Top Tips For Night Pho­tog­ra­phy

Dig­i­tal cam­eras have made low- light pho­tog­ra­phy very much eas­ier, but once night falls, many tra­di­tional tech­niques still ap­ply… and there’s also an ex­cit­ing new world of long ex­po­sures to ex­plore.

Camera - - IN PRACTICE -

➜ Tripods

Im­age sta­bil­i­sa­tion sys­tems are be­com­ing ever more ef­fec­tive, but there’s al­ways go­ing to be a limit on the slow­est shut­ter speed for which you can hand-hold the cam­era and still ob­tain a sharp im­age. Once ex­po­sure times lengthen be­yond about ¼ sec­ond, the cam­era will need to be mounted on a tri­pod… and the stur­dier the bet­ter. Light­weight tripods may well be eas­ier to carry around, but they can flex and cre­ate vi­bra­tions which will be prob­lem­atic when mak­ing long ex­po­sures. Make sure the tri­pod is se­curely set-up and locked off… even the tini­est of move­ments will cre­ate blur and soften de­tail­ing. Use the foot spikes for a more solid lo­ca­tion on soft ground; some pho­tog­ra­phers will also sus­pend a sand­bag from the cen­tre col­umn for added damp­en­ing.

Once the cam­era is on the tri­pod, ad­just the tri­pod head’s po­si­tion as de­sired, but use the tri­pod’s tilt/pan con­trols… don’t try to move the cam­era for this, as it will loosen the at­tach­ment, po­ten­tially caus­ing the cam­era to move slightly dur­ing an ex­po­sure. Tri­pod heads with quick-re­lease plates are a good op­tion if you’re plan­ning to do a lot of night pho­tog­ra­phy. Once the cam­era (or lens) is se­curely fit­ted to the plate (tighten the mount­ing bolt as much as you can), it can then be very quickly and eas­ily fit­ted to the tri­pod – and then de­tached – with­out work­ing loose.

➜ Ex­po­sure Brack­et­ing

If in doubt, bracket your ex­po­sures. Now that you don’t have to pay for ev­ery frame (as was the case with film), brack­et­ing ex­po­sures is a very ef­fec­tive method of find­ing the right one… sim­ply es­tab­lish the shut­ter speed you think

➜ Man­ual Ex­po­sure Con­trol

You can shoot in many low light sit­u­a­tions with the au­to­matic ex­po­sure modes and the re­sults will be ex­cel­lent, es­pe­cially when us­ing multi-zone me­ter­ing mea­sure­ments. How­ever, for night work it’s of­ten bet­ter to switch to man­ual ex­po­sure con­trol, es­pe­cially when us­ing long ex­po­sure times. This will al­low you to make any ad­just­ments that au­to­matic ex­po­sure con­trol would sim­ply over­ride. Most cam­eras have a max­i­mum timed ex­po­sure du­ra­tion of ei­ther 30 or 60 sec­onds, so any­thing longer will re­quire the ‘B’ (bulb) set­ting, which can al­low for ex­po­sures of up to 60 min­utes or per­haps even longer. With the shut­ter set to ‘B’, you can time the ex­po­sure man­u­ally, as it will re­main open for as long as the shut­ter but­ton is kept de­pressed. If you want to avoid any prob­lems with vi­bra­tions when shoot­ing on ‘B’, per­haps think about in­vest­ing in a re­mote trig­ger so you aren’t phys­i­cally in con­tact with the cam­era dur­ing the long ex­po­sure.

