Shooting cityscape photos from inside a building (such as an observation deck of a tower, hotel room, etc.) pose a different set of challenges that you won’t experience shooting outdoors. Here are a few easy-to-follow tips for shooting the city at blue hour, with a focus on how to eliminate unwanted reflections from the glass.
The reflection-free shots above of Fukuoka skyline (Japan, top), Shanghai skyline (China, center) and Ho Chi Minh City skyline (Vietnam, bottom) were shot through glass windows of Fukuoka Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center Observatory and Bitexco Financial Tower respectively – following the methods described in this tutorial.
Bring a mini-tripod
In order to shoot at blue hour, a tripod is essential whether you’re shooting indoors or outdoors. But some observation decks don’t allow tripods because they are seen as a hindrance for other visitors. In that case, you may try to bring in a mini-tripod like a Gorillapod, as it’s unlikely to disturb other non-photography visitors.
Even if tripods are allowed, you may as well bring a mini tripod just in case, as it comes in handy when there is no suitable space to set up a regular tripod.
Wipe the glass with a cloth
Glass windows of an observation deck aren’t always clean. Make sure to keep a cloth in your camera bag so that you can wipe an area to shoot through if it’s dirty. Obviously, you can’t wipe the other side of the window, though, so choose an area that has no stains, etc.
How to eliminate reflections off the window
This is the biggest challenge when taking photos through a glass window. The window works much like a mirror and it’s hard to completely prevent reflections (e.g. such as yourself, room lights) from showing up.
Typical tips to follow are shooting in close and as straight as possible to the glass (i.e. leaving a little gap between the glass and the lens so as not to let indoor lights creep in) and using a polarizing filter which helps cut reflections to some extent. Aside from these tips, I’d recommend the following “tools”.
Using a DIY blackout curtain
This might be an old-school method, but I recently came across a photographer doing this on the observation deck of Shanghai World Financial Center (see below). Not advisable to use such a large curtain, though, as it blocks the view for other visitors and you’ll run the risk of being asked to leave by floor staff.
Using a black jacket
I used to rely on this method and it worked relatively well. Set up a tripod very close to the window, and cover the whole rig (camera and tripod) with a black jacket to create a closed-in area around the camera so that no indoor lights get inside the jacket. Make sure to use a “black” jacket to reduce reflections, as a lighter-colored jacket does more harm than good and causes even more reflections.
Using black neck gaiter
This used to be my favourite method, as it doesn’t really catch the unwanted attention of other visitors (compared to using the jacket, etc.). The concept here is the same as using a jacket. To block any stray lights from getting in, wrap the black neck gaiter (neck warmer or scarf) around the lens and push the whole setup (camera and tripod) onto the window to completely shade the front element of the lens.
Using a lenskirt
A lenskirt is a tool specifically created to cut out reflections. This is what I’ve been using for the past few years with great success. By attaching a lenskirt to the front of your lens and the pushing suction cups onto the window, it shades the front element of the lens. This helps cut reflections from the window, leaving no chance for any stray light to get in.
With a black neck gaiter, I always had to make sure not to have vignetting (dark corners) by checking through the viewfinder (due to the edges of the neck gaiter getting too close to the lens). But the window-facing end of a lenskirt opens up like a softbox, so there is no worry of any edge vignetting being introduced.
I hope these tips help you take reflection-free cityscape photos through glass windows of an observation deck on your next visit.
Lastly, you may wonder why I didn’t mention a rubber lens hood (which is said to work well for shooting through glass). I’ve tried it before but found it prone to vignetting, especially at a wide angle like 18mm or wider. And, when shooting cityscape photos from high above like an observation deck, you’re very likely to shoot wide, therefore I’ve excluded it from the list.
If you have any other tips or experiences using these suggested tools in this post, please share them in the comments below.