As a photographer, what do you do after the sun has set? For some, that might be time to pack up, head to a bar and have a couple of drinks. Others may prefer to head home and upload their days photographs to a photo sharing website or blog. However, the setting sun doesn’t mean the end of the photography day. With a couple of simple preparations you can continue shooting into the night. Right through the night if you’re keen. So let’s take a look at night photography and see what’s what.
In terms of photo gear needed, as long as you have a suitable camera and tripod you’re good to go. What do I mean by suitable camera? Well, you’re going to have longer exposure times at night than you would in the daylight, so you need a camera that can cope with this. As long as your camera a range of slow shutter speeds (1 second to 30 seconds) you’ll be fine. If the camera as a “B” or bulb setting, even better, as this will allow you to shoot exposures of longer than 30 seconds if need be. Most older manual exposure cameras and modern DSLR’s will be perfectly equipped for night photography, as will many modern digicams. If you’re unsure whether your camera can do it, check the manual.
Longer exposure times means you require some way to get the camera stable. Handholding is not possible as you will get noticeable camera shake in your pictures. So you’re going to need a tripod.
10 second exposure – this wouldn’t be possible without a good tripod.
If you take some care in your initial tripod purchase, it can be the only tripod you’ll ever need to buy. One of the biggest mistakes people make is buying a cheap tripod that isn’t sturdy enough. And they often don’t find out that it isn’t sturdy enough until after the pictures have been taken, by which time it may be too late to re-take them. Avoid buying plastic tripods, instead aim for aluminum (cheaper and heavier), titanium, magnesium alloy or carbon fiber (more expensive but lighter). Spending a little extra money upfront can save you in the long run. Manufacturers such as Manfrotto/Bogen, Gitzo, Slik and Giottos all make great tripods but they are by no means the only ones. The tripod will have a head to hold the camera secure. Typically you have a choice of either pan/tilt or ball heads. Pan and tilt heads move left/right and up/down whereas ball heads have fluid movement in any direction. Both have advantages and disadvantages – I personally prefer to use a ball head but try both out before you make your purchase.
One further piece of equipment that is handy to have is some kind of remote release. Once you have the camera mounted on your sturdy tripod, the last thing you want to do is introduce shake by pressing down on the shutter release. There are a number of ways to trip the shutter remotely. The simplest method is the cameras own self-timer, although this won’t work on bulb setting. Setting the timer to 10 seconds (usually the default) will allow any small vibrations caused by your touch to settle down before the picture is taken. A better option is to use a wired (cheaper) or wireless (more expensive) release. There are proprietary releases made by the camera manufacturers, cheap third party releases and professional solutions available here. Choose whichever best fits your budget and needs.
So there you are. Standing outside somewhere at night, camera on tripod, remote release in hand and wondering what to do. Set your camera to its lowest ISO, usually ISO100 or 200. Pick an aperture that will give you some depth of field but won’t make for dramatically long exposure times. F5.6 is probably a good starting point, although you could open up to f4 or stop down to f8 depending on the scene. With the camera is Av mode, take a shot and see what it looks like. Viewing the resulting image on the LCD screen will give you an idea as to how accurate the exposure is. In-camera meters can sometimes get fooled or become inaccurate at night, so don’t worry if your photo is overly bright or dark. If your exposure time falls within the range of roughly 1/30 to 2 seconds, you make experience some slight shake from the mirror-slap. If your camera has a mirror lock-up (MLU) feature, enable it. For exposures longer than 2 secs, mirror shake is negligable, so MLU is not critical as many night shots are going to be longer than 2 seconds.
With your first test image as your guide, make adjustments accordingly. If you got close on the test shot, you could try adjusting the exposure compensation dial on your camera. Dialing in +/- 1EV may be all you need. Otherwise, change the exposure mode from Av to M, set your aperture as desired and take a range of different exposures, adjusting the shutter speed as need be. Don’t worry too much about what the camera’s meter says – at this point you’re just experimenting to get an optimum exposure for your vision. Camera meters are great, but they can’t read your mind. The look you’re going for may well be different than a “normal” exposure. And remember the warning above about nighttime inaccuracies.
A critical, and often overlooked factor in night photography is focusing. Simply put, the darker it is, the harder it is for the camera’s autofocus to properly lock onto the subject. Being dark, it’s also difficult to see well enough through the viewfinder for accurate manual focusing, especially if the lens is stopped down for greater DOF. Fortunately, there are a couple of methods available to make things easier.
If there are point light sources at a similar distance as the subject you’re shooting, you can try focusing on one of these brighter spots, lock the focus and recompose as necessary. As I’ve mentioned in other tutorials, the center focus point is often the most sensitive, so make sure you’re using it. On nights when there’s a moon, you can aim your camera and autofocus on it, then recompose your shot with the focus locked. This will establish your focus at infinity. The most recent crop of DSLRs offer live view modes that allow accurate manual focusing using the rear LCD rather than the viewfinder. If you have one of these cameras give that a go.
I can hear you wondering, “It’s dark. Why can’t I just use a flash?” Well you can. And you can’t. Indoors, with walls and ceilings, the light from the flash has plenty to bounce off and reflect back into the scene. No problem. Outdoors however, and it’s a different story. With only the sky above we have no ceiling to bounce the light from. The most powerful hotshoe flash will only light a small area at close distances so anything more than a few meters away will remain dark. So in most instances, a flash is not going to do us any good.
Most instances is not all instances and there are times when we can make use of a flash outdoors at night. Earlier we talked about long exposures of multiple seconds. Great for buildings that tend to remain still but not so useful for people. It’s close to impossible for the average person to remain perfectly still for 1 second, so if we need a 30 second exposure to get enough light, our person is going to be a blur. Without getting into a long discussion on flash photography, the ambient light is governed by our shutter speed (hence the need for long exposures) but flash is controlled by the aperture. So we can make a multi-second exposure of the background and pop off a small burst of flash to freeze the person we are taking a picture. The 1/1000 or so of a second the flash fires for is enough to light the foreground subject but doesn’t alter the background. (This 1/1000 is roughly the duration of the flash firing, it’s nothing you need to set.) You may need to make sure you’re in M mode for this, as some cameras won’t allow long exposure times in Av when there’s a flash connected. Done properly, we get a nice, sharp well-lit portrait with our night scene in the background. Like so.
By following the steps above, you can make great night photos. In a future post, I’ll be giving some specific examples of different images and how they were made, so stay tuned. In the meantime get out there and give it a try. Email your best shots to the submissions desk and I’ll feature them here in a future post.