Note: This post is part three of a five part series on photographing Paris:
- Part 1 – The Beauty of Paris
- Part 2 – The People of Paris
- Part 3 – Paris at Night
- Part 4 – A Study of Notre Dame
- Part 5 – Shoot the Details
Paris is often called The City of Light or, in Fench, “La Ville Lumière”. Many people think this is related to the way the city is lit up at night, which could be partially true as Paris was one of the first cities to adopt gas lamp street lighting in the 1860s. Others say, however, that Paris is called The City of Light because it had a leading role in the Age of Enlightenment. Either way, Paris lit up at night is amazingly beautiful. I have long been a night-owl, and there are few things I love more than being in a city after the sun goes down. Cities change at night, and I was out on the streets every chance I could get in Paris.
The photo above was taken from Pont Alexandre III (a beautiful bridge) looking out towards the Eiffel Tower. This is one of my favourite pictures from Paris, and is a constant reminder of the magic I felt each evening I was there. Photos can be misleading, however. Paris is a busy city, the most visited in the world, and while this photo looks peaceful you can’t see the hundreds of people around us… many of whom I (and my lovely wife) had to ask repeatedly to move so I could get this shot. A photographer named David Allen Harvey once said “Don’t shoot what it looks, shoot what it feels like”. If you were on that bridge you would have been surrounded by people, but at the same time you get lost in the beauty of the city and it feels like you are the only one there. That is how I tried to shoot it.
Once the sun goes down the light changes quickly. Just a few minutes later there was no magenta left in the sky, and as I was leaving I shot this image of the bridge looking towards Les Invalides.
When shooting cityscapes and landscapes the trick to shooting at night is to shoot BEFORE it gets dark. I think having that rich blue in the sky looks so much better than a black abyss, and blue hour is when the colours are more pronounced and saturated. This blue light will only last for a short period of time after the sun goes down, so get to your location before sunset and shoot through the changes.
I spent an evening shooting atop Montparnasse Tower, a 59 floor tower that has an observation deck on the roof . My original plan was to shoot a sunset, but as I arrived and made my way to the top it clouded over unfortunately. While I didn’t get my sunset photo, I did have an amazing time looking down onto Paris through blue hour:
A quick note on Montparnasse Tower: They do allow tripods, however it gets VERY busy and you will be shoulder to shoulder with people. They have cut slits in the glass to shoot through, however, and if you rest your lens on these slits (and don’t drink a lot of coffee that day) you can actually handhold at quite slow shutter speeds up there.
You don’t have to stop shooting in Paris when blue hour is gone. The city streets are well lit, and even more beautiful at night than they are during the day:
Parisians, and of course the tourists that visit Paris, are night-owls too it seems. It was not uncommon to walk past cafes and pubs at 10pm, 11pm, or even midnight and see the patios packed:
And, never, ever let rain stop you from shooting at night. On the contrary, grab an umbrella and go out shooting because the reflections add so much to your photographs:
Paris has many iconic landmarks, and besides the Eiffel Tower perhaps none is more famous than the Arc de Triomphe which honours those who fought for France (and died) in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies beneath its vault.
This is a classic nighttime shot of the Arc. One of the beautiful thing about shooting in cities at night is that the long shutter speeds required for night photographs (shooting from a tripod of course) also allow you to capture car trails, which give a sense of motion and place to your photographs. This is particularly easy at the Arc as it sits along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, a busy boulevard in Paris.
It is a 284 step climb to the top of the Arc, but once you are on the top this is your view looking along the Champs-Elysées:
Tripods are not allowed on top of the Arc De Triomphe, so image stabilization and a steady hand are the name of the game here. As with your spot on the bridges to view the sunsets, and with the Montparnasse Tower, you need to get here early to ensure you get the view you want to shoot.
No evening of nighttime shooting in Paris would be complete without a shot of the famous Moulin Rouge:
The theatre is right at a busy intersection, and there are few good places available to put down a tripod and get the right viewing angle for a classic pic of the theatre. I ended up shooting this with my X100t, bracing it against a lamp pole to stabilize it during the long exposure.
Finally for this blog post, I’d like to leave you with this shot of the Eiffel Tower at night:
I truly believe that Paris is a city that needs to be experienced at night. It is more beautiful, more iconic, even more romantic when the lights come on and the sky darkens.
Use your senses if you stay out late, just like you should in any city. The tourist areas are very crowded, have a heavy police presence, and felt very safe. If you are concerned about taking the Metro at night just take a cab: All of the major tourist spots had a row of cabs lined up, and we found you could get anywhere for 10-15 Euros. This is also the beauty of traveling light with smaller cameras: Once you are done shooting, just put it away. Timing your day so you can shoot through sunset, into blue hour, and into the evening can be a little extra work, but your photos will be so much better for it. Just remember, after you are done shooting, to put your camera away and enjoy Paris with your eyes.