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How to Set and Control Your Camera Manually for Night Photography

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This post is part of a series called Night Photography.
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Knowing that you, rather than your camera, are controlling all aspects of the photographic process will give you a great deal of satisfaction. It is also a crucial step that can help you unlock the creative potential of your camera gear, giving you the flexibility to find your niche and create your own style.

Having covered many of the technical aspects and theory behind night photography in previous articles it's time to head out into the night and put these ideas to the test. In this tutorial you will learn to control your camera manually for night photography. This will help to improve your photographic skills and knowledge while enhancing the overall experience of capturing the moment.

Preparation Before Inspiration

Before you begin, make sure your camera is set up for this style of photography and customised according to your own preferences and individual needs. For advice on this subject follow the link below to my previous tutorial, How to Set Up Your Digital SLR for Night Photography. Make sure you have charged your batteries to full capacity and formatted any media cards you will use. To maximise image quality you will need a stable platform such as a tripod or similar device. Once your camera is stable and your setup optimised for night photography you're ready to go.

One Step at a Time

The photographic process is a series of steps. Master each step along the way and you are well on the path to mastering the process. You will need to concentrate at each stage and focus your mind so you can give yourself the best chance of success.

1. Observation and Subject Identification

After arriving at your location of choice scan the area in a full 360 degree arc and catalogue any potential subjects that catch your eye.

2. Pre-visualisation

Once you have identified the subjects that pique your interest begin to picture in your mind. Think about what the best way to represent them in terms of composition, lighting and storytelling potential. See my article Observation, Visualisation and Composition for Night Photography for more information on this subject.

3. Lens Selection

By visualising your shot you should get a rough idea about the focal length required to realise the vision in your mind's eye. Your choice of lens should not only reflect this but also complement the subject matter in terms of composition and perspective.

You should also make sure that your lens or any filters you are using are clean and free of dust or fingerprints.

4. Composition

Once you have attached a lens that roughly matches your idea you can begin composing your shot.

At this stage you may find that you need to fine tune your idea or scrap it all together and begin again if it is not working how you had imagined. If you need to adjust your composition you can do this by repositioning the camera in relation to your subject matter or by changing the focal length of your lens.

It can help to look through the cameras viewfinder with a candidate lens attached whilst you alter camera position. This allows you to quickly judge whether a composition is working or not so you can make adjustments on the fly. Be careful when doing this, however, as it can be quite disorientating and also dangerous if you are near traffic, machinery, water or in an elevated position.

Keep in mind you can move the camera up and down, closer to or further from the subject, or to the left and right. Think in three dimensions. You can also alter composition by varying the focal length of your lens. This along with re-positioning the camera can have a dramatic effect on perspective within your image. Zoom lenses are more convenient for doing this but I prefer prime lenses as they generally offer superior image quality. Your choice.

I have written a couple of articles with detailed information on manual versus auto-focus lenses and primes versus zooms, Manual Versus Autofocus Lenses for Night Photography and Zoom Versus Prime Lenses for Night Photography.

5. Set Focus

Once you have settled on a lens and composition you need to make sure your lens is focused on your subject of choice.

For the majority of night photography scenes like cityscapes you are going to want to have maximum depth of field to ensure all subjects in the frame are in focus. If you are using manual focus lenses that have hyperfocal markings on them you can use these to ensure you are setting the maximum depth of field for your chosen aperture. If you are using auto focus lenses you should use any focus assist tools such as your cameras live view monitor and zoom in to your subject to check critical focus. This can be difficult in low light.

Lightning strikeLightning strikeLightning strike
One way of achieving critical focus in very low light is to utilise the hard infinity stop present in many manual focus lenses as I have done in this image. Critical focus in these situations is near impossible in lenses without such a feature.  

6. Camera Settings

The next two steps are when manual override really kicks in and you take total control.

