As a photographer, what do you do after the sun has set? For some, that might be time to pack up, head to a bar and have a couple of drinks. Others may prefer to head home and upload their days photographs to a photo sharing website or blog. However, the setting sun doesn’t mean the end of the photography day. With a couple of simple preparations you can continue shooting into the night. Right through the night if you’re keen.
So let’s take a look at night photography and see what’s what.
In terms of photo gear needed, as long as you have a suitable camera and tripod you’re good to go. What do I mean by suitable camera? Well, you’re going to have longer exposure times at night than you would in the daylight, so you need a camera that can cope with this. As long as your camera a range of slow shutter speeds (1 second to 30 seconds) you’ll be fine. If the camera as a “B” or bulb setting, even better, as this will allow you to shoot exposures of longer than 30 seconds if need be. Most older manual exposure cameras and modern DSLR’s will be perfectly equipped for night photography, as will many modern digicams. If you’re unsure whether your camera can do it, check the manual.
Longer exposure times means you require some way to get the camera stable. Handholding is not possible as you will get noticeable camera shake in your pictures. So you’re going to need a tripod. One further piece of equipment that is handy to have is some kind of remote release. Once you have the camera mounted on your sturdy tripod, the last thing you want to do is introduce shake by pressing down on the shutter release. There are a number of ways to trip the shutter remotely. The simplest method is the cameras own self-timer, although this won’t work on bulb setting. Setting the timer to 10 seconds (usually the default) will allow any small vibrations caused by your touch to settle down before the picture is taken. A better option is to use a wired (cheaper) or wireless (more expensive) release. There are proprietary releases made by the camera manufacturers, cheap third party releases and professional solutions available here. Choose whichever best fits your budget and needs.
So there you are. Standing outside somewhere at night, camera on tripod, remote release in hand and wondering what to do. Set your camera to its lowest ISO, usually ISO100 or 200. Pick an aperture that will give you some depth of field but won’t make for dramatically long exposure times. F5.6 is probably a good starting point, although you could open up to f4 or stop down to f8 depending on the scene. With the camera is Av mode, take a shot and see what it looks like. Viewing the resulting image on the LCD screen will give you an idea as to how accurate the exposure is. In-camera meters can sometimes get fooled or become inaccurate at night, so don’t worry if your photo is overly bright or dark. If your exposure time falls within the range of roughly 1/30 to 2 seconds, you make experience some slight shake from the mirror-slap. If your camera has a mirror lock-up (MLU) feature, enable it.
With your first test image as your guide, make adjustments accordingly. If you got close on the test shot, you could try adjusting the exposure compensation dial on your camera. Dialing in +/- 1EV may be all you need. Otherwise, change the exposure mode from Av to M, set your aperture as desired and take a range of different exposures, adjusting the shutter speed as need be. Don’t worry too much about what the camera’s meter says – at this point you’re just experimenting to get an optimum exposure for your vision. Camera meters are great, but they can’t read your mind.
A critical, and often overlooked factor in night photography is focusing. Simply put, the darker it is, the harder it is for the camera’s autofocus to properly lock onto the subject. If there are point light sources at a similar distance as the subject you’re shooting, you can try focusing on one of these brighter spots, lock the focus and recompose as necessary, or if your lens allows manual focusing you can set it to infinity.