Use a mid-range aper­ture such as f8.0 or f11 and then de­ter­mine the shut­ter speed ac­cord­ingly. If you al­ways use the lens’s max­i­mum aper­ture – which is of­ten tempt­ing when shoot­ing at night – you’ll end up with a shal­lower depth-of-field, es­pe­cially when us­ing a longer fo­cal length. will be about right and then ex­per­i­ment with both slower and faster set­tings. Re­mem­ber that dou­bling a 15 sec­ond ex­po­sure, for ex­am­ple, will re­sult in an ex­po­sure du­ra­tion of 30 sec­onds, and an­other stop of ex­po­sure will lengthen this to 60 sec­onds which means, de­pend­ing on your cam­era, you may have to re­sort the ‘B’ set­ting and man­u­ally timed ex­po­sure du­ra­tions. When ex­po­sure times start to ex­tend be­yond 20 to 30 sec­onds, small ad­just­ments in tim­ing ac­tu­ally won’t make much dif­fer­ence.

If you want to avoid overly long ex­po­sure times you can ad­just the aper­tures for brack­et­ing, but re­mem­ber that this will also have an ef­fect on the depth-of-field.

➜ Colour Tem­per­a­ture

Al­though we per­ceive light as be­ing es­sen­tially white, it ac­tu­ally rarely is, and usu­ally con­tains a pre­dom­i­nance of one colour de­scribed as a ‘cast’. Our eyes tend to au­to­mat­i­cally cor­rect for a colour cast, but dig­i­tal imag­ing sen­sors (and colour film) tell it as it is, which is im­por­tant to con­sider when shoot­ing un­der ar­ti­fi­cial light­ing and at night. Ar­ti­fi­cial lights cre­ate dif­fer­ent colour casts be­cause they have a dif­fer­ent colour tem­per­a­ture to day­light. Do­mes­tic tung­sten lamps cre­ate an or­ange colour and flu­o­res­cent

tubes give a green­ish cast. Ob­vi­ously coloured lights will also cre­ate in­ter­est­ing ef­fects.

The colour of light is ex­pressed as a colour tem­per­a­ture value in de­grees Kelvin – with the range en­coun­tered in pho­tog­ra­phy be­ing from around 3000 de­grees Kelvin (very warm/ or­ange look­ing) to 10,000 de­grees Kelvin (very cold/blue look­ing). Pure ‘white’ light is gen­er­ally ac­cepted to have a colour tem­per­a­ture of 5500 to 5600 de­grees Kelvin.

A dig­i­tal cam­era is able to ad­just the colour bal­ance dur­ing im­age pro­cess­ing so it can cor­rect for the colour casts in both nat­u­ral and ar­ti­fi­cial light. The white bal­ance con­trol (so called be­cause its job is to achieve white whites) typ­i­cally has an auto mode and a num­ber of pre­sets de­signed to cope with dif­fer­ent types of il­lu­mi­na­tion. While the auto white bal­ance (AWB) is con­ve­nient it will also re­move any colour cast that you might ac­tu­ally want, al­though some cam­eras now of­fer a ‘Keep Warmer Tones’ op­tion. If you want to re­tain a pre­vail­ing colour cast, use the sun­light/ day­light pre­set which is bal­anced for around 5500 de­grees Kelvin and so will en­sure warmer, cooler or other tones are cap­tured.

A neat lit­tle trick is that you can use some of these white bal­ance pre­sets as builtin warm­ing/cool­ing fil­ters – for ex­am­ple, un­der­stand­ing that the cloudy WB pre­set cor­rects for blue­ness by adding red. If you then use it when shoot­ing a sun­set, it will ac­tu­ally boost the or­ange/red colour­ing.

➜ Spot Me­ter­ing

Modern multi-zone me­ter­ing sys­tems can be very re­li­able, but they work by evening out all the light and dark ar­eas in a scene, which is some­thing you may not want when shoot­ing at night… es­pe­cially in terms of pre­serv­ing the mood or at­mos­phere of a more con­trasty light­ing sit­u­a­tion. Al­ter­na­tively, use the spot me­ter­ing – or se­lec­tive/par­tial area me­ter­ing – and take a light read­ing off a mid-tone, then man­u­ally set the in­di­cated shut­ter speed for the de­sired aper­ture set­ting (i.e. de­pend­ing on how much depth-of-field you want).

