There are so many exciting, creative possibilities when the sun goes down.
With these opportunities, however, comes great challenge. In extremely low-lit scenes you have no way of seeing how the image will come out until after you’ve taken it. When using 30 second to 5 minute exposures, that’s a lot of waiting.
With that said, this lesson is designed to simplify night photography and arm you with know-how of various exposure settings and their influence on your night photos.
We will begin with the basics of night photography and then jump on over to a few night photo scenarios most photographers love.
With any photo shoot at night, you are going to want to arm yourself with a few basic tools:
- Shutter Release or WIRELESS remote control release
- Glasses (if you have trouble seeing)
A tripod is the most essential tool you will need. With the extreme low light that night gives you, you will be required to use very slow shutter speeds. While other steadying devices may help stabilize your camera in certain situations (monopods), a sturdy tripod is best.
Additionally, sandbags or other heavy material to wrap around your camera is a lifesaver for wind or other conditions that may cause vibration or movement of your camera.
Shutter Release or Wireless Remotes:
Depending on the situation you face, the shutter speed and/or telephoto lens may be set up so that even clicking the shutter button will cause extreme camera blur. To avoid this, be sure to bring along a shutter release or wireless remote to trigger the photo.
One cheap alternative to this is to use the remote timer function your camera most likely has. If your camera is anything like mine, however, you’ll hate that function and opt for an easier-to-use shutter release cable!
As I touched upon earlier, at night you will have a difficult time looking through the viewfinder to see what you are photographing. For me, photographing mostly in nature where there is little to no light besides the moon, this causes a massive issue.
Sure, I can use Live Preview mode. This, however, is a massive energy hog.
Hence the flashlight.
For foreground objects or subjects I want to frame, I can use a flashlight to shine light onto them and will be able to see that light from my viewfinder. With this I can both frame and focus on the object with ease.
If you’re like me and have nearsighted vision that requires glasses to see anything past a foot from your eyes, do not forget your glasses!
I’ve fallen victim to this mistake several times and it just compounds the fact that I can’t see out of my viewfinder.
A simple little thing – but important!
With the equipment basics covered needed for most all night shoots, follow along as we now dive into night photography.
Setting Your Exposure
Exposing for night can go from the spectrum of easy to extremely challenging. This all depends on one thing: available light.
If you are shooting in the streets of a city at night, most likely you’ll have ample light to help aid your exposures. A higher ISO is likely all you’ll need to free yourself to exposing with ease. The greater amount of available light will also reduce the noise generated as you’ll be able to use faster shutters.
The real difficulty of night photography is when you encounter minimal light situations.
Think nature photos at night.
This difficulty, however, definitely pays off. Nothing is more exhilarating than capturing a blanket of stars over a tranquil, mysterious landscape.
Use the Right Aperture for the Job
With lower light available, it’s easy to fall for the trap of picking a large aperture to reduce exposure time. This can lead you to taking shots without adequate depth and lacking in clarity.
Instead, decide first how much depth of field you want in your image.
For close-up shots of subjects, a large aperture can work great. It will allow more light in, reduce shutter time, and produce a great bokeh effect for any background lights.
Scenes with a medium focal length and only a few feet of space you want in focus will likely require a bit of a smaller aperture. You don’t need to jump down to f/16 but an f/8 or f/11 will probably be best.
Landscape and cityscapes at night with subjects from foreground to background need a small aperture to ensure maximum clarity.
Let the Shutter Fall Where It May
Whatever aperture you’ve decided works best for your shot, let your shutter speed fall naturally into place.
It may be tempting to use shutter priority to “blur” motion and control exposure time. When you are faced with a low light scene with moving objects (cars, stars, etc), using a low ISO and small aperture almost guarantees a slow shutter.
For this reason, it’s recommended that you shoot in aperture priority over shutter priority.
When you need a faster or slower shutter, just manipulate your ISO to get you to where you want to be.
Use the Highest ISO For Street, Handheld Moments
Street shots at night require precision and steadiness of hand, both of which are impossible with a slow shutter speed. Ensure you avoid this by setting your ISO as high as possible to allow you to reach a fast enough shutter.
It’s better to have noise than blur.
Set Your White Balance for the Night Light
The more varying light sources in your scene, the more likely Auto white balance will produce adequate, realistic color tones.
When you have only one or two light sources, you may run into some trouble.
A night shot that includes both moonlight and tungsten indoor light will be tricky for your camera to handle in Auto.
I would recommend instead setting your white balance to capture the natural light of the outdoors. This will produce realistic outdoor night light and allow the artificial light to fall into place without distorting the colors of nature.
Stack Focus For Guaranteed Sharpness
Lower light scenes are notorious for causing auto focus to pretty much fail. It’s at times like this when your manual focus chops are tested.
To this day I find that my manual focusing is weak at best. It’s just too hard to get a sharp image when you’re working with a minimal amount of light.
Fortunately, there are a couple ways you can work around this.
#1. Use Live Preview Mode
Jump over to your dSLR’s Live Preview mode and zoom in as close as you can to the area you want in focus. This will give you a much better idea of how close you are to a sharp image.
With that said, low light is low light and no amount of zooming in will give you a solid feel for how well you focused. That’s why it’s important to also….
#2. Stack Your Focusing
When you take a shot at night and rely on your focusing skills only once, you’re standing on stilts.
Why not, instead take several shots with your focus barrel moved every so slightly to the left and then right. This will give you multiple shots at different focus points. The more photos you take at varying points, the more likely you’ll stumble upon one that hits the mark.
Check For Feedback ASAP
Don’t listen to other photographers gawking at those that check their LCD after every shot. For night photography if you don’t do this, you’re almost guaranteeing failure.
The low light always seems to throw off your light meter. When I followed my light meter to the “t”, my night shots ended up looking like morning. The moon was as bright and colored as the sun.
After this, I realized that I really just have to experiment. Play around with varying exposure times until I stumble upon the right set of settings.
Have patience. The lower the light you’re working with, the more trial and error you’ll have to maneuver through before getting an adequate shot.
Trust me, it’s totally worth it.