Paris at night seems made for photography. At night, the beautifully illuminated buildings, monuments and bridges lend Paris the right to its claim to be the ‘City of Light’. The area along the banks of the River Seine contains a particularly beautiful and eclectic collection of architecture and it is here that I found myself on an autumn evening waiting for night to fall over this grandiose city. One of the things I love most about Paris is its cafés. There is nothing quite like sitting out at a pavement table, people watching and waiting for the light to be just right to start shooting. The downside to Parisian cafes is the extortionate prices and so after taking out a small mortgage to pay for my hot chocolate and pastry, I decided it was time to head to my first location of the night: The Pont du Carrousel, right beside the Louvre Museum.
My reason for choosing this location as a starting point for photographing Paris at night is the stunning view it affords of the Ile de la Cité with the iconic nineteenth century Pont des Arts in the foreground. Typically, photographers spend most of their time simply waiting, waiting for the right light or for something interesting to happen and tonight was no exception. I spent about an hour with my camera set up on my tripod waiting for the sky to turn into that deep shade of blue that precedes the blackness of the later night. This is known unsurprisingly as the ‘blue hour’ and is the best time to capture night time cityscapes. Although known as the ‘blue hour’, in reality this optimum shooting window can last as little as a few minutes in winter and several hours in summer. On this, cool mid-October night, I had about twenty minutes to get the shots I wanted.
One of the problems with setting up a professional looking camera on a tripod is that everybody assumes that you are the right man to take their holiday snaps and on this night I must have taken about twenty or so shots . This makes me nervous, not because I don’t want to oblige but because the expectation is always higher when they see the fancy camera. I usually spend at least five minutes fumbling around with the settings trying to figure out how to take a photo with this unfamiliar camera in the first place….. never mind a good one. This particular evening, my ‘clients’ seemed happy enough thankfully. As the sky became a deeper shade of blue, the moment came to get to work on my own shots.
Ile de la Cité and Pont des Arts at Night / Paris
f16 / 20 sec / iso 100 / 70 mm
For this shot, I used a focal length of 70 mm. By zooming in like this, it created a compressed perspective making the Pont des Arts in the foreground seem much closer to the Ile de la Cité in the background than it is in reality. The two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral that are visible to the right are actually just over a kilometer and a half away but seem much closer due to the compressed perspective. The spire of the Sainte Chapelle is also visible as are the conical towers of the Conciergerie to the left of the image. The Conciergerie is a building with a grisly history due to its use as a prison during the French Revolution. It was here that Marie Antoinette spent her last night before being led to her abrupt end at the hands of the guillotine on Place de la Concorde. The ironwork Pont des Arts is visible in the foreground. This nineteenth century ironwork bridge was entirely rebuilt in 1984 having being damaged beyond repair when an errant barge rammed into one of the supporting columns. Today, the bridge serves as an open air exhibition space for painters, photographers and everything in between.
For my second shot of the evening, I wanted to focus on the Pont des Arts itself. As already mentioned, I only had a mere twenty minute window to make the shots that night so a quick sprint, (well actually a comical, lumbering canter with my tripod legs slaying in all directions) up the quays and I was in position for shot number two. After taking three whole minutes to catch my breath, which seemed to alarm some passers-by who probably felt I was in need of immediate medical attention, I set up shot number two.
Pont Des Arts And Institut De France / Paris
f16 / 20 sec / iso 100 / 28 mm
For this photograph, I set up my tripod on the right bank of the Seine looking towards the Pont des Arts with the domed Insitut de France on the far bank. A wider 28 mm focal length was required this time in order to fit the bridge and the Institute into the frame. A narrow aperture of f16 ensured that everything from the near end of the bridge to the buildings in the distance would be sharp. The slow shutter speed of 20 seconds created an attractive blurred effect in the fast flowing waters of the Seine while also having the unplanned effect of making the people crossing the bridge disappear! In reality, there were probably about 30-40 people crossing the bridge during the shot but a combination of a slow shutter speed and the fact that they were moving during the exposure time has resulted in these people simply vanishing!
For the next shot, I set up the camera on the bridge itself looking towards the Institut de France on the far bank.
Pont Des Arts And Institut De France / Paris
f16 / 20 sec / iso 100 / 42 mm
This time, the 20 second exposure did not quite make everybody disappear but did create some interesting motion blur that gives a sense of the movement of people crossing back and forth. I even captured a fellow photographer taking a snap of his partner on the left of the shot! This was one of those occasions when a symmetrical composition along with the lead in diagonal lines of the bridge works well in leading the eye to the main subject of the photograph, the imposing Insitut de France itself.
For my final photograph of the night, I turned my attention in the opposite direction towards the Musee d’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower. After another exhausting sprint, I set up my tripod on the Pont Neuf, ironically, Paris’s oldest bridge. I once again used the Pont des Arts as my foreground interest. What was very different about this shot was the fact that, as I was now facing west, the amber and pink hues of the setting sun could still be seen just above the horizon.
Left Bank At Night / Paris
f14 / 30 sec / iso 100 / 64 mm
Despite being several kilometers away, the Eiffel Tower dominates this image which a testament to its sheer size. The former Gare d’Orsay train station, now the Muséee d’Orsay can be seen in the far right of the screen with the attractive Parisian mansard roofed buildings lining the Left Bank of the Seine.
After twenty minutes of huffing and puffing along the banks of the Seine with a tripod in tow, it was time to head off for a well deserved meal and glass/bottle of wine at one of Paris’s many fine bistros and before tottering off to bed ready for a 5am start the following day! It’s not all glamour you know!