Night photography refers to photographs taken outdoors between dusk and dawn. Night photographers generally have a choice between using artificial light and using a long exposure, exposing the scene for seconds, minutes, and even hours in order to give the film or digital sensor enough time to capture a usable image. With the progress of high-speed films, higher-sensitivity digital image sensors, wide-aperture lenses, and the ever-greater power of urban lights, night photography is increasingly possible using available light. Photographers who specialize in night photography and stair trails are somewhat of a special breed. This isn’t so surprising when you realize how much in-depth understanding and science know-how they must possess in order to get the job done – not to mention the specialty gear required to get a quality shot at night.
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Night Photography Tip 1: Get high quality night shots
If you want the best night shots you need to shoot in the best image quality, and that means RAW. By shooting in RAW your images will retain the most ‘information’, which gives you greater scope for enhancing your shots in Adobe Camera Raw and other raw-processing software. RAW is especially beneficial when taking night shots as it gives more flexibility when you want to change things such as colour temperature (or White Balance) or accurately increase (brighten) or decrease (darken) your exposures.
Night Photography Tip 2: Use a tripod for sharp pictures
Shooting at night obviously means there will be less light and therefore slow shutter speeds, anywhere from 1-30 seconds – that’s way too slow to shoot hand-held. So you’ll need to attach your digital camera securely to a tripod if you want sharp results. Make sure your tripod is set up correctly and rock solid – it’s easy to end up with soft images because you haven’t double-checked. Hang your camera bag off the hook on the bottom of the centre column if you can. And don’t hold onto your tripod as you’re shooting with slow shutter speeds because any slight movement can mean blurred photos.
Night Photography Tip 3: Pick your night photography locations in advance
Before you venture out into the night, it will pay dividends and save you valuable time later if you plan ahead. Pick good locations beforehand by scouting out the best spots in your local town to find the most interesting lights and architecture, or if you’re looking to shoot traffic light trails, check which roads are busiest, when is the best time for traffic, and which is the best (and safest) position to take photos from. Check out the photo galleries here on PhotoRadar for inspiration, to see how other photographers have tackled the local city lights at night.
Night Photography Tip 4: Use the lens sweet spot
Use the ‘sweet spot’ range of apertures for your lenses – this is usually between f/8 and f/16, but take test shots to find out. Even pro-level lenses don’t produce the best results when used at their maximum and minimum apertures. By using apertures in the middle of the available range you’ll increase your chances of capturing the sharpest shots with your lens.
Night Photography Tip 5: Night photography settings
To take control of your exposures it’s best to shoot in Manual mode so you can choose the best narrow aperture and slow shutter speed for night photography. Begin by composing and focusing your shot, set a narrow aperture around f/16, then dial in the right shutter speed until the Exposure Level Mark is in the middle of the Exposure Level Indicator. Take some shots and review them on your LCD. Remember this is what your camera thinks is the best exposure, but if your shots are looking too bright, underexpose by 1-2 stops so that they actually look dark!
Night Photography Tip 6: How to get a ‘starburst’ effect on street lights
Using a narrow aperture (around f/16) will not only ensure a deeper depth of field, so your shots are sharp from foreground to background, but will also make street lights ‘sparkle’ in your scenes to give your pictures an added magical effect. See the shot below…
Night Photography Tip 7: Composition at night
Carefully study the scene before you start taking photos. Are parts of the scene in darkness? Do areas of the shot become more interesting, brightly lit or colourful as it gets darker? If so, don’t be afraid to zoom in on the most photogenic areas. Zoom in with your wide-angle zoom lens or ‘zoom with your feet’ – just move closer to your subject…
Night Photography Tip 8: Use Mirror Lock-up
The slightest movement can create unwanted camera shake, and this even includes the mirror moving up and down inside your digital SLR. You can quickly enable Mirror Lock-up (look for it in your camera menu’s Custom Functions menu) to get around this potential pitfall.
Night Photography Tip 9: Don’t touch your camera!
When taking long exposures at night, even touching your camera to press the shutter button can create enough movement to leave you with blurred results. Use your digital camera’s built-in self-timer to trigger the shutter after you’ve pressed the button to avoid any problems. For shots that rely on accurate timing, use a remote release instead.