Photographer Imagines What World Cities Would Look Like Without Lights

New York 40° 42’ 16’’ N 2010-10-09 lst 3:40

What would the world’s major cities look like if they were plunged into complete darkness? Some photographers gave us a taste of it when New York City suffered major power outages during Hurricane Sandy, but those scenes were coupled with an overcast sky.

French photographer Thierry Cohen wants to show you what the cities might look like if they went dark on a clear day, and if the photographer focused on bringing out the stars. His project Darkened Cities shows recognizable cityscapes in darkness under the night sky.

To create the images, Cohen first traveled to locations that are untainted by the light pollution of large urban areas, capturing beautiful night shots of the Milky Way floating overhead.

He then combined these photographs with manipulated photographs of various cities (e.g. San Francisco, New York City, Tokyo, Rio de Janerio) to complete the effect (turning day into night using Photoshop isn’t too difficult).

Francis Hodgson of the Financial Times writes that much thought was given to the process of making the images:

Cohen does not merely replace one sky with another for convenient photographic legibility. By travelling to places free from light pollution but situated on precisely the same latitude as his cities (and by pointing his camera at the same angle in each case), he obtains skies which, as the world rotates about its axis, are the very ones visible above the cities a few hours earlier or later. He shows, in other words, not a fantasy sky as it might be dreamt, but a real one as it should be seen.

This is a very powerful treatment. It is laborious in the extreme. To find places with the right degree of atmospheric clarity, Cohen has to go – always on the latitudes of our cities – into the wild places of the earth, the Atacama, the Mojave, the northern wastes of Mongolia. Who among us beyond a handful of professional astronomers would know if Cohen cut the odd corner by finding a good sky not quite so remote? But photography has always had a very tight relationship to reality. A good sky is not the right sky. And the right sky in each case has a huge emotional effect.

Tokyo 35° 41’ 36’’ N 2011-11-16 lst 23:16

San Francisco 37° 48’ 30’’ N 2010-10-09 lst 20:58

Rio de Janeiro 22° 58’ 38’’ S 2011-06-04 lst 15:08

PARIS 48° 51’ 52’’ N  2021-07-14  UTC 22:18

Shanghai 31° 14’ 39’’ N 2012-03-19 lst 14:42

Hong Kong 22° 16’ 38" N  2012-03-22   LST 14:00

Rio de Janeiro 22° 56’ 42’’ S 2011-06-04 lst 12:34

You can find the rest of this series over on Cohen’s website. He’s also selling limited edition prints of these photographs for those of you interested in owning one of these works (you’ll need to contact the artist directly).

Darkened Cities by Thierry Cohen (via Gizmodo)

Thanks for sending in the tip, Albi!

Image credits: Photographs by Thierry Cohen/Galerie Esther Woerdehoff

  • 11

    We might need long exposure hdr ‘eyes’?

  • Tom Markham

    Looks like Revolution

  • Matthew Neumann


  • Mai Wafik

    Amazing photos and Great project that is. <>

  • 11

    “Photographer Imagines What World Cities Would Look Like Without Lights”

    I am not sure if we can see the galaxy with the naked eye, even when the lights are off. I am unable to make the connection here with light pollution and being able to see the galaxy or star clusters..

  • David Rychart

    You’re absolutely right. I’ve been in one of the “darkest” places in the world, and you can’t see the Milky Way like that. This is surrealism if you ask me. Cool, but not in any way realistic… even if every light in the world were shut off.

  • Gregor_Albrecht

    So you’re saying he isn’t allowed to use long exposures because that’s not how our eyes work?

  • 11

    I agree. Even at ISO 6400, it typically takes around 10-30secs of exposure to capture Milkyway galaxy.

    Just googling for “Milkyway galaxy long exposure” and looking at exif data reveals the typical ISO and shutter speeds.

  • 11

    No. that’s not what I am saying.

  • Mai Wafik

    You can definitely identify the Milkyway with your eyes in dark locations. Not like the long exposure photos but still nice and really remarkable.. Also, you can’t take those photos in the presence of light pollution..

  • 11

    “He shows, in other words, not a fantasy sky as it might be dreamt, but a real one as it should be seen.”

    makes sense?

    Again, even in the presence of city lights, but with clear sky, we could still get galaxy shots… perhaps may need a graduated ND filter.

    I am not critizing the work. I just dont understand the claims.

  • Albi Kl

    Glad to see he eventually got back to you Michael. And nice to see you done some further research on his project for the article.

  • Duke Shin

    Electric companies should have shut off the power for a few minutes on the 23rd of December to make everyone flip out

  • Duke Shin

    Rule 22/23 nuff said

  • Kimberly Siebert

    This is why it says in the title of the article “IMAGINES”, and.why it doesn’t say photographer creates images of what it would “ACTUALLY” look like if there were no light pollution.

  • Michael

    These are amazing. What dedication to our craft.

  • 11

    huh, I guess people dont want to leave me alone. There is not need to “Imagines”.

    You can take such photographs even with city lights.. all you need is clear sky. google for “milky way city”.. .example: flickr. com photos gfilm 7690182576
    correct the above link.