You need to choose a white balance setting to complement your subject matter and give an overall colour balance that you find pleasing. I usually set a tungsten or fluorescent white balance because I prefer cooler colour temperatures for the majority of my night photography subjects. This is a personal preference and you may wish to use different settings but usually my colour temperature values are in the range of 3000-4000 degrees Kelvin.

Kowloon penisula at nightKowloon penisula at nightKowloon penisula at night
In this cityscape shot of the Kowloon peninsula in Hong Kong the image was processed using Nikon's own raw conversion software and had a cooler blue colour temperature value applied.  

If you decide to photograph with raw file format your colour temperature settings aren't quite so critical as you can alter colour balance quite dramatically in post processing. I highly recommend shooting raw files using an sRGB colour space. Even if you use a compressed or lower bit depth raw setting, your results will be superior to shooting jpeg images.

7. Exposure Settings

Some important decisions need to be made at this stage of the process, as different settings can dramatically affect the final outcome of your photos.

Altering any of the three exposure variables allows you control of the many different parameters that can affect the look and feel of your images. You will need to have a fundamental understanding of how exposure works before you can proceed with this step. In my previous article I explain these concepts in detail: Exposure Explained: ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture for Night Photography.

Begin by selecting manual exposure control by either moving the exposure dial on your camera to the "M" position or by selecting manual exposure mode from the camera's menu.

Start off by changing the camera to it's base ISO setting which is usually around ISO 100. This will ensure your images have the greatest dynamic range and the least amount of noise. Next step is to choose an appropriate aperture. I usually choose an aperture setting of between f4 and f11. This setting will be influenced by the lens you have chosen but in general middle apertures are the preferred settings to use here. This is, once again, to ensure you get the best image quality possible from your camera equipment - middle apertures are usually where lenses perform at their best.

The final step is to set an appropriate shutter speed to ensure you get an accurate exposure. To do this you first need to get an exposure reading using either an external exposure meter or the one built into your camera. I use my camera's in-built exposure meter and set it to a multi-zone setting like the "3D matrix metering" mode found on my Nikon cameras. Multi zone metering will give you more consistently accurate exposures for the majority of night photography subjects when compared to centre weighted or spot meter settings. Select a shutter speed according to the exposure reading from your cameras meter, and it's now time to take the shot.

Activate the shutter but avoid touching the camera if possible. The best way to do this is by using a cable release or external trigger such as a wireless remote or smartphone app. If you don't have anyway of triggering the camera without touching it you can use the self timer setting on your camera as this will delay exposure until after you have pressed the shutter button. Once again these methods are designed to get the best image quality possible from your gear and will minimise any camera motion blur in your photos.

8. Checking the Shot

One of the great things about digital cameras is that you get instant feedback about the photo you have just taken.

Checking your photos on the LCD display of your camera or "chimping" as it is called allows you to check on a number of important variables in your images. You can check focus point, composition, colour integrity, exposure and numerous other settings making it an invaluable tool for the modern photographer.

Hong Kong fireworks displayHong Kong fireworks displayHong Kong fireworks display
Back in the good old days of film you had to rely on your meter alone to get a well exposed image. All that has changed with digital cameras and their ability to instantly display information on exposure and other variables.  

I like to use exposure tools like the histogram display and the highlight clipping function to ensure I am not over-exposing or under-exposing my images.

Histogram tool on DSLR cameraHistogram tool on DSLR cameraHistogram tool on DSLR camera
The RGB histogram display is a great way to check that your images are being exposed correctly. Learning to use these exposure tools will ensure you don't over or under expose the shot.  
Industrial beach at nightIndustrial beach at nightIndustrial beach at night
The same image after post processing using a raw converter. A slight tweak to colour balance and contrast  was all that was needed. Exposure settings were ISO100 - f6.3 - 15 Seconds

You are Done! Now Start Again

Once you have captured an image you can then move on to the next idea following the same steps and procedures. Rinse and repeat.

And that's it: you're now on the path to mastering the photographic process. It will take time but with practice and patience you should begin to see your efforts bear fruit. Good luck!

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