Photography for Beginners Part 14: Night Photography

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 13:  Light, Time of Day, and Weather

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In the previous post I had a section on night photography, and I’ve mentioned several related aspects throughout this series. But here I want to expand on the topic and gather all the tips in one place.

(This topic ended up having way too much for one post, so I’m breaking it up into multiple parts.)

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Night photography ranges from common subjects like the moon or city skylines to specialized niches like the Milkyway. In this post we’ll discuss some general topics related to night photography.

If you have a specific area of interest you’ll probably want to do more reading on the topic. Though you’ll find that you learn the most by simply going out and doing it. Your first attempts may or may not be successful, but either way you’ll definitely learn a few things.

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Equipment

(Not all items are needed for all types of night photography.)

*  Camera with Manual Mode capability. For night photography the larger the sensor the better, but point and shoots work in some categories.

*  Fast, wide-angle lens. (f2.8 or better preferred, but many use f3.5 lenses because that’s all they have.)

*  Sturdy tripod.

*  Remote shutter release.

*  Headlamp and/or flashlight, preferably with a red bulb option.

*  Folding camp stool or chair. (Never required, but makes things more pleasant for extended night shoots.)

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No Flash

There are very few hard rules in photography, most are guidelines. This is close to a hard rule for night photography. If your camera has a built-in flash make sure it’s turned off before you start shooting.

There may be rare exceptions when you’d use flash, but otherwise just no. If you’re shooting around others at night a quick way to tick them off is to blind them or ruin their shot with your flash.

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Know Your Camera

The piece of advice that will help you the most with night photography is to get to know your camera very well.

Use your camera extensively in daylight first to develop some muscle memory for the location of all controls and buttons. You also want to know exactly where in the menus to find settings you might need to change, especially if they’re settings you don’t use often.

The goal is to be able to change any setting purely by feel. You can’t see button labels and dial symbols in the dark.

This advice comes from personal experience. Shooting at night is challenging enough without including a frustration that can be avoided.

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Handheld

For most types of night photography you must use a tripod. But when shooting in urban areas where there are lots of light sources you can sometimes shoot handheld.

The keys are: image stabilization in the camera body and/or lens, good low light capability from a larger sensor and/or fast lens, and using a wide-angle to standard focal length lens.

When looking for good handheld night subjects consider colorful lighted signs, sidewalks with light spilling out from shop windows, and well-lit features like famous buildings, statues, and fountains.

If you own an inexpensive point and shoot camera it’s more difficult to get images with good IQ when handholding at night, but you can always give it a try in brightly lit areas. Sometimes everything works out and you get a nice photo.

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On a Tripod

When shooting anything else at night you must use a tripod. And even for the types of subjects mentioned above, a tripod will always give you cleaner and sharper images.

If you’re very picky about IQ you can turn image stabilization off, use the electronic shutter instead of mechanical shutter, and on DSLRs lock up the mirror and use Live View for composing.

Skipping these things probably won’t cause problems for your photos, but each has a small potential to introduce tiny vibrations when shooting on a tripod. I often forget and it hasn’t been an issue, but it is something to consider.

Don’t raise the center column of the tripod unless you absolutely have to. It’s wobblier and more subject to transmitting vibrations to the camera. In windy conditions you need a really sturdy tripod to avoid shake or vibrations.

Physically pressing the shutter button creates camera shake, even when it’s mounted on a tripod. Always use the camera’s timer delay or a remote shutter release.

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White Balance

I’m far from an expert on white balance. Until last year I only ever used auto WB so I’m still learning. But I do want to cover a few basics.

Sometimes auto WB works fine at night. You won’t know until you take a test shot and review it on your camera screen. If it looks right, go ahead and shoot with it. Sometimes it’s not right. It can be off by a subtle amount or drastically off.

A quick way to try to correct it is to use one of your camera’s scene settings. My Panasonic bridge camera had four different night scene options and they worked really well. The drawback was they only worked in Auto Mode, so I had no control over exposure settings.