    I really like the photographs above, but didn’t like the claims..

  • thisbloghasjumpedtheshark

    And if my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle… This used to be a good blog…

  • Russell

    These pictures are beautiful and are a glimpse of what could be if we cut down down on light pollution.
    As an amateur astronomer (maybe star-gazer is a more appropriate term) I am increasingly frustrated at the spread of light pollution and the lack of action on part of councils and governments to do anything about it. I live on the edge of the blue mountains in Sydney and lately a few McMansions have popped up nearby. These idiots try and show off their crass oversized dwellings using spotlights, which has pretty much ruined the view of the milky way from my home.
    We regulate the size of homes, their colours, density, etc…why not the light we throw off the property?

  • bill

    You sir, are an ass

  • Athan Raptis

    Maybe you haven’t had the right atmospheric conditions then; because of the many times I’ve simply camped and backpacked in the wilderness, long before I got into photography, I could always clearly discern the Milky Way in the night sky when it had risen above the horizon.

  • rtfe

    why don’t you ditch your computer, and the amount of energy it takes to power the device/connect to the internet. every little bit helps…

  • Russell

    think you may not have grasped the point mate…regardless, use of a computer is purposeful use of power (i.e. it is used to communicate, learn and create), I doubt that any reasonable person would say that throwing 5000 lumens at your house all night is purposeful.
    Maybe you are one of those tools who does such things so maybe cant understand my point.

  • Jason Wright

    You don’t understand Light Pollution do you?
    EVEN with a completely clear night it is almost impossible to see most things from inside a city. There are dedicated filters for removing city light and they STILL don’t make these images possible.
    It’s not your fault, you probably have never been in a real dark sky.
    I pray that one day you manage to go to a remote location at least 200 miles away from lights and see what a real dark sky looks like, you and a lot of humanity are missing out. (I live in a city right now, but I remember what stars look like so it makes me very sad.)

  • Jason Wright

    Um, I failed to find any pics taken from inside a city that show a decent Milky way. I found one poor Photoshop on some site that didn’t create the image and were “guessing its unedited” but no real pictures.
    Maybe from way outside the city you can get a shot showing the city in the background that has a passable Milky way, but from inside a city? No way.

  • Carin Basson

    I have seen it without a telescope. The least little bit of light influences its visibility. Even stargazing when the moon is full influences what you can see.

  • TXCiclista

    Actually, many reasonable people would say that.

  • TXCiclista

    You could see it like through a camera (which those images pretend to be). Try it sometime. ISO 800, f/2, 15s exposure should do it.

  • TXCiclista

    Nah, I’ve done it in areas w/o light pollution in 15-30s at ISO 800 w/ an f/2 lens. The key is no light pollution (which is the point of these photos). You’re not Googling well if you can’t find stuff at ISO800.

  • 11

    @facebook-660954178:disqus you are right. Atmospheric conditions is what matters. The lights form the city simply is scattered back by the atmosphere, which then brings down the contrast with reference to light from the stars. Even if the lights are off, without clear sky it is hard to see the galaxy.

    When sandy hit north east, power was down in our city for several hours in the night.. and the sky seemed to be clear after the storm. But even then, a long exposure photographs did not show any remarkable star clusters.

  • 11

    @google-01133145df544c03375a61db5358ab72:disqus I do understand, as a matter of fact. If the sky is really clear, then the effect of city lights is minimal because there is nothing much to back scatter the light.

    Thank you for the prayers, I wish I get a trip because of your wishes.

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  • lidocaineus

    What does this even mean? Are you saying many people don’t understand light pollution? Are you saying there’s a valid reason for it?

  • Sum_it

    Am I the only one who is irritated by the long exposure sky with short exposure water?

  • Matthew Neumann

    Since you make this claim over and over why don’t you go ahead and prove it? Go take a milky way photo from within your city using the techniques you insist work. Come back and post it here and provide us the coordinates of where you took it from. Then we’ll see.

  • Matthew Neumann

    Also, your flickr example you posted there is ridiculous and works against you. A) that’s not taken anywhere near within the city, and B) you can clearly see that everything lit by the city lights is overexposed. If you were right within the city attempting to take that picture of the sky, you’d get nothing.

  • Lalo Gallardo

    Maybe that’s what the greeks saw. Beautiful

  • Kevin Sur

    Actually you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye without light pollution. I’m an amateur astronomer and can attest to as much. Of course there are nights where there are a lot of atmospheric interference due to wind or a number of other factors which may make this less likely, but with zero light pollution and good skies, you can most definitely see the milky way, and on many nights just as vividly as the photos portray. The fact that you’ve never seen it goes to show how much light pollution you’ve lived with.

  • Kevin Sur

    Sorry Kimberly but you can actually see the Milky Way with your naked eye under perfect conditions (good atmosphere and no light pollution). You will always need a long exposure to take a picture of the Milky Way because stars and objects in our Milky Way are low light objects and cameras need long exposures even in a room with one lamp on. This is what you’d see, and you shouldn’t separate the camera’s limitations from what your eyes are capable of.