When I first started taking photographs I would dread nightfall because I believed that all the good photo-taking opportunities were over for the day. However, when I caught my first glimpse of a stunning photograph taken at night my whole world, photographically speaking, turned upside down. Since then I have grown to learn that when the sun goes to rest for the day, there is no reason for a photographer to do the same. In fact, some of the most dramatic photography opportunities don't happen until well after sunset.
Night photography can be a little tricky for some people to get the hang of because it involves more than just a point-and-shoot kind of approach. A lot of the same techniques needed for good day photography, such as assessing lighting conditions, creating a good composition and an understanding of which aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings to use in any given situation, are also needed for good night photography.
Having said all that, night photography adds the difficulties of having to photograph in extremely low lighting conditions and working with longer than normal shutter speeds which could range from a few seconds, or minutes, to as much as a few hours!
While night photography can be more challenging than at other times of the day, it has an incredible payoff when done correctly. Being able to capture the amazing colors within a night scene that the naked eye will never be able to behold is truly rewarding. So in order to get you on the road to taking stunning night photographs, I have listed a few key things that will help you achieve great results that you will be proud of.
Tips For Great Night Photography
Nikon D700 12.1MP and Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor Lens - 105mm 104.0 seconds f/13, ISO 100 (photographed almost 40 minutes after sunset)
1. Bring Along a Good Sturdy Tripod
Related Tags: night photography, photographing at night, long exposures, low light photography, night pictures, tips for night photos, taking night photographs, long shutter speeds
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Photographing at night (or in the pre-dawn, post dusk time periods) will require longer exposures to be used. This means that you will not even want to attempt a shot without one. Hopefully you have one that will adequately hold the weight of your camera well for long periods of time without moving or shaking. If not, then you can get a really good one for a decent price at any of the following online retailers - B&H, Adorama or Amazon.
A good tripod is an essential for any photographer, but a must if you want to get some of those awesome night photography stunners you are after! (Tip: If your camera has a mirror lock-up function, use it. It will help to any mirror shake, which will help result in crisper images)
2. Use Manual Mode
Manual mode on a camera, for many, is like the Bermuda Triangle. They are intrigued by it, but when they actually check it out, they end up completely lost. Okay, so maybe the Bermuda Triangle isn't the best metaphor to use, but I think you get the picture (no pun intended).
Now, I will be the first to admit that I do not always shoot in Manual mode with my DSLR camera. Some photographers might frown upon me for doing so, but I truly love the semi-automatic modes of Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority as well. They work great for a lot of different situations because they allow me to adjust only what I want to and then let the camera do the rest.
However, for night photography I usually tend to use Manual mode. The reason is because I like to have complete control over all aspects of the shot so that I can tweak them until I find just the right exposure to get the result I am looking for. With that said, if you truly feel intimidated by the Manual mode setting on your digital camera then you can always default to the Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority modes and see what you get. I would recommend staying away from Automatic mode, however, since it will typically get tricked by the lighting conditions very easily, and you won't get the look you're probably going for.
3. ISO: How Low Can You Go?
When some people think of taking night photographs they often think that the lower the ISO the better. While this is true in most circumstances, a super low ISO is not always the best way to take night pictures. The reason is because there are often lights that we don't think of that can cause a night shot to come out really bad if the ISO is too low.
Some examples are the direct moon light, street lights, star light, city lights and car lights to name a few. If you just put your camera on the lowest ISO setting then you could end up with a really bad exposure. I usually start with an ISO of around 200 dialed in and then adjust it up or down depending on what the exposure looks like it needs. Within a couple of shots I usually get the exposure I am pleased with.
While a tripod will help to reduce camera shake during longer exposures, it's a good idea to use a remote shutter release (if your camera takes one) or the timer function to really cut down on blurry images. You might not realize it but each time you manually press the capture button on your camera, you move your camera.
Now while this is not a big deal when you are shooting with faster shutter speeds, slower shutter speeds aren't as forgiving. I personally use a remote shutter release on all of my city and skyline shots. However, if I am ever so clumsy as to forget my remote shutter release, I simply use the camera's built in timer to avoid me having to manually hit the capture button.
4. Use a Remote Shutter Release or Timer Function
This is not required to get good night time photographs...but it sure does help! JPEG is the common format that many photographers use to take their pictures, and is usally the default setting your camera will use as well. So then why do I recommend shooting in RAW? The reason is because a RAW file allows much more forgiveness than does a JPEG. Without getting into too much detail, allow me to explain.
If you shoot a picture in JPEG (which is really just an already processed RAW file that your camera processes for you quickly and easily) you can always take it into a photo-editing software and "tweak" it until you are pleased with the outcome. However, since it is has already been processed by your camera then you are working with a file that has had a lot of the original information your image sensor captured stripped out of it (due to already being processed). That information that your camera "processed out" is gone...never to return again! When you shoot RAW, however, you are photographing as most professionals do, because they want the most flexibility when they go into their digital darkroom later for post-processing.
Before you get too excited about this do remember that this does mean that you will be the one required to do the processing...not your camera. So you will need to have a RAW file converting software of some kind. I will not get into the ins and outs of RAW files in this article but all you need to know is that shooting in RAW will allow you to work with all of the information that your camera originally captured.
This is great because if the image looks underexposed, or overexposed, at first glance you can do much more than you would be able to with a JPEG file to get the image to look like the scene you originally looked at through your viewfinder. You will also be able to adjust white balance, regardless of what your camera was originally set to. These are just a few of the advantages of shooting RAW, but some that will apply directly to photographing cityscapes in low light conditions.
5. Try to Shoot in the Raw (photographically speaking that is!)
6. Watch the Light
Although night photography is done after the sun has gone down, there is still light that you have to watch out for. Depending on when you are planning to take your night photographs will determine which primary source of light you will need to really focus on (or watch out for).
For example if you are going to take a picture within the first hour or so after sunset, you will have to account for the residual light of the sun left in the sky. If you are photographing well after sunset you will look for the light of the moon. If the moon is your primary source of light then the phase that it is in will be very important to consider.
A full moon will cause you to be unable to use very long exposures without overexposing an image. This is why some photographers like to photograph during the crescent phases of the moon so that they get some light on foreground and distant objects while still being able to take fairly longer exposures.
The new moon (no moon) phase is my favorite time to take star trails photography or other images that require very long exposure times. However, no moon being present does present some challenges. For example trying to take landscape images at night with no moonlight will often leave your ground subjects very dark or not visible at all.
Here are some helpful resources that can give you an idea of when the moon will be in the appropriate phase for what you're looking to accomplish photographically:
7. Take a Flashlight
As we briefly discussed, some times the light is not adequate at night to illuminate aspects of the scene that you would really like to make apparent. This is why I always take a flashlight with me anytime I am photographing at night regardless of the phase of the moon.
The technique of using a flashlight (or headlights, light from a watch or any other source of light your imagination can come up with) is often called "painting with light" because you are essentially doing just that. With longer exposures you can shine your flashlight on a subject that you want to make stand out and it can give off a really cool effect.
Try it sometime and experiment with different amounts of light with various long exposures. It's fun, free (except for the cost of the flashlight, of course) and opens up several photographic opportunities at night that wouldn't really exist otherwise.