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How to make your cityscape photos more interesting with time blending

Photographing your cityscape during the blue hour is always a safe bet if you can’t get some spectacular light at sunrise or sunset. A deep blue sky provides the perfect color contrast to the city’s lightbulbs, helping you achieve an appealing result. But what if you are lucky with light and weather? Snap a photo while the sky is popping with color or with the city lights during the blue hour? Luckily, you can achieve both using a technique called time blending. In this article I’ll show you how.

I already touched on time blending in an article on night photography. When taking photos that include the night sky, I use this technique to cope with the technical limitations of my camera equipment. I take the foreground pictures during the blue hour and the stars during the night. Later I combine them into noise-free images.

You can apply the same principle to create more impactful cityscape photos. Snap photos during sunset to capture a colorful sky, and leave the camera in place to snap more photos once the city lights have come on. In the morning, go through this process in reverse order.

The picture I took a few weeks ago of Nevers in France is an example. The evening I took this photo I had perfect conditions with a great distribution of high clouds across the sky. These glowed beautifully just after the sun went down. At this point, most of the city was still dark. Therefore, the resulting photo lacks interest in the center of the frame that contains the main subject: the city of Nevers. It’s more about the light in the sky and on the bridge in the foreground.

Let’s compare it to the photo of Nevers I took about 20 minutes later. The lights in the city and on the bridge dominate the scene, while the faded colors in the sky lack the appeal of the first photo. For me, both photos are compromises.

Time blending to the rescue

Wouldn’t it be great to show the best of both worlds in one image? The sky from the first photo absolutely has to make it into the final image. For the middle part, the city lights of the second photo add more interest. What about the bridge? The warm evening light in the first photo gives it enough visual weight; There is no need to add the blue and orange lights shown in the second image.

Now that you’ve determined what the ideal photo should look like, it’s time to put the pieces together. In the feature video, I show how easy it is after some preparation:

  1. In the field, use a stable tripod and hold the camera in place while recording the time blending sequence.

  2. Take multiple photos as the light changes and adjust your exposure times to keep them in a similar brightness range.

  3. Use bracketing when the dynamic range of the scene exceeds what your camera can capture in a single exposure.

  4. Select the best photos in the sequence for the transition and prepare them in Lightroom or your editing software of choice. The goal is for the brightness and tones of the images to look similar. Achieving this may require changes to brightness, contrast, and white balance.

  5. Open the photos as layers in Photoshop and use them Edit – Auto-Align Layers to compensate for any misalignments. These can also occur when using a stable tripod. For time blending to work, you need perfect alignment.

  6. Make the photo without the city lights your base layer and overlay any images with artificial lights on top.

  7. Set the top layers’ layer blending mode to Facilitate and hide them by applying a black mask.

Now let your creativity run free and carry out the blending. Using a white brush, selectively paint in the highlights wherever you want to add visual weight to your photo.

For the Nevers photo, I used this technique to reveal the lightbulbs in the city. However, I refrained from adding the lights along the bridge. They were too attention grabbing. The result is a balanced photo that shows the best of the sunset and blue hour.

More shine

Your creative editing doesn’t have to end with time blending. Once you’ve revealed the lights around the city, leveling them up is easy. One technique is to dodge and burn:

  1. Add an empty layer to the top of the layer stack in Photoshop and set this layer’s mode to soft light.

  2. Set your primary color to bright orange or yellow. Do not use too saturated color.

  3. Choose a soft-edged brush and draw with an opacity between 10 and 30% in the soft light Layer. Aim at the areas where the light sources are and gradually add glow.

A more sophisticated technique uses the Camera Raw Filter:

  1. Create a reduced copy of your current edit by pressing Ctrl/Cmd + Alt + Shift + Eor create one smart object from the visible layers.

  2. Within the Camera Raw Filteryou get access to all the tools you know from Lightroom. Use exposure, white balanceand negative defog to create a soft glow.

  3. Focus on the areas around the city lights and tweak the sliders for a more dreamy look.

  4. After applying your settings add a black mask to this effect layer or invert the filter mask if you are working with a smart object.

  5. As with the dodge and burn technique, use a soft white brush and spot reveal the effect by drawing in the mask.

If this description sounds too abstract, watch the feature video. There I show how I used the second technique to enhance the Nevers photo.

As with all photo editing techniques, experimentation is key. There is never a fixed recipe. Each photo is a little different and therefore requires different adjustments. Also, once you start using time blending, you’ll find that it doesn’t work for every photo. In fact, in most of my cityscape photos, I prefer the sky from the blue hour onwards. Especially when you have a lot of oranges and yellows in an urban area, you need something to balance them out, and a blue sky does just that.

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