If you need to control your settings you can use one of the WB presets to make an adjustment. (Daylight, cloudy, tungsten, etc.) Cycle through them and take a test shot with each. Don’t pay attention to what light conditions they are labeled as, you only care about finding one that makes your image look natural and not weird or sickly.

If one of the presets makes your test shot look close to what you see with your eyes go ahead and use it. If you change which direction you’re shooting in or move locations you may need to test again.

The most precise way to deal with WB is to use the Kelvin scale (color temperature) if your camera has that feature. Kelvin is a scientific measure of temperature, like Fahrenheit and Celsius. In photography it’s used to indicate how warm or cool in color a light source is.

Using a high Kelvin number (i.e. 6500) makes a photo very warm in tone (more red, orange, yellow). Using a low Kelvin number (i.e. 2800) makes a photo very cool in tone (more blue, purple). At night you usually (though not always) want neutral to cool color tones, but not so cool it looks weird or unnatural.

The advantage of using a Kelvin WB setting is that you’re more likely to get WB just right for what you’re shooting. The disadvantage is that you might need to take multiple test shots before getting exactly what you want. The more experience you gain using it the easier it will be to dial it in correctly to start with.

Pick a Kelvin number somewhere between 4000 and 5600 to start. Closer to 4000 for dark skies and closer to 5600 with artificial lighting. Take a test shot and then adjust up or down as needed.

There is no absolutely correct WB for a photo. It’s easy to detect when WB is way wrong, but exactly right is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes you want something a bit exaggerated for artistic effect, and a lot of it comes down to personal taste. In most cases you want as natural of a look as possible.

If you are shooting in RAW, finding the right WB isn’t nearly as important because it’s easily corrected when post-processing. Just get in the neighborhood and you can worry about fine-tuning later.

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Long Exposure Noise Reduction

Most cameras have a long exposure noise reduction feature. In my experience it works well and does provide cleaner images. So when possible I have it turned on.

However, LENR doubles the time it takes to make each image. If your shutter speed is two seconds, the LENR takes an additional two seconds to process the image. So that’s four seconds until your camera is ready to shoot again.

With a two second exposure the LENR time is barely noticeable. But if your shutter speed is 25 seconds, your camera is busy for almost a full minute. When you’re in a situation where you want to be able to take another shot right away LENR is a hindrance and can be turned off.

I put LENR on the custom menu on my camera so I can quickly find it to turn off or on.

It’s important to note that LENR only works when shooting JPEGs as it’s part of the processing the camera does to the image before recording it to the memory card. If you are shooting only in RAW no processing is done, so turn it off because it serves no purpose.

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Auto Exposure

When you’re shooting at night you can sometimes depend on your camera’s metering to get the exposure right. This mostly works in urban areas.

If shooting handheld use Shutter Priority Mode. Pick the slowest shutter speed you know you can safely shoot with, then let the camera pick aperture and ISO. If it works, great. If it doesn’t give you what you want, switch to Manual Mode and tinker with settings.

On a tripod use Aperture Priority Mode. Set ISO to your camera’s lowest native ISO and choose your aperture. Take a shot and see if your camera chose a good shutter speed. If you’re happy with the result continue shooting.

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Bulb Setting

Most cameras have a 30 or 60 second limit for shutter speed. If you need a longer exposure you have to use a remote shutter release, the Bulb setting, and your own timer.

The Bulb setting keeps the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter button. You don’t want to do that on the camera itself or you’ll end up with camera shake. So you have to hold down (or lock) the button on a remote release instead.

You need a watch or a timer app on a mobile device so you know when to manually end the exposure.

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Manual Focusing

Unless you’re shooting in a brightly lit part of a city, night photography requires the use of manual focus. Manually focusing at night in dark areas is difficult because it’s hard to see when sharp focus is achieved.

If you have a DSLR, use Live View instead of the optical viewfinder. This allows you to use the magnification feature to help with focusing. If you have an EVF, make sure the magnification feature is turned on for manual focus. You can temporarily turn up ISO so you can see better while focusing if needed.

