How to photograph low light urban landscapes
February 16, 2022
Accomplished urban photographer Mike Will shares the secrets behind his dramatic and engaging low light urban images with Claire Gillo
Mike Will is most definitely nocturnal and seems to find his creativity when the sun goes down. So when the majority of us have the urge to hibernate and settle in for the evening Mike is doing the exact opposite and will be getting ready to go out into the urban landscape and hit the streets with his camera. ‘I love the process of shooting, of getting out and exploring,’ he says.
Mike is a renowned photographer in the industry, and has been a Sony European Imaging Ambassador since 2018. Although Mike started his photography journey as a hobby, his images soon got noticed on social media and his profession took hold. ‘I started taking images in 2016 and was instantly drawn to shooting at night. I just kind of found it really exciting to bring a city to life.’ he explains.
‘People walk around the city at night and especially in the winter, it can feel very dark, but there’s this kind of electric vibrant feel that I want to capture when the light drops.’ As well as shooting urban city scenes Mike has also travelled the globe, touring with DJs and shooting music festivals. ‘I love music festivals and the buzz of being on stage with an artist is just amazing. When you’re on tour with them the whole environment is pretty inspiring.’
Previously and during the earlier days of his photography career Mike was also a professional ice hockey player and even represented Team GB in ice hockey at the World Championships. Although he loved playing ice hockey it was the coronavirus pandemic that finally cemented his decision to just focus on photography. ‘Due to Covid, the ice hockey season was sadly cancelled. I had everything set up for my photography career so I decided to make the full-time switch then,’ he explains.
The power of social media
To get noticed in the industry and to continue to showcase what he is doing now Mike uses a range of social media channels to his advantage. He has a large and loyal following and for good reason – Mike’s persona is as much a part of his business as his photography with exciting and enticing video content that he presents, whether that be showing how he took a shot, approached a scene, or unveiling new kit. His social media channels are packed full of tips and tricks and worth exploring for any photographer interested in low-light photography.
When questioned about how he began his career he says that he started out by posting on Instagram, and from there his following grew. ‘The social media platform gave me a place to showcase my work, and then I got noticed by major brands and my career took off.’ Mike makes it sound effortlessly simple, however it’s obvious that he has got to where he is through hard work and talent. ‘I’m driven and I love what I do,’ he confirms. ‘Therefore I’m happy to put the time in.’
When it comes to taking images on the streets and looking for the perfect subject Mike is always on the hunt for strong compositions and something of interest. ‘Symmetry,’ he says. ‘I’m very drawn to symmetry, and I always look for leading lines.’ Mike shoots the majority of his images in a portrait composition and has a great eye for placing elements in the scene to draw the eye through.
As for his favourite time of day to shoot, Mike likes to start at sunset and then go into the night. ‘At sunset I want to capture that nice burn in the sky, then from there it moves into the blue hour and then obviously into the night.’ Mike is also a fan of taking images in foggy conditions. ‘You can get these epic fog conditions if the street lights are on,’ he says. ‘I’d say go out about an hour or 45 minutes before the sunrise and it’s just the most crazy, and incredible lightning with the fog around – it just looks epic.’
Figure it out
To engage with his audience and to add something extra to his images Mike often includes a figure in the scene. ‘It helps with the scale,’ he says. ‘And it makes the image relatable as well. If the person is in the right position with a wideangle lens, you can also make the scale of the scene seem more dramatic,’ he explains.
Often the figure in the setting will be Mike himself dressed in distinctive urban clothing that matches the setting. It is no coincidence that the elements in the scene blend together perfectly to create Mike’s vision of how he wants to see and explore the city environment.
Mike will also often capture stillness and movement in one shot. For example the figure in the scene will be still but movement from a bus, a car driving past or from an additional light source will add some colourful movement. When asked how he achieves the two effects together Mike replies, ‘I try to do them in one shot, and if I have the patience, I will!’ Mike advises that the person in the scene may need to stay still for one or two seconds. Of course though, as many photographers will know, the perfect conditions can’t always be achieved in one shot and when this is the case Mike blends multiple images together using Photoshop.
