Getting the shot: Manchester skyline

Like many other photographers, I’ve learned and improved my photography over years of trial and error, experimenting with my camera, exploring unfamiliar surroundings, and taking inspiration from other photographers’ work.

One of the great challenges in trying to do that last part - to learn from other photographers’ work - is that we often only see the finished product, stripped clean of the story of how the picture made it from camera to page (or screen, or gallery). Often, I’d love to see what the original photo looked like in-camera, and how it’s been improved in post-processing. I’m curious about the nerdy things like the aperture, shutter speed and focal length the photographer used. And more broadly, I’d like to know what sort of preparation and planning were involved in getting the shot.

In short, I’d love to know: how can I do that?

It’s in that spirit that I thought I’d write some articles on how I created some of my favourite photos on this site. I’m hoping the background story and detail might be of interest to other curious photographers like me, and might be encouraging to others just starting out in photography. I’m pleased to say none of these articles will bombard you with a list of expensive and complicated equipment you’d need to take the same shot: they could all be taken with pretty much any camera that allows you some creative control over the settings (such as an SLR or mirrorless camera).

So, let’s dive in. The first photo I’m going to discuss is a shot I took of my home city Manchester’s skyline, back in March 2011.

The idea

Perhaps surprisingly, my original intention with this photo was to capture a “supermoon” over Manchester. I was actually a day too early (this was 18 March and the supermoon was on 19 March) but it was a clear night and, because I don’t really know anything about astronomy, I thought a day early was probably good enough. Lots of my photos turn out to be happy mistakes and this was one of them!

I asked around on a Flickr forum for good locations overlooking the city skyline, and my good friend Patrick suggested a spot on Oldfield Road in Salford. Here it is in Google Maps:

The shoot

I headed out to the location around 5:30pm, hoping to catch the “blue hour” when the sky was still a deep sunset indigo rather than in total darkness. When I got there, a few things became apparent. Firstly, the moon was nowhere near as big in the sky as I’d been expecting, but from that vantage point it was centred right over the sky skyline. Secondly, the sun was beginning to set, and as I was looking east towards the city the setting sun behind me was reflecting on the glass of the buildings, contrasting nicely with the dark sky behind them.

I set my tripod up on a patch of waste ground with the best view over the city and framed the skyline as you can see it above. I’d taken a few lenses with me and in the end my trusty 50mm was the perfect focal length for this shot. My camera is almost always in AV (aperture priority) mode, meaning I choose the aperture (and the ISO speed) and let the camera sort out the shutter speed. I wanted this shot to look sharp and precise so I chose an aperture of f/8, a great middle-of-the-road aperture that avoids the vignetting and distortion you can get at the extreme ends of the scale, with a nice large depth of focus. In the end, the camera settings for this shot were:

  • f/8
  • 1/5s
  • ISO 200

Setting all pride and sense of photographer’s mystique to one side, here’s the raw image exactly as it came from the camera:


Like most photographers, I do all my post-processing in Adobe Lightroom. For this shot, it was mostly a case of correcting the perspective to straighten the vertical lines, cropping slightly to remove the distracting reflection in the foreground water, and boosting the contrast and saturation.

I hope this has been a useful article for you. If you’ve got any questions or comments, please get in touch!

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