You will often be trying to get infinity focus spot on, which is tricky. It’s more difficult with some lenses than others because some, like my Fuji lenses, don’t have a hard stop on the focus ring.

Even if your focus ring does have a hard stop, that’s not always the point of infinity focus. You often need to back off a little bit. Some lenses have an accurate infinity mark you can use. On a lens with a hard stop that doesn’t have an accurate infinity mark you can make your own mark using a paint pen or by scratching the lens barrel. (You will need to test this during daylight of course.)

A way to avoid the difficulty is to focus at infinity while you still have some daylight and then tape down the focus ring so it can’t get bumped out of position. Use gaffer’s tape because it doesn’t leave residue when it’s removed. (Sold at most camera stores.)

If you’re focusing in the dark, look for something with contrast in the distance to use. A light works best, but if that’s not possible use a ridge or line of trees where there’s an edge between the sky and black trees. If you can make that a sharp edge you’ve nailed infinity focus.

If the moon is up it works great as your infinity focus object, but since you try to avoid the moon with astrophotography you might have to use the stars. Point your camera at an area with bright stars and turn your focus ring until the stars are at their tiniest points. That means they are sharp and in focus.

Check your focus periodically while shooting. Sometimes I think I nailed focus when I really didn’t. So discovering that before I’ve wasted too many shots has saved me. Sometimes you accidentally bump the lens at some point without realizing it and lose sharp focus. Catching that saves the shoot.
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Some General Tips

*  Scouting your night locations in daylight first makes everything easier. You learn where gates might be locked, where to park, trail or road conditions, distances that have to be walked, potential obstructions, where tripods can be placed, approximate travel times, and if you can even get the shot you’re expecting.

*  Before you shoot at night you should already know how your specific camera handles high ISO and noise. (See the ISO Exercise near the end of this previous post.) You want to know how high you can go before you risk ruining your photos. The answer can be a bit different with different subjects and conditions, but you should know at what point things start getting iffy and which ISO number you never want to go past.

*  Live View on your camera screen is very helpful, but at night it can be misleading about the exposure because it can look brighter than it really is to your dark adapted eyes. Consider bracketing your exposures and learning how to read a histogram.

*  It’s better to overexpose images (without blowing out highlights) than it is to underexpose. Trying to make an underexposed image brighter with post-processing can introduce more noise than is produced by using a higher ISO setting in the first place.

*  Stay warm. Night photography often means chilly or cold temperatures, especially in the mountains and near bodies of water. Dress in layers, wear thick socks, and always have a hat and gloves with you.

*  Dew and condensation can be a problem. Have a cloth you can wipe your camera and lens with. Some photographers rubber band a handwarmer pack onto the lens barrel to keep it warm so condensation doesn’t collect on the front element. If you become an avid night photographer you can invest in a heater for your lens that runs on a battery pack.

*  You can successfully shoot at night in JPEG. I have so far. But if you are primarily a JPEG only shooter like me, it’s best to switch to shooting RAW + JPEG at night. Night presents a lot of exposure challenges and being able to fully edit a RAW file can save an image. Shooting in RAW is especially important if you travel a long distance for your shoot. You don’t want to waste the trip because your JPEGs didn’t turn out as expected.

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Part 15:  Types of Night Photography

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4 thoughts on “Photography for Beginners Part 14: Night Photography

  1. I went to a night photography workshop this past weekend up in Traverse City. I learned a lot, but when we went out after the ‘classroom’ part it was blowing wind so hard that even on a tripod the camera shook. And then it started to rain. And then the rain turned to snow and sleet. We, by then, were way out on a deserted bit of beach on Lake Michigan. The wind was so strong you couldn’t face into it. I learned mostly that I don’t want to be out in that weather, even for photography!

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! Sorry that part didn’t work out very well, but it’s neat you took the class. Do you have any tips you learned that you’d like to add here?

      Like

        • Yeah, good point on RAW, especially for night I think. I don’t use RAW yet either because I don’t have a good enough computer screen and the software aspect is intimidating. I will get around to it someday though.

          Like

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