Written by Benjamin Suttmeier (Tech360.tv Community Creator)

I recently took a five-day trip to Hong Kong over the Chinese New Year holiday. The city was cloaked in a layer of fog for most of the time I spent there. The weather, combined with the neon lights, face masks and constant talk of coronavirus and protests, made me feel like I was exploring some kind of dystopian cityscape throughout the trip.

But despite the weather, I was still able to come away with some photos I was proud of. Walking around Central Hong Kong, there are lots of great overpasses to shoot car trails and architecture.  These types of shots generally don’t require cooperating skies, so it’s good to prioritize this type of location on gloomier days. 

Scouting the Location

My travels aren’t entirely based around photography, but it’s a major factor when I book a trip these days.

I had a pretty long list of places I wanted to shoot prior to arriving. Hong Kong was a place I had planned to visit for quite some time, and I had already sketched out a general shoot itinerary to make the best use of my sunrises and sunsets. 

This location was near the top of that itinerary. Luckily, it wasn’t particularly challenging to scout as it’s a pretty popular spot amongst photographers in Hong Kong. I’d seen similar compositions numerous times, so a quick Google search revealed that the buildings in question were IFC One (centre) and IFC Two (left).

While it’s important to do research prior to visiting locations, it’s just as important to give yourself plenty of time to scout unfamiliar locations in person. In this case, I followed my GPS to IFC One earlier in the day and walked along the nearby overpasses until I found the exact vantage point.

Gear Requirements

The people at Tech360.tv and Alan Photo supplied me with a Sony A7RIII and a Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 lens to get this shot. I was really impressed by how razor sharp and crisp the details in the buildings and car trails came out with this lens.

I set up on a Brilliant C264 carbon fibre tripod, which was surprisingly stable considering it’s very lightweight.

You don’t necessarily need top-of-the-line gear to produce similar results. However, you will need to have a sturdy tripod, a camera with manual controls that you trust, and a lens capable of very wide angles. 

The building in the centre of this shot is very tall and located quite close to the camera. I shot this at 17mm and appreciated every extra millimetre offered by this lens, especially since it kept distortion to a minimum.

I also use a remote shutter release in order to avoid touching the camera and potentially moving it. As we’ll see in subsequent steps, any camera movement can result in a major headache.

Shooting Approach

I actually shot this location twice during my time in Hong Kong. On the first occasion, the rain started up again just when I was mounting my camera on the tripod. 

I spent an unfortunate amount of time wiping raindrops from the lens after every shot and the edit was a major pain due to the camera shifting slightly as a result of constantly wiping the lens.

The end result was decent, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted.

As I’ll explain more in the post-processing section, this photo is a composite. That means that I combined multiple photos shot at different times to create the final image. When the camera or tripod moves, it means that pixels won’t line up seamlessly, and this complicates post-processing.

Here’s a one-minute demonstration to give you an idea of how composites work.

For this photo, I knew I wanted to shoot the base image during blue hour. This is a period of time where the sky takes on a bluish hue due to the position of the sun on the horizon. It comes either before sunrise or after sunset. In Hong Kong, it only lasts about ten or fifteen minutes, not an actual hour.

During blue hour you get a nice sky and city lights begin to become visible.

I set the camera to aperture priority mode with an aperture of f/8 and an ISO of 100. F/8 is generally considered the “sweet spot” of the lens, and I almost always shoot landscapes and cityscapes at this aperture. 

I shot three bracketed exposures every 1-2 minutes from just before blue hour until ten minutes after blue hour. I set the base image to an exposure composition of -1. This means that my three bracketed exposures came out at exposure compositions of -2, -1, and 0.

If you’ve ever taken a photo where one part looked great while another was completely black or white, brackets will allow you to correct this. They allow you to capture the full range of light in a scene. In my final edit, I used the right bracket as my base image but toned down some of the lights using the centre bracket.

I always shoot brackets in high dynamic range (HDR) situations. High dynamic range exists when there is a large difference between the darkest parts of a photo (shadows) and the brightest parts (highlights). 

In night cityscapes, much of the photo will appear dark while the lights will be extremely bright. Brackets allow you to capture the full range of light without having parts of your image that are completely black or completely white.

After I was satisfied with my base blue hour shot, it was time to start focusing my attention on the car trails.

There are three main lanes of traffic leading the viewer’s eye in this scene. I set my camera to shoot single images (rather than brackets) and did my best to time the traffic on each lane. 

Remaining in aperture priority mode, I narrowed my aperture to f/16 so that the shutter speed would slow down and I could get longer car trails. Most of my car trail images were 10-15 second exposures.

I spent about 25 minutes getting my car trail shots before calling it quits and packing up.

Post-Processing

Going into post-processing, I had a series of bracketed shots taken at blue hour as well as a bunch of separate shots that I took to capture car trails.

The first thing I did was to import all my RAW files to Lightroom and colour code the photos that I planned to use.

After making simple Lightroom adjustments to my base image, I imported it into Photoshop. 

Next, I went about stacking my car trail images to fill up the individual lanes of traffic. This can be time-consuming, and I used seven separate car trail shots to fill in the gaps. 

Using the “Lighten” blending mode (and layer masks) in Photoshop allows you to remove everything but the light from each individual car trail layer. This basically gives you the ability to superimpose your car trails on top of the base image. 

With the photos stacked on top of each other, the progression looks something like this…

After blending the car trails into the base photo, I made some final adjustments to specific parts of the image to tie everything together. This included object removal, contrast adjustments, sharpening in the buildings, and noise reduction in the sky.

Final Thoughts

Getting this shot was one of my priorities for the five days I spent in Hong Kong, and I’m glad I revisited this location after feeling a little disappointed with my first attempt.

For learning purposes, I think it’s helpful to summarize the steps I took when planning, shooting and editing this shot.

First, I made sure to research the location online prior to even visiting Hong Kong. When I arrived, I found the exact spot I wanted to set up and made sure to arrive early when it came time to shoot. The final image consists of a base photo taken at blue hour with the car trails blended in later. 

I prefer a blue hour sky as it has much more colour and drama than shooting in full darkness. However, there is still a lot of light at this time and it’s difficult to shoot long trails. 

In contrast, once it’s dark it becomes much easier to produce longer exposures (and thus, longer car trails) in the lower light. This is one of the major benefits of compositing, as you can take photos in pieces in order to combine the best elements of each shot.

After blue hour faded to darkness, I made my car trail shots the priority, shooting exposures of around 10-15 seconds. I made sure I had enough photos to fill up each of the three main lanes of traffic. When I was satisfied, I brought my files into post-processing. 

Photoshop can seem intimidating if you are still a beginner. If you’re new to the techniques I discussed in this article, I’ve put together an 8-hour video course on Editing Landscapes & Cityscapes that goes into much more detail on my website.

After making simple adjustments to my base blue hour shot, I stacked seven layers of car trail photos. I used the “lighten” blending mode with layer masks to remove everything but the trails themselves. And finally, I made some additional adjustments to make the image pop a bit more.

If you’d like more information on each individual step in my workflow, please check out my previous article for Tech360.tv, where I discuss each and every step of my shooting approach in detail.