There is no rule that I’ve seen stating a photographer needs to pack up his gear and get home after the sun sets. Your car will not turn into a pumpkin if you’re not back by midnight, I promise (though if it does… snap a picture). If you’re a budding photographer that is looking for his or her niche then you may want to seriously consider night photography, it’s perceived as being more difficult so fewer people tend to tackle it. Night photography and long exposure photography go hand in hand so read up on long exposure photography as well. Personally, I like night photography because it challenges me to think differently than I’m used to as well as presents new and creative ways to compose a picture. The bonus is there is usually fewer people around after dark (some exceptions like the cultural district of your city, nightclubs, etc. ). If you pay attention you’ll be able to find the same amount of photo worthy scenes at night as you do during the day.
Plan ahead. There is nothing dumber than stumbling through the forest or field with thousands of dollars of camera equipment strapped to your back. It’s smart to scope out where you’re going to be shooting and make sure there aren’t any giant holes or bear traps for you to step into. The gear you need should be packed up and ready before you even grab your keys, let someone know where you are and take your cell phone in the off-chance you’re eaten by a wild animal or kidnapped (it happens).
Pack light, if you’re hiking into someplace unfamiliar or very dark it’s best to not have to worry about all your gear laying about. There are 7 essential things that I take with me during a night shoot.
- Lens (Wide angle lenses are more stable than zoom lenses, with image stabilization in most lenses or cameras you’ll have sharp shots)
- Tripod (Review of a versatile tripod)
- Head Lamp
- Remote Shutter Release
- Thermos or Water Bottle
- Cell Phone
- Lens Hood (keeps the light from random cars, street lamps, flashlights, etc)
If you’re someplace where it gets cold at night you may want to bring along a thermos with warm soup or drink to keep your core body temperature down. Make sure you’re aware of your surroundings, photographers sometimes get tunnel vision (since your busy composing your photo) we tend to not notice a lion stalking us or a mugger coming up behind us. Stay alert and when possible take a friend who doesn’t mind standing around in the dark.
Timing is not everything but it can help…
It’s a good idea to arrive early for the aforementioned reasons (pit falls and bear traps) but more importantly is your lighting. If you are photographing cityscape or industrial scenes where there are bright lights (flood lights, neon lights, etc.) the best time to photograph is just after the sun has gone down and there is still a tinge of blue in the sky. The slight color left in the sky balanced with that of the subject will help to achieve the proper exposure easier. With all that being said I have seen some spectacular shots taken of a cityscape taken well into the night, so break this rule and experiment for yourself.
I know I said that everyone thinks night photography is more difficult than most other types but would you believe me if I told you getting the correct exposure at night is actually less difficult than getting the perfect exposure during the middle of the afternoon? Well it’s true. You’ll need to shoot in manual control if you don’t want your photographs to look like garbage, if you’re still learning then take a gander at my article on how to easily learning how to use your camera in manual mode.
First thing you will want to do is figure out the composition of your shot, this shouldn’t be much different from how you would compose a shot in the daylight. The typical tourist shot where you just try to get everything and anything into the frame will not suffice, it will look even more boring at night than it would during the day. Let your significant other document the fact you were actually there by taking all the touristy shots while you focus on bringing home the quality photographs that you will actually want to hang on their walls. The photograph to the right employs what I call the shotgun technique, you point your camera and try to capture as much in the frame as possible. It’s bad composition and looks even worse at night, people will wonder what they are supposed to look at.
Next you will want to focus your camera, if you’re taking a landscape photograph like the one to the right (only better composed) then you’re going to want to focus about a third of the way (from the bottom) up, that should ensure you’re in focus from close up and all the way to infinity. To ensure you have everything in focus you’ll want to choose an aperture of f/11 to f/16.
After you have focused and selected an aperture of around f/16, you will then dial in the correct shutter speed. Slow your shutter speed until the exposure level mark is in the center of the exposure level indicator on your camera. This is only the starting point, you can over or under expose the photograph to your taste after you see how the first shot looks. Remember that the slower your shutter speed is the more sensitive your camera is to inadvertent shake from your hands or the wind. If you don’t own a shutter release remote then I suggest you put your camera on 2 second delay so that your finger depressing the shutter button does not add camera shake and blur your photograph.
Note 1: If you are using a DSLR with a mirror then you’ll want to read your camera directions and figure out how to lock your mirror up while doing longer exposure, the mirror dropping will shake the camera and blur your photograph every so slightly.
Note 2: If you slow your shutter speed longer than 30 seconds you’re likely to get star trails in your photograph rather than little neat dots. While some may like that others may not.
Easy Low Light Exposure Guide
Ferris Wheel and Fairs at Night = ISO 100-200, f/16, 15 seconds shutter speed
Floodlit monument = ISO 100-200, f/16, 4 seconds
City Skyline = ISO 100-200, f/9, 15 seconds
Bright Moon = ISO 100-200, f/11, 1/250 seconds
Moonlit Landscapes = ISO 100-200, f11, 1 – 2 minutes
Lightning Storm = ISO 100-200, f11, bulb (leave shutter open until you capture lightning strike)
What Should Your Histogram Look Like?
Do you use your histogram? Read my article on Understanding Your Histogram if you’d like a crash course on how to read one and why. The histogram to the right is the photograph below of the mountain with the moon looking like the sun. Notice how the chart is favoring the left side of the histogram? That means that there are a lot of dark colors (it’s night-time remember) in the photograph. If you took the same photograph in the daylight you’d want the peak to be somewhere in the middle with the sides gently sloping away until they drop just short of the right and left side of the histogram. If you have a histogram where it’s skewed so far to the left that it’s going off the side then chances are you’ve underexposed your photograph. This is important to know when you are working with exposure times of up to a 30 or more seconds, the less times you have to do it over the more time you have to find other shots.
Painting Landscapes with the Moon
You don’t always need sunlight to get a great landscape photograph, sometimes a little moon light will do. There are some that will use a flashlight to “paint” their subjects while the camera’s shutter is locked open. The photograph above looks as if it was taken early in the morning or right before the sun sets, it was actually taken at about 10pm, an hour or more after the sun had already set. The bright light in the sky is emanating from the moon and it was bright enough to paint the landscape after only 60 seconds of exposure. If you like long exposure photographs where the clouds look as if they are streaming through the photograph but you don’t want to purchase a neutral density filter for your camera, night photography will give you the shutter speed length you need for this effect.
As with anything, grab your gear and get out there and give it a try for yourself. There is a photography contest going on right now at PhotolisticLife.com and there are only one or two low light photographs. If you read my article on How to Win a Photography Contest you’ll notice that submitting photographs that are unique to what everyone else is submitting can help your chances.