Personally I prefer shooting at night however a lot of photographers don’t venture out to try this genre of photography. Whether this is due to lack of time in the evenings or simply that a lot of people feel that night photography is too difficult to get right and achieve great images…..
well, it’s not! With the right planning and a bit of ingenuity (if needed), night photography is a great way to capture images which show how different the world is after dark.
It is desirable to own (or borrow) the following for a night photography shoot;
- DSLR Camera
- Remote Release
- Map or pre planned location for the shoot
- Spare batteries
- Spare memory
Most DSLR’s have a manual mode (and RAW) which will enable you to experiment with ISO, Aperture and Exposure to get the images just right. Increasing the ISO will help with night photos but remember that the usual effect of increasing the ISO is increased noise within the image. Shooting in RAW will enable you greater flexibility during post processing and allow you to experiment with different ISO settings, exposure and white balance which wouldn’t be nearly as easy if you had taken the photographs in JPEG.
A DSLR will also allow for interchangeable lenses, which in turn will not only allow for a range of different perspectives but also give a greater choice of the settings used. Wide angle lenses will typically allow more light into the sensor in a shorter amount of time and therefore reduce the exposure time required, so, a Fisheye lens for instance (like my 8mm) will take shots in low light conditions with shorter exposure times than my 50mm.
Which aperture you choose to use is really down to you as only you know what effect and overall feeling you want to protray in your image. If you want to create Bokeh in your image than a open aperture of F2.8 – F4 would be the setting that you used and would probably in turn mean that you could use a shorter exposure time. If you want to achieve sharpness in most of the content of your image then a smaller aperture would be chosen (anything to F12 etc) however this would require a longer exposure time and would cause light streaks and blur on moving objects and maybe even ‘hot spots’ within the image.
White balance settings are a tricky one at night as there is a lot of artificial light about (street lamps, illuminated signs etc). Although this light can be used to great effect within reflections and as ambient lighting effects, it can also be adjusted in post processing if you shoot in RAW.
Make sure that you bracket your shots when shooting at night, this gives you varying images based on your initial settings, as shot, slightly underexposed and slightly overexposed (aim to bracket at about 3 stops), most DSLR’s will have the ability to automatically bracket shots for you rather than you having to change the setting manually. During post processing you then have a choice of which of the images to use or you can combine them into 1 HDR image.
Take loads of shots as the lighting conditions change, the more shots you have, the more likely it will be that you will capture the perfect shot of the evening.
I find that taking loads of long exposure shots tends to wear the battery down quicker than usual due to the amount of processing that the camera has to cope with. It is a good idea not to use the preview screen as this will also wear the battery down (I never use this anyway out of personal preference).
Possibly the most important element during night photography is the ability to ensure that the camera is completely still during exposure. Using the camera’s mirror lock setting will also help to reduce vibration. Most DSLR’s use a mirror to allow you to see what you are taking a photo of, just before the exposure starts when you take the photo the mirror flips up and this can cause vibration and as such a blurred image (this is usually a tiny amount of blur). Mirror Lock stops this from happening by flipping the mirror up earlier and therefore giving more time for the vibrations to stop before the exposure starts.
You can also employ your cameras illuminated screen at night to easily see the settings you currently have for the next shot, if you do not have this option then just grab a torch before heading out.
A sturdy tripod will help to achieve this but is not the only consideration when making sure that there is absolutely no movement during the shot.
Image Stabilisation is also a feature that many DSLR’s include and this should be used during night time shooting although if you do not have this feature then the combination of a tripod and mirror lock should suffice. If you do not have a tripod then you can use a variety of other tools and aids to keep the camera still, using a bean bag or even a coat or jumper ‘can’ be enough for medium length exposures.
Remote releases are another great tool for night photography as they allow you to control the camera without physically having to depress the shutter button on the camera body and therefore causing movement. Decent remotes also offer the choice of exposure times which are not available on the camera itself as you can select anything using second, minutes and even hours. Remotes can also offer settings to shoot repeatedly at set intervals for time lapse photography. If you do not have a remote then you can use the cameras self timer, these vary from camera to camera (mine can be either 10 or 2 seconds).
You can use the ‘Bulb’ setting on your camera to give you freedom regarding your choice of exposure time however this may involve having to depress the shutter at the start of the exposure and then again at the end or even having to hold the shutter down consistently during the exposure, both of these will increase the chance of camera shake and blur.
Night photography doesn’t only start when the light has completely disappeared, 20 minutes to 1/2 hour either side of sunset offer varying light conditions and in turn various opportunities for great photos, full of golden natural light mixed with the emerging artificial light from the city/town. The sky during this time turns from the light blue of the daytime, through golden, red and yellow to a dark blue just before the light completely fades.
Be careful to check for strong light sources which although not actually in the frame can cause flare which could ruin your photograph. Avoid these by repositioning yourself so that the light is not a factor or, if your feeling steady handed, you can block the light source for the duration of the exposure with a black card or similar. If you want to include areas of bright light then you should really try and capture these before the light has completely gone (dusk) as the contrast between their light and the surrounding darker areas will be less of an issue.
Night Photography Ideas
Light Streaks – Any traffic at night will cause light streaks due to the headlights and the exposure of the image. Use the settings described above and you will capture light streaks, the tick is where to go to get great images rather than just a black photo with red and white streaks through it (unless this is what you want?!). Roads surrounded by other ambient light is a good start as this will enable you to capture other interest and create an overall mood, objects such as coloured lit signs and office blocks with hundreds of lit windows are a great backdrop for urban night shots.
Cityscapes - As per the main article.
For more example see my previous gallery posts;
- London Skyline And Canary Wharf
- Millennium Bridge, London Town
Light Painting - Creating light streaks is loads of fun and easy. As you can do pretty much anything with the light source during the exposure, from precise writing or creating outlines around objects, all the way through to attaching a torch to the end of a rope and swinging it about randomly, you will never have to images that are the same.
Firstly make sure that the frame is set up correctly and that your camera is using the correct settings for the light conditions, take a few shots to get this right before doing any light painting. Once you have the correct exposure time, ISO and aperture start the exposure and wait as long as possible until entering the frame. One thing to remember is that the longer you are in the shot, the more of a ghosting image of yourself you will capture in the final image. You could dress in darker clothes which will help to a certain extent but it is best to just have an idea of what ou are wanting to achieve in that shot before taking the photo.
If you want to write words or create light streaks that are not all one continuous line of light, then remember you can turn off the torch etc for a very short period and this will break that light line.
Another use of light painting is to ACTUALLY paint an object with light during the exposure. This is normally carried out more gently than creating streaks and you are aiming to highlight certain areas of the object rather than create solid, vivid light streaks. You can use a torch for this with coloured partly transparent paper over the bulb to change the colour cast by the light.
Portraits – Portraits at night are a challenge too due to the light restriction however they can also prove to be one of the most original portrait variations out there. Different moods can be created to great effect with everything from mystery to humour to horror being portrayed effectively.
Now, you may thing that there won’t be any natural light at night however on certain nights of the year the moon is actually very brights and casts a lovely dark blue hue, combining this with the minimal amount of artificial light required to expose the image can offer great results. You can also use your flash and if you have one, an external flash will provide more flexibility with regards to the source of the light and the strength of that light on the subject.
Remember that with a subject that is not naturally static (a human!) you will need to try and get the lowest exposure time possible to avoid blur, with this in mind you may well need to crank up the ISO (watch the noise!) and open up the aperture. Even with the faster exposure it is still recommended to use a tripod and remote to reduce camera shake.