It’s too dark (and light)
When it comes to shooting at night, Mike unsurprisingly finds lighting the biggest technical difficulty. ‘Finding the right light and the right kind of composition is a challenge,’ he says. Although you would think that lack of light would be an issue Mike also sometimes finds too much light will cause him problems. ‘If I’m in an urban area that is well lit at night with street lamps and I want to do a long exposure, sometimes that can be tricky because the highlights get blown out when you open the shutter. But also vice versa,’ he continues. ‘You can be somewhere that is so dark and you have to bring in more lighting – so I would say lighting is the biggest challenge that I have to think about.’
Make some noise!
Inevitably shooting at night means you need to think about your ISO setting and under some circumstances push it up. Fortunately for Mike he finds his Sony cameras to be easily able to handle the dark conditions. ‘My Sony camera’s low-light capabilities are really at the next level,’ he tells us, then continues to advise to assess your own ISO. ‘Test your ISO, do a little experiment to see how much you can push it because a lot of the time you can push it more than you think,’ he says.
‘I didn’t know until I started really testing and pushing my camera that I could do as much as it can do. I’ll crank my ISO, anything up to 5,000 and not worry about it at all,’ he declares. ‘If you expose correctly you’ll find there’s not a huge amount of noise even at the higher end of the scales. However,’ he warns, ‘if it’s pitch black and you need to lift the shadows you’re going to get some nasty grain in there, and some problems with the colours that will need to be corrected.’ Mike uses Lightroom for this and explains more on his YouTube videos.
Shooting at night will not appeal to everyone as for some the dark (especially in an urban environment) can be a daunting and scary place. When we questioned Mike as to whether he had any concerns about this aspect he replied that although he will go out by himself he prefers to shoot with others when he can. Although photography can be a solo undertaking, Mike is a team player (which his ice hockey career taught him) and enjoys learning from others.
In 2016 when he was starting his photography career he founded UK Shooters (@uk.shooters), and from there his network has grown. ‘UK Shooters is a community hub of photographers,’ he explains. ‘We have these amazing events that are not just about shooting content but they are also about meeting like-minded photographers and learning from each other.
When you’re with other people you’re in a team and you can help each other out. I networked a lot when I first started and from there friendships were born. I love that someone might message me now and say, “yo fog’s rolling in in the morning, do you want to shoot it?” And I’ll be like, hell yeah, let’s do it!’
We also spoke to Mike about the founding of the UK Shooters community here: UK Shooters: the creation of a thriving global community
Why it works
This image of the iconic Tower Bridge gives a different perspective to the much-photographed location. The composition has been carefully considered and Mike is spot on with the symmetrical framing. A wide aperture setting has been used which blurs the foreground pleasingly. The lights in the centre of the frame jump out in their star shape formation and draws the eye in.
The blue tone in the sky complements the cool lighting and tones of the bridge, and the warm orange/red subtle injection of colour in the double lines on the road contrast nicely against the overall cool tone. The airplane streak across the back of the scene is not apparent at first but brings another subtle element to the scene when you look further in.
Mike is known for his vibrant and unique post production effects, and in this image they have been carefully considered to create an impactful result.
Mike’s top tips for low light urban photography
Symmetry & leading lines
In the urban environment Mike likes to hunt for leading lines or symmetrical patterns to create strong compositions. The city is the perfect environment to capture both these elements. If you are going to go for the symmetrical shot, make sure your lines are straight and in line.
Test your ISO
You need to get to know your camera and find out what it is capable of. Do a test shoot throughout your ISO range to see where the image quality starts to deteriorate. Mike advises that your image will retain better quality if it is correctly exposed.
