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Getting Started with Night Photography

 

Destin Harbor at night

Destin Harbor, FL (54 second exposure at f/11, ISO 100)

Night photography immediately solves a huge problem that you confront constantly in photography. That problem is being faced with boring, ordinary scenes. If you take a picture of a building or a standard street scene during the day . . .  boring. Yawn. But that same scene at night can be a great and interesting photograph.

The actual taking of the picture set at night seems a little bit like magic to the novice. Even those who have been shooting a while wonder how you get a proper exposure in the dark. Although photographing in the dark certainly has its challenges, in some ways it is actually easier than photography during the day.

This article will get you started in this great field within photography.

What to Bring for Night Photography

You will not need much in the way of extra gear to do night photography. Besides your standard camera and lens, the only thing you will absolutely need is a tripod. Make sure that you have a good tripod and that you are using it properly.

Another helpful item is a remote shutter release. This is essentially a remote control for your camera. The units that attach to your camera with a cable are very cheap and work great. I would definitely get one of those. You can also get models that work wirelessly. Be sure you get one that fits your camera.

Pigeon Point - night photography

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, CA (6 second exposure at f/5/6, ISO 1600)

Although not necessary, here are some other items to consider bringing with you for night photography:

  • A flashlight: this will come in handy in a myriad of ways. It will help you with finding your camera controls if you don’t know them cold. It will help you find things in your camera bag. You can also use it for light painting as well.
  • Lens hood: the hood for your lens will help keep glare from streetlights and other sources to a minimum.
  • Extra battery: you will be taking longer exposures at night, and this can wear down your battery rather quickly. You might want to have a back up.

Exposure at Night

The biggest difference between daytime photography and night photography is the exposure values you need to use. The darkness changes everything. But once you have your camera on a tripod, it is actually not that difficult to get the proper exposure in most cases.

New York City at night

New York, NY. Because tripods are not allowed at Top of the Rock, where this was taken, this was taken with a shutter speed of 1/3 second, at f/4.0, ISO 400.

Let’s back up and cover things that you hopefully already know. Your camera’s exposure is a result of three things: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Because of the darkness, you need to let more light into the camera, and you can only do so by affecting one of these three controls.

Shutter Speed

The main control you will change is shutter speed. During the day, you typically use shutter speeds that are a small fraction of a second. At night, you will need to get used to using shutter speeds that are longer than one second – sometimes significantly longer. Because the shutter will be open for a longer period of time, the camera needs to be held steady or the picture will be blurry. That is why we have the tripod. You can leave the shutter open all night so long as the camera is steady and does not move at all.

Aperture

The aperture is the hole in the back of the lens that lets light into the camera. You can adjust the size of the aperture, and that will affect the amount of light you let into the camera for a given shutter speed. It also affects the depth of field. For the most part, there is no difference between how you will use the aperture at night versus how you use it during the day. At night, many photographers try to keep the aperture number smaller (which is a larger aperture) in an effort to get more light into the camera.

One trick with aperture at night that you should know is that if you use a very small aperture (think f/22) street lights and other bright light sources will have a starburst effect in your picture.

ISO

The third exposure control, ISO, is a measurement of the sensitivity to light of your digital sensor. Lower ISO values (like 100-200) mean that your camera’s digital sensor is less sensitive to light, but it keeps digital noise to a minimum. Higher ISO values make your digital sensor more sensitive to light and thereby allow you to use a shorter shutter speed or a smaller aperture, but this also results in more digital noise in your pictures.

One wrinkle to worry about in night photography is that dark areas of your picture tend to show more digital noise than lighter areas. Therefore digital noise is often a problem with night photos. Resist the temptation to crank up the ISO at night.

Galveston Pier at night

Fishing Pier in Galveston, TX (30 second exposure, at f/16, ISO 200)

As a general rule, when it comes to exposing your images at night, whenever possible add light and thereby increase your exposure by increasing your shutter speed. In other words, generally set your aperture and ISO where you want them without regard to the exposure. Then set your shutter speed where it needs to be in order to get a proper exposure.

