Night Photography Tips – Photography Basics

Night Photography

As photography requires light to work, Night Photography can present special opportunities, otherwise known as challenges. Less light coming in means wider Aperture, slower Shutter Speeds and higher ISO. But it’s not always that simple. Ok, sometimes it is.
Night Photos - Photograph Basics
Night shots, like this one of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, often require either a tripod or a sturdy surface. In this case I used the top of a car and wedged a Pop-Tarts(R) box (chocolate, of course) under the lens in order to prop it up at the right angle.

I was late for checking in with a friend and had to get the shot as the rock was bathed in the light from a half moon. The photo is 30 seconds long and at f/3.5, ISO 400 and 10mm on a Canon 7D (making it equivalent to a 16mm on a full frame camera).

Compare that to another shot that night where I attempted to hand hold.

Night Photos - Photograph Basics

This shot of the Ahwahnee hotel, also in Yosemite, was another chance encounter and one I thought I could pull off hand holding as I, again, had little time.

But in looking at the image, especially the rock detail, you can see quality suffered because I failed to find a stable (dry) surface. This shot is at ISO 4000, f/3.5 and 1.6 seconds. I had high hopes, but failed.  The lesson: Use a steady surface whenever you can at night.

Lessons Learned

Some other lessons relating to night photography:

  • Graduated Neutral Density Filters can help, even at night. Take a look at the lodge shot. The moon is always way brighter than you think (moon photo tips here) and can easily be overpowering. Tone it down with a bit of shading.
  • Use a steady surface.
  • But experiment with hand holding. Of the camera. Or hold hands with someone while you shoot. Only if you’re going steady. Ok, I’ll stop.
  • Keep the ISO as low as you can. If you are using a steady surface and you don’t care if the shutter speed is 10 seconds or 20 seconds, drop your ISO by a stop whenever possible. More, if you can. While it is often tempting to use the high ISO to get your shutter speed within range, you will have more noise than you might notice at first. Want to see what that image looking like close up?  Here’s a zoomed in bit that is at 100% view (click on it for a full view)

Night Photos - Photograph Basics

  • Consider using spot or center weighted metering if there are large areas of blackness in your field of view.   All that dark will weigh down the light and might make things too bright (as your camera tries to bring out the light in the black).
  • I’ll get into the fun that is star trails in another post. But for now, realize that the earth moves faster than you think it does and after 30 seconds stars will look a bit blurry because of this movement, until they start to make pretty lines.
  • Look for movement with lights. You can get some pretty cool streaking effects with cars, reflections, boats or anything else that moves.
  • But you’ll want to make sure your camera is on a steady surface.
  • Consider playing around with light painting. It can be a lot of fun.
  • Going with a wide angle lens will help shorten shutter speed times.
  • It takes some getting used to how you see a scene as maybe well lit, and what your camera thinks is well lit. Remember, your eye and brain have a much better time with the low light than your camera. It takes practice to get used to what will render well and what won’t.
  • Find a steady surface.

Night photography can be a lot of fun and also a lot of a challenge. With less light available the balance changes and it can be a lot of fun learning how to react best. But it also opens up even more time to shoot!

Questions? Comments? Caricatures?

Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

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