If you’ve ever tried shooting a city landscape at night, you know how challenging it can be. Not only do you need a very steady hand or a tripod, you also have to deal with long exposures and tricky white balances. For aspiring travel photographer Dennis Li, he took on this challenge and created a series of arresting nighttime cityscapes from his hometowns of Chicago and NYC, and recent travels abroad. We sat down with Dennis to find out what inspires him about cityscapes and how we created these amazing images below.

Chicago: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/13), ISO (800)
Chicago #1: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/13), ISO (800)

What attracts you to shooting cityscapes at night?

I enjoy shooting cityscapes at night because the resulting photos are complex. I started exploring this theme last winter, when the short days gave me no choice but to shoot at night. Of course, being in a big city like Chicago, when the sky is pitch black the streets are ablaze with lights. The scenes I captured really intrigued me because of all the contrasts. For instance, the bitter cold meant the streets were often empty but the bright light radiating from the buildings as well as passing objects such as trains leaving trails suggests the presence of life. I love creating photos, especially travel photos, because it challenges me to try and encapsulate the essence of a place in just a few images.

Chicago #2: Shutter Speed (8 sec), Aperture (F/13), ISO (400)
Chicago #3: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/10), ISO (100)

As I traveled to warmer places, my work shifted away from empty streets simply because there were more people around. It is almost rhythmic, the way they moved around their city and so I became intrigued about trying to capture life when the sun goes down.

Bangkok: Shutter Speed (30 sec), Aperture (F/22), ISO (1250)

What’s your technique for getting amazing nighttime images with no camera shake and high noise?

The goal of a camera is to replicate what the human eye sees. I, however, love long exposures because it creates scenes I can’t see: lights shining brighter, moving vehicles leaving behind streaks. I especially love it when people are in the frame because their movement creates this almost otherworldly blur. We live in an age of instant gratification but long exposures are all about the slow reveal. It feels like unwrapping a present, leaving my shutter open and waiting to see the results. From a technical standpoint, the shutter speed often varies depending on how bright the scene already is. In general, however, I try to keep my aperture small to achieve a larger depth of field and ISO low to reduce noise.

Since you are shooting a lot of architecture and straight lines in your photos, how do you deal with distortion? What type of lenses do you use?

Being a bit of a perfectionist and shooting so much architecture means I spend a lot of time obsessing over how to achieve straight lines. While the two lenses I primarily use (18mm to 55mm zoom, 35mm fixed) create some distortion, it is easily fixable with Lightroom’s automatic correction tool. For those without access to that program, SKWRT is a pretty good, albeit manual, option.

NYC: Shutter Speed (13 sec), Aperture (F/16), ISO (400)
Mexico City: Shutter Speed (4 sec), Aperture (F/18), ISO (400)
Mexico City: Shutter Speed (4 sec), Aperture (F/18), ISO (400)

What type of gear do you use to capture your images?

Besides my Nikon D5300, the only other essential piece of gear I need to make my night shots is a tripod. I prefer the GorillaPod because it’s incredibly compact and the flexible legs means I can take advantage of the city, easily attaching it to any fence, railing, pole, etc. to stabilize my camera. I usually shoot in delayed exposure mode to avoid camera shake.

Guanajuato #1: Shutter Speed (6 sec), Aperture (F/14), ISO (400)
Guanajuato #1: Shutter Speed (6 sec), Aperture (F/14), ISO (400)

When you’re getting ready to photograph a city, what are some of your favorite vantage points to do so?

I love height. When planning trips, I always make sure to include the highest points such as observation decks and lookouts because a city’s layout (planned vs. organic) lends itself to interesting lighting arrangements. I also try to book rooms with good views and eat/drink at places with accessible rooftops.

San Francisco #1: Shutter Speed (6 sec), Aperture (F/22), ISO (1000)
San Francisco #1: Shutter Speed (6 sec), Aperture (F/22), ISO (1000)
Guanajuato #2: Shutter Speed (6 sec), Aperture (F/11), ISO (400)

What have been your favorite cities to photograph at night and why?

Each city I’ve visited has it’s own characteristics. For example, I love Tokyo because it’s a metropolis stretching further than the eye can see, teeming with lights and life all night. At the same time, Havana may not move as fast but I found it equally as compelling because wherever people came together became a party.

Tokyo: Shutter Speed (10 sec), Aperture (F/20), ISO (100)
Havana: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/10), ISO (400)

That being said, one of my favorite cities to photograph is Lisbon. Built on top of seven hills, climbing the steep streets may be a workout but if you remember to keep your head up, you might just see the entire city open up before you. Besides amazing vantage points, Lisbon also has one of the best nightlife scenes I’ve ever encountered as people take to the streets to eat, drink, and just live.

Lisbon #1: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/16), ISO (400)
Lisbon #1: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/16), ISO (400)
Lisbon #2: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/14), ISO (400)
Lisbon #2: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/14), ISO (400)

How do you post process your images?

I start my process in Lightroom, applying a custom preset and tweaking the temperature until I get the balance just right. Then I export the image to my iPhone and put on some finishing touches with VSCO Cam and Snapseed before cropping with SKRWT. Van Gogh said, “I often think the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” My goal is to create something true to those words. By focusing on blue and orange, I hope to emphasize contrast and create complexity; cool blues representing the night juxtaposed with warm oranges representing the life that takes place when the sun goes down.

Porto: Shutter Speed (10 sec), Aperture (F/20), ISO (100)

What are 3 tips you would give someone looking to get into shooting nighttime cityscapes?

  1. Invest in a camera with good low light capabilities and a tripod.
  2. Experience the city at night, whether that’s taking a walk or just looking out the window. Observe and see how it’s different from the day.
  3. Play around with shutter speeds. Maybe keep it open for longer to get blindly bright images or barely open it to achieve moodier results. Figure out what emotion you want to convey and whether that matches the city you’ve seen.
Hong Kong: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/22), ISO (100)
Hong Kong: Shutter Speed (15 sec), Aperture (F/22), ISO (100)