Photographers are known to be some of the most daring, patient and persistent people on the planet. From risking their lives in frontlines of warzones to rushing to scenes of crime to witness the most gruesome side of the story. Some have returned to a place year after year or month after month just to get the ‘perfect’ shot. So when the offer came, one month ago, to go up 20+ floors by stairs to have a taste of the Nairobi city skyline at night, a group of Nairobi based photographers said yes without thinking of the climb.
‘5pm. Dress warmly. Rooftops can be terribly windy’ read the brief.
But traffic was more terrible that day. Arriving at 5pm was a farfetched dream, and for a photographer, being late is never an option. Punctuality is the highlight of a photographer’s professionalism. If the moment arrives earlier, then there was no need to contract a photographer in the first place. Luckily, a few minutes past 5, we had a quorum. Gathered in a circle outside, we took the opportunity to socialize, get to know each other as we waited for the nod to enter and begin the climb to capture the Nairobi skyline at night. When the announcement was finally made, it turned out, unfortunately, due to some undisclosed reason, the shoot had been postponed. We had to wait a month. Patience. Persistence.
At least we were appeased by the assurance that we’d get up there someday. We had also been given a chance to research and practice more on shooting the Nairobi skyline at night. And we took the chance seriously. One of the best lessons I ever learned in photography is the great importance of preparing before a shoot. Although practice makes perfect, gathering information prior to a photography assignment will always put you at an advantage. Before you practice, you must research. Then pick your camera, go out and put yourself in a similar situation. Not only does this give you confidence, it also eliminates performance anxiety.
Come the day, come the hour. We gathered at the same spot, this time more punctual and prepared than the first time. It was a brief wait. Soon enough we were scaling the steps of the incomplete building, backpacks in place and tripods in hand. The first few floors seemed like a walk in the park, but by the time we reached the fifth and looked up, it was clear to each one of us that this was not a quest for the faint-hearted. I must mention that the staircase of an incomplete building is rather steep. Perhaps it’s the lack of rails to hold on to or just a mental farce, but you cannot equate your everyday staircase to that of an incomplete building. Going up the staircase of an unfinished skyscraper is like climbing a craggy mountain.
At some point the climb became frustrating. We went silent, overcome by perspiration and sighing. But with the purpose in mind we kept going. This time, the end would justify the means. Getting the chance to go to the rooftop of a building in Nairobi is a rare, complicated feat. For this reason, we would have done sixty floors if need be although 20+ was no joke. By the time we reached the rooftop, we were out of breath. After removing our warm sweaters to feel the fresh air hundreds of feet off the ground, we immediately began scouting the view around us. It was spectacular! Nairobi was all around us, and we couldn’t help but ogle in excitement. Indeed, the long climb had been worth it.
When embarking on such a shoot, avoid heavy gear as it will slow you down and kill your stamina. A full-frame DSLR camera with a wide angle zoom or prime lens would be the best bet. Filters come in handy, depending on the lighting and effects you want on your images. A strong tripod is a must, bearing in mind that you need a long exposure to take sharp skyline photos at night. If possible, have a remote shutter release to further minimize the amount of camera shake. Most importantly, have a goal in mind. What kind of photos do you want to take?
Twelve photographers were present, among them, veteran photographer Muturi Kanini and two of his former students from Versatile School of Photography, Tim Kimani and Daudi Bradley. We set up our gear and immediately got to work. Tonight we would capture the Nairobi skyline at night, a dream come true to most of us. A few test shots then everything began to flow just fine.
The weather was cool and calm, no wind. It had been a cloudy day and we did not expect to shoot the sunset. But lucky enough the overcast was not heavy enough to deny us the open, crimson sky and the magical array of light that spills through it in the west. When the sun goes down, magic happens, and we happily captured the moment hundreds of feet above-ground. Then followed the blue-hour, when light paves way to darkness and everything seems to be on a standstill waiting for night. Nairobi’s lights lit up the skyline in the backdrop of a dull twilight, and our cameras took shot after shot. The most exciting fact being that owing to the long-exposure, we personally had time to enjoy the breathtaking view of the Nairobi skyline at night and study the next shot.
The biggest challenge came with the darkness. Despite the city lights, exposure dipped. We had to reset our settings, get them right because this was a rare moment. Shutter priority was the way to go to blur moving lights to achieve car trails and get a wonderfully contrasting background of sharp skyscrapers and starbursts. Another challenge was that this being an incomplete building, getting some angles was quite impossible because cranes or stones often stood in the frame. This minimized our options of being creative, and so did the stones and planks of wood on the ground that made stabilizing our tripods a bit difficult.
Regardless, we managed to get some breathtaking images of the Nairobi skyline at night. In the process, we learned a lot from the rooftop experience and from each other. From learning how to take perfectly exposed pictures of a lit skyline to experimenting the many options available on our DSLRs. It was fun and enlightening. Going down was less tedious, but it reminded us of the need to carry a flashlight when going for such excursions. The corridors and stairways were so dark, making the many twists and turns complicated. You could easily end up falling or sticking your foot someplace. Luckily, our smart-phone flashlights saved the day, but next time we or you go up a building at night for some skyline photography or sightseeing, make sure a torch is part of your gear!