In con­trasty sit­u­a­tions avoid the me­ter be­ing overly in­flu­enced by large ar­eas of bright­ness or deep shadow, par­tic­u­larly when us­ing the multi-zone me­ter­ing. If you want deeper shad­ows, you’ll have to de­lib­er­ately un­der­ex­pose. Al­ter­na­tively, if you want brighter high­lights, you’ll have to de­lib­er­ately over­ex­pose.

➜ Play­ing With Light

There are lots of ways to ex­per­i­ment with long ex­po­sures and night pho­tog­ra­phy… try ‘paint­ing with light’ us­ing a pow­er­ful torch to ‘paint’ light on to ob­jects such as trees or street fur­ni­ture. Place a coloured fil­ter over the torch to cre­ate dif­fer­ent ef­fects. How­ever, you will need very long ex­po­sure times so the torch light reg­is­ters on the film (ex­per­i­ment at two min­utes, five min­utes and ten min­utes, and close the lens right down to f16 or f22). This tech­nique is best tried in a lo­ca­tion where there is very lit­tle or no avail­able light (i.e. no street lights, etc.).

An­other in­ter­est­ing trick is to mix flash with long ex­po­sures. Set the cam­era on ‘B’ and cover the lens with the lens cap. Po­si­tion some­body in the frame, trip the shut­ter and fire the flash. Put the lens cap back on, move your sub­ject and re­peat the process. Do this as many times as you like, but re­mem­ber not to dou­ble up the sub­ject’s po­si­tions in the frame. You could make them jump up and down, start from a crawl­ing po­si­tion and grad­u­ally be­come up­right… the sky is the limit. Once you’re fin­ished, close the shut­ter… the flash-lit sub­ject will ap­pear many times on the sin­gle frame. Once again, this tech­nique is best tried in a very dark lo­ca­tion. De­ter­mine the flash out­put based on the sub­ject’s dis­tance and the aper­ture you se­lect (best be­tween f5.6 and f11). You can also ex­per­i­ment with the sub­ject wav­ing a torch or sparkler.

➜ The ‘500 Rule’

It’s night time right? So you’re go­ing to need a long ex­po­sure, aren’t you? Well, ac­tu­ally not all the time. It’s a mis­take that be­gin­ners in as­tropho­tog­ra­phy of­ten make, based on the as­sump­tion that stars aren’t re­ally very bright so night sky ex­po­sures need to be long. What’s for­got­ten here is that the earth is spin­ning so the night sky is al­ways mov­ing, and it doesn’t take very long at all for pin­points of light to turn into streaks or trails. If you want stars to be ren­dered as points – par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant if you’re pho­tograph­ing fea­tures such as The Milky Way – then the ex­po­sure times ac­tu­ally need to be pretty short.

The ‘500 Rule’ is based on the lens fo­cal length that you’re us­ing (and hence sen­sor size also comes into ef­fect). So, for ex­am­ple, if it’s 24mm, you di­vide 500 by 24 which is 20.8. So the rec­om­mended ex­po­sure time is 20.8 sec­onds with a full-35mm for­mat sen­sor. If you’re us­ing an ‘APS-C’ for­mat cam­era, sub­se­quently di­vide this num­ber by the crop fac­tor (i.e. 1.5x for Nikon, Fujifilm and Sony; 1.6x for Canon). The ‘500 Rule’ will en­sure stars are still re­pro­duced as points of light even with quite big en­large­ments. You’ll need to set a high ISO – try 3200 to start with – and an aper­ture of f2.8 or wider if avail­able. Ex­po­sure times will ob­vi­ously be­come pro­gres­sively shorter as the lens fo­cal length in­crease, but given most pho­tog­ra­phy of the night sky is with wide-an­gle lenses, you’ll end

up with an ex­po­sure time some­where in the range of ten to 35 sec­onds.

There is also a ‘400 Rule’ which means there’s an even greater guar­an­tee of avoid­ing any streak­ing, but you’ll need a higher ISO set­ting, and noise lev­els could then be­come more of an is­sue.

