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The Magic 15-Minute Window: The Best Secret for Cityscape Photos

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After photographing cities all around the globe for the past 15 years, I learned the hard way when the best time of day is to shoot. After I learned that lesson, I saved a lot of time because I knew exactly what to shoot and when to shoot it. So let’s get to it! 

FIND YOUR SPOT AND WAIT FOR THE GOOD LIGHT 

First, go out before it’s time to shoot and find a good composition with strong leading lines. Look for a cool foreground element, with your subject as a middle-ground element, and the sky as the background. Also try different angles to see what creates a clearer message, as well as what’s more aesthetically pleasing. 

THE 15-MINUTE WINDOW IS KEY 

Once you figure out your composition, be patient and wait for the perfect light, at which point, it’s time to start shooting. If there’s one time of day you should take a cityscape photo it’s as soon as the city lights switch on, which gives you about 15 minutes or less to get the shot. That’s the truth of it; there’s just that magical window where the sun is below the horizon but the sky still has some good texture and the buildings are shining through with light. This is called the blue hour. 

DON’T SHOOT CITYSCAPES AT NIGHT 

When you miss that magic window and the sky is black, the details in the sky are no longer there. That contrast between the city and sky is just too important so you won’t get good results. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, such as Times Square where you have so much light and can barely see the sky. But other than that, I wouldn’t advise shooting cityscape photos at night. 

DEVELOPING YOUR BEST SHOT TAKEN DURING THE 15-MINUTE WINDOW 

Let’s go into the basic retouch first in Lightroom Classic. In the Basic panel, we opened up the Shadows to +100, brought down the highlight to –100, and then boosted the Exposure to 1.60. We then set the black point (Blacks) to –13 and the white point (Whites) to +68. 

FINDING THE RIGHT WHITE BALANCE IS IMPORTANT 

For white balance, you can select a preset in the WB drop-down menu near the top of the Basic panel, and then tweak it. For the time of day in this photo, I chose Daylight and then added some magenta by boosting the Tint to +26 to kill the yellow/green color cast. 

AND NOW THE SECRET SAUCE TO RETOUCHING YOUR BLUE-HOUR PHOTO 

Go to the HSL panel, and click on the Saturation tab. Grab the Targeted Adjustment tool (TAT), which is the little circle icon at the top left of the panel. When the TAT is active, the icon will display arrows above and below the circle, indicating the directions you should drag with the tool. In this example, we’re going to click on the strong yellow color that doesn’t look so great in this image and drag downward to lower its saturation. You’ll see the corresponding Saturation sliders in the HSL panel change as you drag. 

CROP IT TO MAKE IT MORE CINEMATIC 

To make your photo even more dynamic you can use the Crop Overlay tool (R) to crop it so it’s more panoramic. I think cropping to a 16×9 ratio makes most images better, not necessarily for social media but it’s great for print. 

So there you go! That’s how you take and retouch your blue-hour photos captured during that 15-minute magic window. So don’t miss out on that perfect time of day, and remember to always have fun.

ALL IMAGES BY SERGE RAMELLI