Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Getting Timing and Exposure Right for Night shots of Buildings

Night shots of buildings with warm glowing room lights that contrast well with the deep blue of the sky not only presents a clear view of both the exterior and the interior of the building but also has the effect of inviting the viewer to the warmness of the interiors from the coldness outside.

Getting Timing and Exposure Right for Night shots of Buildings
 Night shots of Buildings

While day time view of a building could appear somewhat empty and lifeless, night shots represents a building that is completely functional; the view inside is also clearly visible as the details outside and this enlivens the structure. Skillfully executed night shots are often the most interesting of all architectural photographs; in this article we will discuss how to shoot the perfect night shot of any building.


Although they are called night shots, they are actually shots taken during dawn or dusk when the light levels outside matches well with that of interior lighting. Every day during dawn and dusk you will get a 20-30 minute window when the ambient light on the scene will be just right to retain surface detail of the building, the sky is light enough to contrast with the somewhat silhouetted outline of the building, and the interior lighting is showing through to record interiors in rich detail. The exact timing varies depending on many factors like the season, the geographic location of the building, exterior lighting of the building etc.

Technically the 30 minute time window is when the contrast levels of the dark and light areas in the scene fall within the limits of the dynamic range that the camera is able to record. Quality of light during dawn and dusk are almost the same, only difference is in the direction from which the ambient light will hit the subject. The bright glow produced by the rising sun will be in the east where are the bright glow produced by the setting sun will be in the west. So whether to shoot at dawn or dusk should be determined by considering the actual orientation of your building and the angle from which you decide to shoot it.

Generally it is not advisable to shoot your building with the rising or setting sun directly behind it as the bright glow in the sky will detract the viewers’ attention from your main subject that is the structure. When it is possible to choose either dawn or dusk for a shoot, it is recommended that you shoot at dusk. There are many reasons, first and foremost is the fact that during dusk you can clearly see the ambient light fading and the interior lights shining through. This gives you ample of time to bracket many exposures. But when shooting at dawn, in many cases by the time you realize that dawn has begun you may have already missed the perfect time to shoot the scene. The best technique is to start at dusk and keep shooting bracketed exposures till the sky goes completely dark. You will get many different variations of sky color, building tone and brightness levels of room lights to work with.

Determining the Right Exposure for Night Shots

When shooting architecture at dawn or dusk there are different things at play, ambient light levels are constantly changing and this changes the light ratio between the ambient and the interior (artificial) lights. In camera light meters will always suggest you an exposure that will render all subjects in the scene as a middle tone grey.  So if you go by the recommended settings you will most likely end up with exposures that have overexposed facades and underexposed interiors.

Our goal should be to get an exposure where the building appears dark (still retaining surface detail) while the light through the windows appear to glow brightly. Here we are talking about properly exposing a scene with a dynamic range of at-least 8 stops, which is beyond most cameras now are capable of producing. The most practical solution is to shoot bracketed exposures every 5 minutes or so from dusk to the point where either the sky goes completely dark or the interior lights appear to burn out losing detail. This will ensure that you have captured a full range of variable effects and gives you the option to either select the perfect image for any particular usage of combine some of the exposures later in post-production. 

Related Reading

  1. Architectural Photography Composition Tips Expanding the sky area with Rising Shift Movement
  2. Creative Architecture Photography Composition – Deliberately Tilting the Camera
  3. Architectural Photography Composition Tips - How to Photograph Long, Low Buildings
  4. How to Photograph Tall Buildings from Close Up
  5. Tips for Removing any Obstructions and to un-clutter the Front Elevation