Photographing urban landscapes is particularly fun at night. When it gets dark, cities provide their own light source. Portland, Oregon is a highly photogenic city to photograph at night, with a classic skyline of glass and metal high-rises and a interweaving maze of freeways, overpasses and bridges. Add to that the regular festivals and celebrations, fireworks displays, historic buildings and interesting store windows, and any nocturnal photographer can find a lifetime of photo opportunities.
Night city photography really begins about 20 minutes after sunset, during the “blue hour.” During this phase of twilight, the ambient light in the sky begins to balance in brightness with the lights from the city. This is when the color and brilliance of Portland’s lights really start to shine. Additionally, the sky takes on a very cool blue tone during this phase, even when it’s cloudy. As the light in the sky fades to black, city lights become more brilliant and colorful. I often keep photographing late into the night.
When photographing in the city at night, I try to travel light while making sure I have the essential equipment needed. In addition to my camera I bring my tripod, a cable release, a lens with a good focal range (usually my 24-105mm) to avoid frequent lens changes, and an extra charged battery. To make low-noise, high depth-of-field images, I use smaller apertures (f/8 to f/16), low ISO settings (100 to 200) and long exposures (seconds to minutes depending on the light level), while photographing from a tripod. If I want to take handheld photographs, I find an area that is well-lit and use larger apertures (f/2.8 to f/5.6) and high ISO settings (800 to 3200) to achieve shutter speeds of 1/20 of a second or faster.
In Portland, I like to begin my evening photographing along the Eastbank Esplanade. Here I find many vistas of the city skyline reflected in the river. I’ll also venture up to the bridges for higher vantage points. I look for scenes with streaking car lights moving in and out of the city, or views looking out over various Portland landmarks, such as historic Union Station. It’s also fun to venture into downtown Portland or the Pearl District to photograph street scenes, shop windows and people. The adventure of hunting for night scenes is as much fun as the photography itself. One of the perks of urban photography is that I can finish off the night with a stop at one of my favorite Portland brew pubs or restaurants.
When visiting Portland, I encourage you to bring your camera and venture into the night for some photography in a magical landscape that provides its own light.