By Dimitrios Zavos
In any discussion around photography, one is bound to hear how important "good light" is to getting the most out of your photo over and over and then some more... But what happens when a photographer wishes to try his luck in the absence of light? Enter Night Photography.
Nocturnal panorama of the London skyline
Recently I have been receiving more and more questions related to low-light shooting techniques. So in an attempt to answer as many as possible and share some of the lessons I learnt shooting in the middle of the night, I present you my Top 10 Night Photography Tips:
I will never get tired of stressing the importance of a tripod in taking your photography to the next level. Agreed, you can also use other stable surfaces to support your camera, but in most cases you will not be able to find a table-top or a flat rock right where you want it to capture a creative shot. Moreover a sturdy tripod helps you secure your gear and avoid the risk of a gust of wind causing your expensive equipment to come down crashing on the ground or in the water... Let alone that in Night Photography your exposures can vary from a few seconds to a few... hours. So please do yourselves a favor and purchase the best tripod you can afford.
Make sure to switch your camera's ISO setting to the lowest value possible in order to minimize the impact of Noise. Noise (a.k.a. Grain) against a dark background can and will be much more visible than against a brightly lit one. You want to make sure your final image has the highest possible quality and a low ISO value is a major step towards that goal. Obviously, the lower the ISO the longest the required exposure time, but that shouldn't be a problem since you will be using a tripod. Read more on the subject in our article about ISO in Digital Photography.
Shooting in RAW format (instead of JPEG) is especially important in Night Photography. A RAW file functions as a "digital negative" which means it retains all the information your camera's sensor gathers while the shutter remains open. This allows you to correct a number of possible errors (such as White Balance, Exposure and many more) in post-production with minimal loss of quality. Such a thing would have been impossible had you had to use an already processed and compressed JPEG file as your starting point. Check out our article about the benefits of shooting in RAW vs JPEG for a much more comprehensive visual analysis.
By now you should be quite comfortable with shooting in full manual mode. For Night Photography, you need to be able to set all the parameters yourself in order to achieve the optimal exposure time, sharpness, focus as well as creative effects which could prove too tricky for the camera to handle in any of the auto modes. Moreover, if the exposure time you require to correctly illuminate your image is longer than 30 seconds, you will have to switch to Bulb mode (designated by the letter "B" in the mode dial) which permits unlimited exposure times. Read our quick reference guide on the various DSLR camera modes to better understand the differences between them.
As explained in a previous post, when your camera and lens are mounted on a tripod the IS (or VR) motor can be tricked by the absence of motion and start working in an effort to detect some. This action will cause vibrations by itself, ruining the sharpness of your final image. Some lenses claim their IS systems are smart enough to detect the fact they are mounted on a tripod, but to be on the safe side always turn it off yourself when you mount your camera on a tripod or support it on any immovable object in general.
Downtown Seoul by night
If you are aiming for the absolute sharpness in your photos (and you should!) then you should make sure to eliminate any possible source of camera shake. This includes the often neglected motion caused by the mirror moving up and down inside your camera while the shutter is opening or closing. Most DSLRs have an option hidden in their sub-menus which allows you to enable "Mirror Lockup". This means that when you press the shutter button the camera allows time for the motion caused by the mirror movement to subside before it starts capturing the image.
To further reduce the possibility of camera shake you should either use the camera's built-in 2-10 second timer or use a remote release to trigger the shutter. This way you avoid moving the camera while pressing the shutter button with your finger.
Nocturnal long exposures are an excellent way to capture motion in your images. This can be the rotation of the earth when shooting star trails, cloud motion in a night sky or vehicle light trails in a busy road. Long exposures will make the cars disappear, but their light trails will remain, adding fluidity and a sense of movement to your photo. If you can include a road bend or a roundabout in your frame, which would curve the light trails, then the result will be even more unique and attractive.
St Paul's Cathedral with vehicle light trails
When shooting at night, and especially when you have car lights, street lights, the moon or even brightly lit windows in your frame, you are much more susceptible to lens flare than when shooting in daylight. Lens flare is created by light bouncing between the different elements inside your lens and can ruin your composition. You can significantly reduce this risk though by equipping your lens with a lens hood which should protect it from some unwanted reflections and also by removing any filters (such as a UV filter) from the front element of your lens. The more you reduce the number of strong light sources your lens sees and the number of glass surfaces between the object and your camera's sensor the less risk you run of ending up with lens flare.
This is another tip I won't get tired of repeating and in the case of Night Photography its significance is multiplied. In low light conditions it is very difficult for autofocus to establish where the photographer wishes to place the focal point. A close estimate is the best you'll get in the majority of cases. Therefore, if your camera is capable of digitally zooming in the image while it is displayed in Live View (and most modern DSLRs are) you should zoom to the max and manually adjust the focus using the ring on your lens to absolutely nail it.
After all of the above though, I could not stress enough that the top tip I can give on Night Photography is for you to grab your camera, wait for the sun to set and go out there to practice your skills. And then practice some more! This is the only guaranteed way to turn theoretical knowledge into ability.
As always, feel free to make comments and recommendations or ask any questions in the "Comments" section below.
Until next time, stay safe and be creative.