Tips for Shooting Out of Focus Cityscape Bokeh Images at Blue Hour
You have probably seen out of focus cityscape bokeh photos with pleasing lights, like the photo below. The term “bokeh” comes from the Japanese word “boke”, which can be translated as “blur”. You should be familiar with bokeh effect that is typically seen in portrait photography where a shallow depth of field is used to purposefully throw the background out of focus (i.e. bokeh) and draw attention solely to the subject.
Unlike portrait photography, everything is thrown out of focus for cityscape bokeh photos that we’re trying here. It makes colourful light orbs appear prominently in the image and creates a unique art style. If you haven’t tried these cityscapes with bokeh lights before, follow along with the simple four steps below. It’s super easy!
Step 1: Find a location with enough lights
Shooting at popular cityscape photography spots works great, but any place (such as a road in front of your house) might be suitable as long as there are sufficient lights. The choice of location isn’t very critical, as everything is blurred out, anyway.
My favourite spot to shoot from is an overhead bridge. It always gives pleasing results with many different colors of light sources available (buildings, cars headlights and tail lights, street lamps, traffic lights, etc.).
Step 2: Start shooting 10-20 minutes before the end of dusk
Cityscape bokeh images won’t work if the sky is still bright. It’s around this time (10-20 minutes before the end of dusk – check gaisma.com for your local dusk time) that city lights have been turned on, and the deep blue color of the dusk sky creates a beautiful backdrop for glittering bokeh lights.
Shooting after dusk with the pitch black sky as a backdrop also works fine, but I personally prefer shooting during blue hour.
Step 3: Use Aperture Priority mode and a wide aperture
You may start with the smallest f-stop number and adjust to your liking. A wider aperture (smaller f-stop number) results in larger bokeh orbs, as seen in the photos below that were shot at the exact same location at different settings (top: shot with f/1.8, bottom: shot with f/4).
Step 4: Switch to manual focus
Use manual focus (as opposed to autofocus) and turn the focus ring until the lights are completely out of focus. This is easy as pie, but if the word “manual” turns you off, you can remain in autofocus and do the following, too.
- Set to single-point AF (autofocus).
- Hold up a lens cap (or a small item) towards the sky in front of you, as seen in the photo below.
- Focus on the lens cap and press the shutter button halfway down to lock the focus (which makes everything else out of focus).
- Move the camera to reframe the shot as you like and press the shutter down the rest of the way.
No Fast Lens, No Tripod Needed
In order to capture these pleasing cityscape bokeh effects, you might be thinking that you need a so-called “fast lens” (i.e. a lens that is capable of opening up to f/1.4 or f/1.8, for example.) that portrait photographers typically use.
No, you do not! In fact, you can take these bokeh photos using f/3.5 on your kit lens. Some photos in this post were shot at f/4.5 on my trusty Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, hardly a lens that is considered fast.
Furthermore, you can take these bokeh photos handheld (i.e. without using a tripod), as shooting with the aperture wide open (or close to it) helps keep the shutter speed high enough. Anyway, stability and sharpness aren’t very critical, as you are shooting photos that are completely out of focus!
The only occasion I use a tripod is when I want to create smooth water by using a neutral density (ND) filter. Then, a tripod is a must, as the exposure lasts at least for several seconds even if you’re shooting with the aperture wide open.
One View, Two Images
What I particularly like about shooting cityscapes with bokeh lights is that a single view can produce two completely different images, one in focus and one out of focus, like the photos below shot at the same location.
At blue hour, I typically shoot an in-focus cityscape with a few minutes of long exposure first. Once finished, I switch to manual focus and shoot out of focus photos with the cityscape bokeh lights until the deep blue hue in the dusk sky is gone.
By the way, I like shooting with a little smaller aperture like f/3.5 to f/4.5 so that the shape of the skyline is still recognizable for those who are familiar with the place.
I hope this article helps you get started with cityscape photos with pleasing bokeh lights if you haven’t tried previously.
As a cityscape photography enthusiast myself, I’ve found it quite fun to shoot something that looks completely different from otherwise ordinary cityscapes. If you have any questions or tips to share, feel free to do so in the comments below.