Shooting through the light at dusk for great cityscapes


The photo above is one I took in San Francisco when I travelled there from Vancouver for a few days of photography.  To me it is a quintessential San Francisco photograph, with the Golden Gate Bridge behind fog to the left, the Transamerica Pyramid front and centre, and Coit Tower and Alcatraz Island in the background.  I love cityscapes at dusk when the mixed light hits and the falling light in the sky mixes with the city lights as they come on.

I knew I wanted to get a photograph like this when I was planning this trip.  I had seen this view of San Francisco on a previous trip and knew it would be perfect.

In The Traveling Photographer, David Hobby talks about how one of the key differences between an amateur and a pro is whether or not they plan out their shot before they take it.   I had my location planned out, but what I did need to do was figure out what time I needed to be on deck to take this photograph.  Mixed light comes quickly and only lasts for a few minutes.  Shoot too early and you might get a great sky, but dark buildings that have no lights on.  Shoot too late and your buildings look great, but the sky is all black with no detail.

To help determine the best time for my shoot I used the following website:

Entering my location of choice showed me that in San Francisco, on the day this image was taken, sunset was at 6:45pm.

I now had my location, a correct time, and knew I would be shooting this image with my Fuji X100s and my Fuji Travel Kit:


When shooting images like this it is important to remember that the sensors in our cameras don’t see light like our eyes do (our eyes can actually process a far wider range of light).  This means that there is actually only a small window of time where the falling ambient light will be balanced with the city lights as they come on.

The important thing to do is get set up and shoot right through the changes.  It happens fast, and before you know it your light will be gone.  Let’s look at a series of images where I did just that.

Note:  I shot these images through large glass windows, hence the reflections.  In these situations it helps to get your lens right up to the glass, and bring some dark cloth to drape around your lens to kill the reflections.


6:37pm:     Handheld at     ISO 200     f/11     1/20th

So here we are about 8 minutes before sunset.  If you look at the Transamerica Pyramid you can see the last rays of sunlight reflecting off of the edge of the building.  This will give us a good starting point for our discussions.


6:45pm:     handheld at     ISO 200      f/11      1/8th

Here we are about 8 minutes later.  The sun has gone down and we are left with pretty much the last light of the day.  The changes are very subtle to the eye, but you can see from the shutter speed it is about a stop darker already, the colours in the clouds are changing, and you can start to see lights coming on here and there.


6:55pm:     Handheld at     ISO 200     f/8     1/8th

10 minutes post sunset and things are really starting to change.  I have opened up from f/11 to f/8 as it is already another stop darker.  The colour in the sky is much more prominent.  The buildings themselves are quite dark now, but the lights are coming up.  We are getting close!  Note that only 18 minutes have elapsed since the first photo was taken, and things are going to change very fast now.


7:01pm:     ISO 400     f/8     1/4th

6 minutes later, and two stops darker already.  The colours in the sky are beautiful, and the lights are coming up.  The sweet spot will be when the light balances between the sky and those lights.   I think this was my last shot before moving to a tripod.


7:06pm:     ISO 200     f/9     2.5 seconds

We are SO close now!  Darker still by two stops or so, but the sky and lights are balancing and the colours are great.  Almost there!


7:10pm:     ISO 400     f/11     5 seconds

To my eye this was the sweet spot, and occured 25 minutes after sunset.  There is great balance between the sky and the lights, and there is still detail in the shadow areas of the buildings.  Compare this picture to the one just 4 minutes earlier and you can see how many more lights have come on.


7:18pm:     Handheld     ISO 1600     f/8     1 second

Just 8 minutes later the light starts to get ugly again.  To my eye the sky looks fabulous, but the contrast between the sky and the dark buildings is very pronounced now.

I was actually getting ready to pack up at this point, and shot this one and the next one handheld just for the purposes of this post.


This one was taken at 7:33pm, less than one hour after we started.  This is when you put your camera down and just enjoy the view with your eyes.

Here is the final image again, with a little post production love.  It is the photo from 7:10pm (about 25 minutes post sunset), with the reflections and glare removed and the shadows on the buildings lifted a little bit.


You don’t need a lot of gear to make these images.  This was shot with a single focal length 35mm Fuji rangefinder and a small travel tripod.  As much as I LOVE camera gear, the camera is just the little box that records light.  The rest is up to the person pushing the shutter button; and, for photographs like this, it’s all about the right timing.

The same rules would apply to sunrise I’ve been told, but those who know me will attest to the fact that I am rarely awake for those.  🙂

6 thoughts on “Shooting through the light at dusk for great cityscapes

  1. albie Jones (Liverpool) says:

    Ian, chanced on the site by scoop it and have spent an enjoyable morning reading your posts. Not only did I like your San Fransisco photos but it’s good to get a good photographer who also is willing to share their methods. Apt that you credit Dave Hobby who always did the same. First class website that I’ll visit regularly, Thanks for taking the time really like your work.

    • Ian says:

      Many thanks for your kind comments! I love San Francisco, and give people like David Hobby and Zack Arias full credit for inspiring me… as I hope to with others one day.

  2. jaygren says:

    how did you find the location other than seeing similar shots? did you just start finding out which buildings were accessible or did you know exactly which building and what floor you could grab this shot from?

    • Ian says:

      I was familiar with this location from exploring on a previous visit, and I sent the hotel an email asking if I could take a photo from the top of their building.

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