Do you want to shoot photos at night, but are unsure how to go about it?
In this article, we’ll be looking at how to take great nighttime shots. It’s not difficult, but you’ll need to know a few basics, and prepare yourself and your camera before you head out into the dark.
Equipment for Night Photography
You’re going to need a tripod for night photography if you want sharp photos. The reason being that you’re going to have to use long exposures of more than a second, and no one can handhold a camera totally steady for that length of time!
A sturdy tripod is better than a flimsy one, but good tripods are not cheap, with makes such as Manfrotto costing upwards of $300. If all you have is a flimsy tripod, try filling a bag with sand and hanging it from the center section to give you a more stable base. Even a slight breeze can move your tripod, and you’ll end up with blurred images.
Make sure your camera batteries are charged, and take spare fully-charged ones with you if possible. Long exposures can quickly drain your batteries, and if it’s a cold night your batteries will run down much quicker than normal.
It’s not just your camera that needs preparing – you do too. If you’re going to be out at night for a while, make sure you’re dressed warmly, and take a spare sweater, gloves, scarf and hat. There’s nothing worse than cold, numb fingers when trying to work a camera. Even if it’s summertime, take something with you like a cardigan or light sweater to put on when it gets chilly.
A flask of hot coffee or tea is also a smart idea, and it can stop you from feeling sleepy. If you can, take a friend or partner with you on your nighttime adventures. It’s a good idea from a safety point of view, and having someone to talk to can help the time pass quicker. Make sure you have a charged mobile phone with you in case of emergencies, and let someone know your planned route.
Which Camera Mode for Night Photography?
If you can work your camera in manual, that’s great. If you can’t, you’ll need to use aperture priority mode. If you try and use auto or program mode, your camera will automatically try to fire your pop-up flash to compensate for the darkness. In aperture priority, set your preferred aperture, such as f/16, and the camera will work out the correct shutter speed for proper exposure.
If you press the shutter button with your finger, you’ll cause the camera to move slightly and this will result in a blurry image. Most DSLR’s have a self-timer option of two seconds and ten seconds delay.
The ten-second delay is probably best to ensure that all vibrations from you pressing the shutter button have gone before the shutter opens. You can also get remote shutter release cables and remote controls, which are very handy. Using your camera’s mirror lockup function while you shoot is also a good idea, as it reduces any vibrations from the mirror moving inside the camera.
Use Manual Focus
Did your heart sink when you read that? A lot of people are scared to use manual focus, but it’s really simple and easy. You need manual focus because your camera’s autofocus system can’t see well in the dark.
Your lens will hopefully have a switch on the side that goes between manual and autofocus. Put it to ‘M’, and twist the focusing ring until the desired part of your subject comes into focus.
If you can’t see something to focus on, try distance focusing by estimating how far away your subject is, and set that measurement on the distance scale on your lens. If you are focusing on something far away, set your lens to infinity, and set your aperture to around f/16 so everything should be in focus.
Depth of Field
The best bet is probably to have your depth of field quite large for night photographs; a minimum of f/11 is a good starting point. This means that your exposure times are going to be longer, as less light will reach the sensor. For every f/stop you go up, your exposure time will double. If you expose for 30 seconds at f/11, you’ll need to expose for a full minute at f/16, and two minutes at f/22.
If your camera doesn’t have a timer that goes that far, you’ll need to use the timer on your phone or a stopwatch to know when the exposure time is up.
Long Exposures at Night
A nighttime shot will need a long exposure to allow ambient light to reach the shutter, and it’s not unusual for these to be several minutes or more. A good starting point is to use 30 seconds, and increase or decrease the time from there until you find the exposure you are happy with. Any cars or moving lights in your image at these shutter speeds will turn into light trails.
Long shutter speeds may mean you need to change your camera’s mode to Bulb, or ‘B’. This means your shutter will stay open for as long as you keep it pressed down. A shutter release is really essential for shooting in bulb mode, as you can set it so that you don’t have to keep your finger on the button the entire length of the exposure, and you will need a timer as well.
Your camera will take longer to process long exposure shots, so be patient and don’t try to force it to take another shot until it’s finished rendering the first one.
If you are struggling to find enough light to shoot in the dark, you could try increasing your ISO to make your sensor more sensitive to ambient light. The drawback of this is adding digital noise to your images, especially in your shadows. It’s generally best to use the lowest ISO setting you can.
Let us know about your experiences with nighttime photography, good or bad!