What exactly is a night photograph? I define a night photograph
as any image taken between dusk and dawn, when the sun is completely
below the horizon line. That definition encompasses a huge variety of
subjects! In this tutorial we'll explore some of the most popular night photography themes, including: cityscapes, astrophotography, fireworks and lightning. We'll start, however, with how night photographers look the world from a slightly different point of view.
1. Time and Colour are a Canvas
One of the most interesting aspects of night photography is the unpredictable nature of the images you can produce. Unlike many other forms of photography, night photos often don't reveal their secrets until after the exposure is complete.
This unpredictability is, in part, the result of slow shutter speeds: low light conditions at night require exposures of several seconds or longer. Slow shutter speeds allow you to compress a long duration of time into a single frame.
By choosing a long duration exposure you can exaggerate the effects of speed and time. With a long exposure, any moving subject creates motion blur as it moves through the frame. This can lead to some spectacular and surprising results!
I love the mixture of artificial and natural light in low-light scenes, especially at twilight, and the
intensity of colour you can get in night photos. Colours at night are so rich and
vibrant they seem to leap out at you from the black of the sky.
2. The City Comes Alive at Night
The most accessible subject for most budding night
photographers is the cityscape. While other photographers are sleeping, the city provides a multitude of
photo opportunities for you to explore. When I look for potential cityscapes to photograph, I look for a few key aspects: time of day, water, and elevation.
The Magic Hour
The best time of day to photograph cityscapes is twilight. At this time of day you often get a rich blue colour present in the sky. You may also get some beautiful warm tones as the sun sets and illuminates the clouds. I also prefer to shoot at dusk as opposed to dawn as there is more activity happening at this time of day.
Water reflects and
refracts light in interesting ways. The combination of cityscape, water and mixed lighting
afford you some great photographic opportunities. If there is
water about it is definitely worth considering including it in your compositions.
also look good after rain has fallen. Wet streets, roads and footpaths are highly
reflective surfaces that can pick up light and transform an otherwise drab scene.
Climb Up High
Cityscapes can benefit from being photographed from an elevated position, and I often try to find a location where I can photograph the city from up high. If you photograph a city from ground level you will often have unwanted objects obscuring the view. By elevating your position you can separate these individual elements and give them their own space in which to move, such as boats travelling around a harbour, or traffic leaving motion blurred light trails.
3. Lightning is Electric
personal favourite photographic subject is lightning. Capturing
nature's spectacular displays can be a frustrating experience, though: there is an element of luck involved in getting good lightning photos.
When shooting lightning you have no idea where or when it will appear, so
to increase the likelihood of capturing a strike you should use a long
duration shutter speed and minimise the gap between shots so the shutter
remains open for the majority of time you are taking photos.
this elusive light show can be addictive but it is also
potentially deadly. You must take precautions to minimise the risks to
your own well being whilst maximizing your chances of success. Set the camera to run automatically while you take shelter
inside a building or car. Better yet, stay as far away from the
storm as is practical and use a normal or telephoto lens to zoom into
the region of interest where lightning is present. If you have to
use a fisheye lens to fit in all of the storm you are probably way too
Lightning can happen anywhere, but it is far more prevalent in areas of
high humidity and during the change in seasons. Research the best times for shooting thunderstorms in your local area. Some meteorological
websites have web pages dedicated to tracking lightning strikes. By staying vigilant and checking weather reports on a regular
basis you can identify when the storms are headed your way so you can
set up well in advance.
4. Fireworks Fanatics
Another of my favourite
night photography subjects is fireworks. Opportunities to photograph
pyrotechnic events usually occur at least a few times a year,
especially around holiday celebrations such as new years eve and
national days. Large firework displays
are high profile events which attract a lot of publicity so it should be
easy enough to plan for an upcoming event.
Fireworks displays are usually very crowded so it pays to set up ahead of time to secure a good location. If you arrive before dark you can survey the scene and work out where the fireworks will be concentrated. If the fireworks display is located in a harbour you will need to look out for the launch barges and position yourself accordingly so you can setup your camera to take full advantage of the opportunities that will arise.
5. Surreal Star Gazing
is one area of night photography that requires specialised camera equipment to make more complex shots. You can, however, start off by doing basic
star trail photos or wide-field astrophotography with an entry level
camera, tripod and a fast lens.
To increase your
chances of success photographing the night sky you must leave the confines of the city behind. Light pollution from the city makes it impossible to get a
good image from the night sky in a large radius. You should get as far away from major population centers as
possible; at least 150 kilometres from the closest town is
recommended. Remote deserts and areas of high altitude are the best
places to take advantage of a lack of atmospheric and light pollution.
trail images generally require long exposure times and this is one
instance where film cameras can offer an advantage. A mechanical
film camera doesn't require battery power to activate the shutter and
you can leave it open for hours at a time. Digital cameras, on the other
hand, need power to operate the shutter for extended duration. If you are in remote areas and don't have access
to AC power or solar panels to recharge your batteries film cameras are the way to go.
use artificial light sources, starlight, moonlight and the residual
light left by the sun during twilight to take landscape photos at
night. Some of these light sources, however, are very faint and may
require very long shutter speeds and a fast lens to
get good results. By combining different sources of light with
natural landscapes you can produce beautiful images with a surreal
You can also take your own light
source with you and paint the scene you are photographing with light. Using a torch or even the light from your phone as a source of
illumination can create striking images that are completely
See the World Differently
Night photography is a fascinating area of photography, and a pursuit that
encourages experimentation and thinking outside the square. Don't
be afraid to try new ideas, you just never know what you might come up
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