exposed) or extreme right (i.e. over-exposed). It is ideal to have some spread across the entire histogram so ask to allow more rooms for fine adjustments (e.g. recovering details, brightness control, etc.) during post-processing.

Watch the Horizon Line

It is important to watch the horizon line when composing the picture of a cityscape. As a guide, the horizon line should be on the lower half position of the picture if the picture has a dramatic sky. Whereas in my case, the reflection on the Kallang River is dramatic without much detail of the sky and thus the horizon should be positioned higher.

Watch out for Barrel Distortion

Barrel Distortion occurs typically in wide-angle lens where edges of the taken picture appears to be curved. This is particular obvious when taking landscape picture of buildings, where the buildings on extreme left and right appears to be leaning towards the centre of the picture.

Although these distortion can be (not always) corrected with image processing tool, it is always good to correct them as much as possible when the picture is taken simply by just tilting your camera to aim slightly higher/lower or avoid having tall buildings in the extreme edges of your picture.
Please visit to see the higher-resolution photos taken at Bay East Garden.

Safety Precautions

I did not find any shelters Bay East Garden. So if you are going there for photography, make sure that you have an umbrella or rain jacket that could prevent your camera equipments from getting drenched :)

Here is another of my favorite cityscape photo taken a few years back from The Peak in Hong Kong. If I could recall, the weather was freezing cold (~10 degree) at night under strong wind condition where I had to weigh down my tripod and spend an hour battling the coldness just to this one perfect shot.

I hope by sharing these tips, it could help you in taking better landscape and cityscape pictures.