 Blur­ring Move­ment

As ex­po­sure times in­crease and the shut­ter stays open for longer, any move­ment in the scene will record as blur­ring. The longer the ex­po­sure, the longer the blur lines will be­come (a mov­ing car’s head­lamps or tail lights, for ex­am­ple) or the more pro­nounced the blur­ring ef­fect (such as wind-blown clouds or tree branches).

There’s lots of scope for cre­ative ex­per­i­men­ta­tion here, both with dif­fer­ent types of mov­ing sub­jects and vary­ing ex­po­sure times. For ex­am­ple, if you’re shoot­ing in an ur­ban lo­ca­tion where a lot of peo­ple are con­tin­u­ally mov­ing around (a town square maybe), with a long enough ex­po­sure you can ac­tu­ally make

 Per­sonal Safety

There are var­i­ous lo­gis­tics to con­sider when shoot­ing at night, in­clud­ing deal­ing with very them ‘dis­ap­pear’… as they sim­ply won’t be at any one spot long enough to be recorded.

Dig­i­tal cam­eras suf­fer from in­creased noise with longer ex­po­sures, yield­ing grainy pic­tures. The same thing hap­pens when se­lect­ing higher sen­si­tiv­ity (ISO) set­tings, as the out­put from the sen­sor is es­sen­tially am­pli­fied (which in­creases both the sig­nal and the noise com­po­nents of the sig­nal-to-noise ra­tio). In-cam­era noise re­duc­tion pro­cess­ing for both high ISOs and longer ex­po­sures steadily con­tin­ues to be­come more ef­fec­tive so that sharp­ness and colour sat­u­ra­tion are less com­pro­mised, but there are other tech­niques avail­able too, such as tak­ing mul­ti­ple ex­po­sures which are sub­se­quently stacked post­cam­era. Us­ing mul­ti­ple ex­po­sures to cre­ate a cold tem­per­a­tures, re­mem­ber­ing that these don’t just hap­pen dur­ing win­ter ei­ther. Clear nights are of­ten quite cold even in sum­mer, par­tic­u­larly in moun­tain­ous re­gions or deserts.

As you’re likely to be on lo­ca­tion for many hours, it’s im­por­tant to dress warmly, in­clud­ing a hat and suit­able walk­ing shoes. Finger­less gloves work well too, keep­ing your hands warm, but still al­low­ing you to eas­ily op­er­ate your equip­ment. You’ll ob­vi­ously need a torch, but if you’re trekking to a re­moter lo­ca­tion, sin­gle fin­ished im­age re­duces the ex­po­sure time needed for each frame and al­lows for a lower ISO set­ting, so re­duc­ing the noise as well.

In-cam­era noise re­duc­tion for long ex­po­sures es­sen­tially per­forms dark frame sub­trac­tion, cap­tur­ing a sec­ond ‘black frame’, which will help de­tect the ‘hot pixel noise’ (es­sen­tially of the sen­sor’s in­creas­ing tem­per­a­ture with longer ex­po­sures) so it can be re­moved. It’s ef­fec­tive, but to­tal ex­po­sure times will ob­vi­ously be dou­bled which means ex­tra-long waits if you’ve been shoot­ing at 30 sec­onds or even longer.

Var­i­ous post-cam­era op­tions are avail­able for noise re­duc­tion and, of course, are the only choice you have if you’re shoot­ing RAW files to op­ti­mise res­o­lu­tion. it’s a good idea to first do a recce in day­light so you’re aware of any po­ten­tial dif­fi­cul­ties along the way and have a bet­ter idea of where you’re go­ing.

Gen­eral safety rules also ap­ply — par­tic­u­larly if you’re head­ing for a re­mote lo­ca­tion. Make sure some­body knows of your plans and will raise the alarm if you don’t re­turn as sched­uled. Don’t take it for granted that you’ll have mo­bile phone ser­vice (which is some­thing you can check be­fore­hand if you do a recce).

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