Bright Lights, Big Photos

Abby watches a performance of the famous Bellagio Fountains.
Abby watches a performance of the famous Bellagio Fountains.

My wife Abby and I have just returned from our annual anniversary vacation, our seventh. We usually head west, often to Moab, Utah, where we married. This year, however, we decided to try something different and sample the photographic fruits offered by Las Vegas, Nevada.

Neither Abby nor I gamble, but we both love to take pictures and it had been many years since either of us had been to Vegas.

Photographing the desert City of Lights, or any big city like New York or Chicago or Dallas, is harder than one might realize. It seems like you could just point and shoot your point-and-shoot camera in any direction and get instant results. The trouble is a place as complex and visually stimulating as Las Vegas has a tendency to overwhelm the senses and cloud the photographic eye.

The same rules apply to shooting a big city as apply to most situations.

The lights and traffic on the Las Vegas Strip fill the night with luminosity. It's easy for a camera to underexpose an image like this, yielding nothing but bright lights on a black background, but that misses out on the feel of cities like Las Vegas.
The lights and traffic on the Las Vegas Strip fill the night with luminosity. It's easy for a camera to underexpose an image like this, yielding nothing but bright lights on a black background, but that misses out on the feel of cities like Las Vegas.
  • Wide overview shots tend to bore viewers. If you shoot with a wide angle, try to explore near-far relationships, which will engage the eye and draw the viewer into the image.
  • Get high and low. We all know what a city street looks like from eye level. Show us how it looks from a glass elevator 55 stories up, or from the bottom of a subway station stairs. Keep us interested in your images.
  • Try to shoot when the light is nice. There are some shots you can make in the middle of the day, but for the most part, the best time to shoot a brightly-lit city is at dawn or dusk, when the lights from buildings and signs combine with amber hues of sunrises and sunsets or blue hughes before sunrise and after sunset.
  • If you are photographing your friends or relatives in a place like Las Vegas, try to photograph them engaged in some activity, even one as simple as walking down the street, rather than stopping them and making them pose. Some of my best, most natural images of Abby from last week were of her taking pictures on the street or watching the Bellagio Fountains.

    The angles on the walkways in this image bring the viewer's eye to the center of the image.
    The angles on the walkways in this image bring the viewer's eye to the center of the image.
  • You can do the “Party Pic” group pose if you must, but it shares little about the place you are visiting and the activities you are doing, so consider saving them for the living room when you get home.
  • Use the light from the city itself instead of the flash on your camera. This is especially effective if you have a lens with a large maximum aperture, like the venerable 50mm f/1.8. The flash on your camera will tend to overwhelm objects close by and leave the lights in the distance darker than your eye perceives them, robbing your images of the very “City of Lights” look you are attempting to capture.
  • Don’t let anyone bully you out of taking pictures in a public place (unless it puts you in danger). Public streets and the things that happen on them in plain view are not generally protected by privacy laws (the so-called “reasonable expectation of privacy’). If a security guard tells you you can’t photograph his building from a public street, he’s not only wrong, he’s interfering with your rights as a citizen. (If you are on private property, however, it is a very different matter.)
  • Abby and I saw a lot of people taking pictures and videos with their smart phones, but considering their limitations, I would recommend something more capable. A consumer-priced digital SLR is enough to photograph the bright lights and big city, in the right hands.
  • Don’t take any of this advice too seriously. They’re just tips after all. Go have fun.
I spotted this elegant stainless steel planter along a sidewalk at City Center in Las Vegas. Note how the lines from the glass rail on the left side guide to eye to the casino lights in the distance.
I spotted this elegant stainless steel planter along a sidewalk at City Center in Las Vegas. Note how the lines from the glass rail on the left side guide to eye to the casino lights in the distance.
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1 Comment

  1. ‘group pose’

    I always sigh when someone asks for this. But I convince myself that (if nothing else) it’s a record of who was where at a given time… More of a pictorial diary entry than a photograph.

    ‘public place’

    I’m amazed at the misinformation that floats around about this; hopefully your post will inform some folks correctly.

    However, with police officers and even security guards, it’s usually pointless to argue. I have found success in ‘playing dumb’, asking questions and engaging them in conversation. Rarely are they actually ‘out to get you’ and usually think they’re doing the right thing. Often a few minutes of pleasant talk will bring some leeway in their misguided sense of the rules. 😉

    ‘smart phones’

    The money I’ve saved by not buying each generation of the iPhone is enough to buy two or three consumer-level DSLRs. 😉

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