The only time this won’t work is if you are trying to stop the motion at night. This is a very tricky thing to do. The only way to do it is to set your ISO extremely high (in the range of 1600 to 6400) and use the largest aperture (meaning the smallest number) possible. Even then, your shutter speed may not be fast enough depending upon the amount of light available.

Night photography on the California coast

Ocean by moonlight, CA (10 second exposure, at f/5.6, ISO 1600)

Picking a Subject

For the most part, a good subject is a good subject. Still, things will look different at night. Here are some tips on subjects you might want to use for choosing subjects for night photography:

Buildings. Well-lit buildings are an obvious choice of a nighttime subject. You almost can’t go wrong here. Although the concept is obvious, when executed well the result can still be great. You can also use this as a starting point for your night photography. You will have additional ideas as you stand there waiting for your pictures to expose.

Dallas Texas night photography

5 second exposure at f/16, ISO 400.

Streetlights. Pay close attention to streetlights when you are doing night photography. They can be useful in a lot of different contexts. They can add a point of interest to it otherwise blank area of the picture. If there are multiple lights, they can create a nice leading line into your picture.

Streaking taillights. A really fun thing to include in your night photos is streaking taillights. These are created when a car or other vehicle drives through the frame while you have the shutter open. The camera picks up the lights, but since the car has gone all the way through the frame while you had the shutter open, it shows up in your picture as streaking lights. Try to time your pictures so that vehicles move all the way across the frame while you have the shutter open.

Reflections. A benefit of the longer shutter speeds you will be using at night is that reflections show up better on the surfaces of water. This is obviously true on ponds and lakes. But it is also true for puddles. After a rain can be a great time for night photography.

Fountains. Perhaps my favorite nighttime subject is fountains. Many times they are lit with different colors as well, adding additional interest. The long shutter speeds you use at night make the fountain appear to be flowing.

Panama City at night

Panamia City, Panama (30 second exposure, at f/16, ISO 200).

When picking subjects for night photography, it is important to note that things will not look the same to the camera as they do to you. Take test shots whenever possible. If the idea of a long exposure test-shot seems tedious, crank up the ISO for purposes of the test-shot. That will allow you to use a short shutter speed for the test shot. When you go to take the final picture you can reduce the ISO and increase the shutter speed by a corresponding amount.

Focusing

One final difficulty you will face in night photography is that it is often tricky to focus your camera.  So next I will cover some tips for focusing at night.

Most cameras operate on “contrast detection” focusing. If the scene is too dark, there is no contrast for the camera to pick up. There are a few things you can do to get your camera to focus though. The first is to focus on a bright light in the picture. A streetlight works well for this. Try focusing on the edge of the light (between the bright part and the black background), which will give you the necessary contrast. Be sure you are focusing the same distance away as you where want your final picture to be focused. Once you have the focus set, recompose your picture and press the shutter button to take the picture.

Another trick to allow you to use your auto focus is to break out the flashlight and shine it on the thing that you want your camera to focus on. If it is close enough, the flashlight should provide sufficient light for your camera to focus.

If none of this works, you will need to manually focus your camera. If your lens has a distance scale on the front of it, you can use it to set the focus a certain distance away. Otherwise you will need to guesstimate.

In any event, remember that this is digital photography and you always get a do-over. Just look at the LCD (zooming in if possible) to see if your picture is in focus.  If it is not, just take the shot again.

Night photography at the Davenport Cliffs, California

Davenport Cliffs, CA (6 second exposure at f/5.6, ISO 1600).

The Upsides of Night Photography

I mentioned at the outset of this article that night photography help solve one of the biggest problems you face as a photographer. It makes things more interesting.

There are other reasons you may love night photography as well.  It can actually be a much more relaxing to shoot at night than during the day. Light does not change at night, so there is never a need to hurry.

So give night photography a try, and you might get hooked.

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