How to Add Interest to Your Cityscape Photos With Time Blending

Taking your cityscape photos during the blue hour is always a safe bet if you don’t get spectacular light at sunrise or sunset. A deep blue sky provides the perfect color contrast against the glowing city lights and will help you create a pleasing result. But what if you’re lucky with light and weather? Are you taking a photo as the colors pop in the sky or with the city lights during the blue hour? Luckily, you can achieve both by applying a technique called time blending. In this article, I show you how.

I have already covered time blending in an article on night photography. When I capture photos containing the night sky, I use this technique to deal with the technical limitations of my camera equipment. I take the images for the foreground during the blue hour and those for the stars during the night. Later, I combine them to create images without noise.

You can apply the same principle to create more impactful cityscape photos. Take photos at sunset to capture colorful skies and leave the camera up to take additional shots after the city lights come on. In the morning, follow this process in reverse order.

The image of Nevers in France that I captured a few weeks ago is an example of this. The night I took this picture I had perfect conditions with a nice spread of high clouds in the sky. These lit up beautifully just after sunset. At that time, most of the city was still dark. Thus, the photo obtained lacks interest in the center of the frame, which contains the main subject: the city of Nevers. Rather, it is the light in the sky and on the bridge in the foreground.

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

Time mixes to the rescue

Wouldn’t it be great to show the best of both worlds in a single image? The sky in the first photo must absolutely be part of the final image. For the central part, the city lights in the second photo add more interest. And the bridge? The warm evening light in the first photo already gives it enough visual weight; there is no need to add the blue and orange lights shown in the second image.

After identifying what the ideal photo should look like, it’s time to mix the pieces together. In the presentation video I show how easy it is after some preparation:

  1. In the field, use a sturdy tripod and hold the camera steady while capturing the time merge footage.

  2. Take multiple shots as the light changes and adjust your exposure times to keep the brightness of these within a similar range.

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

  4. Select the best photos from the sequence for blending and prepare them in Lightroom or your editing software of choice. The goal is to make the brightness and tones of the images similar. Changes to brightness, contrast, and white balance may be required to achieve this.

  5. Open the photos as layers in Photoshop and use Editing – Automatically Align Layers to compensate for misalignments. These can happen even if you are using a sturdy tripod. For time blending to work, you need perfect alignment.

  6. Make the photo without city lights your base layer and place all images with artificial light sources on top.

  7. Set the layer blending mode of the top layers to Alleviate and mask them by applying a black mask.

Now let your creativity run free and mix it up. With a white brush, selectively paint lights where you want to add visual weight to your photo.

For the photo of Nevers, I used this technique to reveal the incandescent lights of the city. I refrained from adding the lights along the bridge, however. They were too catchy. The result is a well-balanced photo showing the best of sunset and blue hour.

More shine

Your creative editing doesn’t have to end with a temporal shuffle. Once you’ve revealed the city lights, highlighting them is easy. One technique is to use dodge and burn:

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

  2. Set your primary color to bright orange or yellow. Don’t use an overly saturated color.

  3. Select a soft-edged brush and draw with an opacity between 10-30% in the Soft light layer. Target areas where light sources are and gradually add shine.

A more sophisticated technique uses the Camera raw filter:

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

  2. Within the Camera raw filter, you have access to all the tools you know from Lightroom. Use Exposure, white balanceand negative Unveil to create a soft glow.

  3. Focus on the areas around the city lights and change the sliders to create a more dreamy look.

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

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

If this description seems too abstract to you, watch the video presentation. There, I show how I applied the second technique to improve the photo of Nevers.

As with all photo editing techniques, the key is to experiment. There is never a fixed recipe. Each photo is a little different and therefore requires further adjustments. Once you start using time blending, you’ll also learn that it doesn’t work for all photos. In fact, in most of my cityscape photos, I prefer the blue hour sky. In particular, if you have a lot of orange and yellow tones in the urban area, you need something to balance them out, and a blue sky does just that.

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