To ensure his shots are sharp Mike finds the latest technology from his Sony cameras to be top-notch. ‘If I’m on a tripod at night then I’ll use manual focus but if I’m shooting on the street I’ll use tap focus a lot. The technology is amazing these days and you can fully rely on them.’
In an urban and natural setting there are lots of opportunities to get creative. Mike enjoys working with a drone. ‘I’m really passionate about light painting and using a drone means you can get really creative.’ There are a few challenges Mike finds he has to get around, from fast-draining battery life to battling against the unpredictable British weather!
As well as using the ambient lights in an urban setting, Mike also has a range of portable lights for light painting. ‘I might take something out like a Mini NanLite,’ he says. The NanLite PavoTube lights range are portable light tubes that can display a range of colours perfect for this style of photography.
Don’t go out alone
Whilst photography can be a solo hobby, becoming part of a community can bring great benefit to your practice, whether you are an amateur or professional. Mike is the founder of UK Shooters (@uk.shooters and www.worldshooters.com/uk-shooters), a community hub of photographers that support each other and meet up for shooting events.
Sony Alpha range
In his kit bag Mike switches between the mirrorless Sony A7 IV (recently launched and his main camera body), Sony Alpha 7R III, Sony Alpha 7 III, and Sony Alpha
7 II. He loves their low-light capabilities and agility due to the lightweight mirrorless build. Mike has only recently unboxed the Sony A7 IV. Check out his YouTube channel to find out what’s in his camera bag in 2022.
See our comparison of the Sony A7 IV and Sony Alpha 7 III here: Sony A7 IV vs A7 III: what’s the difference, and what’s new?
Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM
Mike is a fan of the wideangle lens and loves experimenting with his Sony 14mm f/1.8. He tells us he could talk about this lens all day. Having the ability to open the aperture wide helps greatly in a low-light situation and Mike loves the shallow-depth-of-field effect created. He’s also drawn to the ultra-wideangle view, which he explains works great in an urban environment.
Sony 35mm f/1.4 GM
Mike’s other favourite go-to lens is the Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 GM. Mike explains that 35mm was one of the first focal lengths he used to shoot on, and tells us how he has enjoyed seeing the progression he has made from using earlier cheaper lenses to the current one.
Sony 12-24mm f/2.8 GM
As well as his trusty 14mm and 35mm Mike also enjoys using his 12-24mm f/2.8. He tells us the 12-24mm is an amazing lens, and having a wideangle but also being able to zoom into 24mm is really useful in the city.
Mike takes a tripod wherever he goes. A sturdy tripod is a must-have for any low-light photographer and Mike finds the Joby Rangepod to be versatile and excellently priced. ‘If I know I’m specifically just going out to shoot long exposures then I pack my Joby Rangepod because it’s very sturdy,’ he says. ‘The height is fantastic and the build quality is really good.’
Mike’s top London subjects
Mike is lucky enough to reside near the iconic Tower Bridge in London, making it easily accessible all year round, whatever time of the day. ‘There are so many angles to shoot it from, and it’s such an iconic landmark,’ he says.
Mike likes the buildings and cityscape surrounding the Gherkin in London. ‘There are lots of leading lines, modern architecture and cool buildings in this area that I like to photograph.’
St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s is another building that features heavily in Mike’s portfolio. He has photographed this iconic building close and far away with the Millennium Bridge in the foreground.
For light painting, the famous London double-decker red buses provide the perfect streaky effect in Mike’s images. You need to get the spacing and timing of the bus driving past it right, so that the streaks from the bus add to the composition of the shot and don’t detract from it.
Based in London, Mike Will is known for his urban architectural images and vibrant style. Mike has travelled across the globe with his photography and his portfolio includes night cityscapes, travel, landscapes, music festivals and portraits. Follow Mike on Instagram, Tik Tok and YouTube @m.visuals, and on Twitter @MVisuals
Mike will also be our guest judge for Round One of APOY 2022, Low Light: APOY 2022 Competition – Round One Low Light