Photographing at night opens up a range of opportunities that you just can’t get during the day. Here we’ll look at five inspirational night time images and some tips on how to take your own.
Particularly in winter, we can be guilty of packing up the camera as soon as that early night creeps in. Photography is all about light, so to photograph in a lack of light can feel pretty counterintuitive. Whilst night photography can be a challenge, it’s not difficult once you get your head around the lack of light and methods you can use to compensate for that.
What You Need
This tends to be the first thing on my list of any specialist types of photography, but a tripod is pretty essential for shooting at night. Not only will this give you the option of doing longer exposures but they’ll reduce the chance of camera shake dramatically, even with shorter shots.
A Remote Trigger
I usually lump this in with a tripod because you can use your self-timer instead of a remote; however, for long exposures at night, you might need to use the camera’s BULB feature. If you do this while using self-timer mode, you’ll have to physically touch the camera again in order to stop the exposure–something you really want to avoid doing at all. In this case, a remote shutter will make your life a lot easier.
A torch (a flashlight, for the Americans) is useful for two reasons, firstly you might want to light your subject with it or you may just need it to see! I was out taking some star-scapes last year and it was pitch black. Using the lights from the car ruined my night vision and using my phone’s torch (handy though it usually is) drained the battery and wasn’t directional enough. Thankfully I had a penlight torch in the car which proved very useful.
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Light trails are fun and can add real interest to an otherwise boring scene. Try and find somewhere that has regular traffic and where you can get a good, safe vantage point. Images like this look great in black and white, too.
Reflections are your friend when shooting at night. City lights captured in a canal, as above, suddenly bring beauty and interest to a scene. If you’re shooting stars or the moon, having a lake or pond reflect those back can look magical. If the water isn’t still, lengthen your exposure for a smoother look.
Lightning at night is really effective. It can be a bit hit
and miss, your best chance is to set up where you think you'll catch the flashes and then keep running long exposures until you get some. Remember to keep an eye on which way the storm is headed and give yourself plenty of distance; you don’t want
to end up in the middle of it!
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Cityscapes are a huge draw for night photographers. Lights from a city
can look stunning but do present their own problems. You may need to blend
exposures if you have areas that are particularly dark or light. This is also
where knowing the Kelvin system really comes into its own, so you can
adjust your white balance manually and avoid a coloured haze.
I love this photo
because it’s different. We don’t all have a sweeping city to hand but pretty
much everywhere has some street lights.
These have architectural interest all of their own in my opinion, but
throw in some light and an interesting composition and you’ve got something
different from your typical night shot.
Research Your Location
Please don’t wander around in the dark bumping into things or falling into quarries. Scope out your locations during the day and make notes of important areas or potential dangers for when you return at night.
If you want to take pictures which involve moving traffic, then it’s wise to see which roads are busy even at night, so that you don’t find yourself waiting for hours in between cars passing.
Scouting in daytime will also give you the opportunity to find the best and safest spots from which to shoot. You don’t want to waste time fumbling around in the dark trying to compose your image–have in your head what you want before night falls.
By the Light of the Moon
Moonlight may become you, but it can be an absolute pain when you’re shooting at night. If you want to get stars then don’t attempt it when anything more than a half moon is visible in the sky.
It’s wise to check the phase of the moon and where it will rise and set, when you’re planning your shoot.
Shoot in Manual
Knowing your camera and how to use it is a boon in any situation. Being able to compensate for one set of variables by making your own adjustments can be the difference between nailing your picture or having something unusable.
Imagine shooting in auto at night. Based on the in-camera metering it would probably try and shoot at the widest aperture available; having to bump up the ISO too, to make up for the lack of light. As a result, you’d end up with something with a narrow depth of field, badly exposed and probably noisy to boot.
Ditch the auto white balance also. If you’re shooting where there’s a lot of artificial light, like a city, the camera can choose a setting which makes it look very harsh and yellow.
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Use a DOF Calculator
Above, I mentioned the shallow depth of field (DOF) issues you may have when wanting to use the widest possible aperture. Using a DOF calculator will allow you to work out the hyper focal distance for your lens. That is the closest distance you can focus on whilst still having an infinite depth of field.
Choose Your Shutter Speed Wisely
It’s easy to think that if we need more light, the obvious answer is a longer shutter speed, but that all depends what it is you want. For trails of light, like star trails or car headlights, then a long exposure will do the trick. However, if you’re trying to get a nice, clear star landscape and you don’t want trails, then you’ll have to limit the exposure time due to the movement of the earth.
Lock Your Mirror Up
Mirror lock-up is a function of many cameras which makes the mirror flip up before you take a picture. This is supposed to prevent any extra vibrations from blurring your image.
Whilst this is something that many photographers swear by, tests have yet to prove it has any real effect on your images and personally, I never bother to do it and I’ve not had a problem with sharpness. I think the only time this would really make a difference is if your camera was on a particularly unsteady surface, which it really should never be.
Bracket Your Exposures
You may have areas of high contrast in your image that make it difficult to see certain parts of the photograph. This can often be the case in cities, where some parts are brightly lit and some parts are in dark shadow.
Take several exposures, exposing for the darkest and lightest parts of your image with the view of blending them later. If you’re not confident with changing your exposure, your camera may have an ‘auto-bracketing’ feature (AEB) which will take images at set intervals; for example the equivalent of one stop of light, above and below your correct exposure.
Light Your Foreground
If you have a particular subject in the foreground, like a landmark or even a person; they may not have enough light on them to expose them properly in the picture. Lighting them manually is one of the things you can try instead of multiple exposures. It might take some trial and error but the basic premise is to cast light over your subject for part of the time of the shot.
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Long shutter speeds can create more ‘noise’ in an image due to static on the sensor. Many cameras now have a ‘Long Exposure Noise Reduction’ feature that you can switch on in your settings. Be aware that if you do turn it on, the camera will take the same amount of time to write the image as it did to shoot it. So if you do a 4 minute exposure, you’d have to wait a further 4 minutes once the image has been taken, before you can use the camera again or review your picture.
Top Tips to Getting Great Night Shots
- Scout your location beforehand and work out the best place to set up.
- Shoot in Manual mode if you can, and use tools like a DOF Calculator to help you choose settings
- Bracket your shots to overcome high contrast
- Avoid nights when the moon is full or near full
- Take a torch with you. It’ll help you illuminate subjects but also just help to see where you’re going!
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Photographing at night comes with its own challenges but is a deeply rewarding type of photography. It doesn’t matter whether it’s cities or dark skies that float your boat, photographing once the sun has gone down offers so much potential.
Getting to grips with your camera settings and how each lens works will help to give you the best possible result, so that you can adapt to changing conditions and get the most from your shot.
Remember to scope out your location safely during the daytime and find the best place to set up, making notes of anything you might not remember later. It’s worth checking out what phase the moon will be in, too, in case it’s likely to interfere with your shot.
Taking a torch with you on the night will come in very handy, whether it’s for lighting your foreground or just for seeing a few feet in front of you. You don’t want to trip in the dark and drop your kit or even hurt yourself.