Daytime photography makes perfect sense for most photographers; it’s the time of day when they will go about all their landscape, portraiture, macro, and street photography. But there are plenty of others who refuse to call it a day just because the sun vanishes below the horizon. In fact, there are photographers who prefer the night. These shadow warriors don’t see the challenges involved with nighttime shooting as a hassle; they enjoy the night and revel in the creative opportunities embedded in very low light photography.
You don’t need to be a card carrying night owl to enjoy some occasional after dark photography. If you’ve ever wanted to a little more than dip your toe in the dark end of the pool, or if you’ve tried night photography but just can’t seem to get it right, what follows will help you take nighttime photos that you can be proud of.
Some people might conclude that night photography is, by default, long exposure photography; this isn’t always the case (night street photography tends to follow somewhat different rules, for instance), but it is what we will focus on this time around.
First Things First: Stabilization
The main culprit of ruined night photos is camera shake, thus the only way to get sharp images while working with long exposures is to stabilize your camera. I recommend you get yourself one or both of the following:
A tripod will unquestionably be your best friend when it comes to keeping your camera still. While tripods represent a burden to some photographers, they don’t have to be. There’s no tripod that is universally accepted as being perfect, but with some diligent research you can make sensible compromises in size, weight, and cost. And you if don’t have or simply refuse to carry a tripod, make use of your surroundings. Look for a ledge or post or some other sturdy structure that can serve as a makeshift tripod.
Photo by Kenny Louie
Remote Shutter Release
This isn’t necessarily a must-have, but a remote shutter release will help you achieve an added layer of stability by keeping you from having to touch the camera. But if you don’t have a shutter release device, you can use your camera’s self-timer with equal success. You will, however, probably find the remote shutter release makes setting up and shooting long exposures more convenient.
Photo by William Cho
Make it Happen: Camera Settings and Technique
Even under the umbrella of nighttime photography there are going to be different variables to contend with in each situation. There are, however, a few guidelines that you can easily adapt to fit your specific circumstance.
Shoot in Manual Mode (M)
Your camera’s auto settings simply aren’t going to cut it in this situation; not even if your camera has a “night scene” mode. Just pretend that mode doesn’t exist on your camera. Letting your camera determine aperture and shutter speed will leave you with shots that are severely underexposed or exhibit some other unwanted properties. The only way to you will be successful with long exposures is to take total control of your camera.
Photo by Shane Gorski
Set Aperture to Optimize Depth of Field
A smaller aperture (f/8 on up) puts more of a scene into focus and is the way to go for cityscapes, landscapes, and anytime you want to introduce blur effects such as light trails and star trails. If you don’t have a tripod but you are using a fast lens (f/1.4, for example) you can shoot wide open to let in more light and allow you to use a faster shutter speed. Keep in mind, however, that depending on your subject, a large aperture may not give you the desired effect and will be more challenging to focus (particularly in the dark).
Set Shutter Speed to Make Best Use of Available Light
This could be 3 seconds, it could be 30 seconds. You may even need to use bulb mode (B) in certain situations. If you’re shooting just before sunrise or just after sunset you won’t need as long a shutter speed. In all cases, you need to be able to interpret the light and set your shutter speed accordingly.
This image needed an exposure time of just under 4 seconds.
Photo by tdlucas5000
While this image needed an exposure time of almost 60 seconds.
Photo by Jonathan Combe
Keep ISO as Low as Possible
Always start out at your camera’s lowest ISO setting (usually 100) to avoid noise. Given the fact that you’re using a tripod, it’s unlikely that you would ever need to increase ISO. If you need more light, just lengthen exposure time.
Photo by H Matthew Howarth
Use Manual Focus
Trying to autofocus in the dark is going to give you fits. Don’t waste time fiddling with AF; switch to manual focus. If your camera has Live View, by all means use it to achieve precise focus. As alluded to above, using a smaller aperture can give you some wiggle room when it comes to focusing. You might also consider using infinity focus.
You’re using a digital camera, right? Well, don’t be afraid to take test shots. Take as many as you need and adjust your settings accordingly.
All this might seem like a lot of work, but after some practice you’ll be shooting at night with much the same efficiency as you do during the day.