I had a friend ask me recently for a few still night photography tips. So, I thought it would be a good idea to write a quick post about it with a few examples. Keep in mind though, that I wrote this article specifically with Digital SLRs in mind.
Basic Night Photography Tips
Still night photography demands a tripod. Of course, if you can’t get your hands on a tripod, set your camera on something stable instead, like a ledge, wall, chair, the ground, a parked car, or better yet your friends parked car. But should you have a tripod, you’re definitely off to a good start.
Next, make sure the camera is set to manual mode. Manual mode is the best mode to use for night photography in my opinion. Then set your ISO. Use your cameras base ISO, meaning it’s default. Most of the time it’s either 100 or 200. Using the base ISO will result in the highest possible dynamic range the sensor is capable of producing, and will also yield a clean, mostly noise free photo.
Then choose your white balance. Start with Auto White Balance. This is usually a good starting point. However, some street lights and lamps can trick the camera, so you might get an odd shade of blue, and sometimes orange, depending on the light source. Keep it on AWB for the moment and we’ll discuss it after you take your first photo.
Choose Your Aperture
Now that your camera is in the proper mode with a few basic settings dialed in, you’ll want to choose an aperture. This can vary depending on the effect you’re trying to achieve. If you’re simply snapping shots of a landscape, you’ll want the maximum Depth of Field you can obtain. To get the the highest level of DOF while avoiding diffraction (technical stuff) I’d stick with an aperture of f/8 to f/11. This will make the foreground and background in focus.
The only time you’ll want to use anything higher than f/11 is when you have a foreground object 12 inches or less away in front of your lens, and want it as well as the background to be in focus. I posted an example photo below. If that’s the case, you’ll want to use an aperture of f/16 or higher if possible. The only problem with that, is that diffraction will kick in and you’ll lose a bit of sharpness. Look up “photography diffraction” to learn more about it.
Choose Your Shutter Speed
Next is the shutter speed. Since the scene will be dark with hardly any natural light, you will most likely choose a longer shutter speed. It could be anything from 1 second to 30 seconds. It all depends on the sheer of light in the scene. This is where experimenting kicks in! And thanks to digital camera technology and its advancement, you can take tons of photos to experiment without spending time and money on film.
How do you know what shutter speed to select? For a good starting point, you should probably use a light meter. The light meter built into your camera should be fine. Set your metering mode to a Multi-Zone metering mode. This mode is also called matrix, evaluative, honeycomb, segment metering, or esp (electro selective pattern) metering on some cameras. For my Nikon it’s called Matrix. Then, set your shutter speed so that the meter in your viewfinder or LCD indicates a “correct” exposure.
Take the Photo!
Select the point you want to focus on, and make sure the camera focuses on that point. Once the focus is set, you can take the picture. BUT WAIT! To get the sharpest photo, you’ll want to set your camera on a timer. This will allow you to “set it and forget it”, meaning once you press the shutter, you wait however long you set the timer for and wait for the camera to take the photo. This allows you to press the shutter on your camera without causing any vibrations. I usually set mine to 5 seconds.
Also, instead of using your cameras timer, you could use a remote shutter release. There are a few different models out there made specifically for different cameras. I’ll try to provide some insight as to whats compatible with what camera. These are by far the most popular models I’ve seen.
Remote Shutter Releases For Nikon:
Compatible with: Nikon D3, D3X, D3S, D300S, D700, F100, F5, F6, D1 & D2 Series, D200, D300, D700 and D100 cameras with the MB-D100 Battery Pack attached
Compatible with: Nikon D90, D3100, D5000 & D7000
Remote Shutter Releases For Canon:
Compatible with: Compatible with G10, G11, G12, EOS Digital Rebel series, 60D, Elan II/IIE, Elan 7/7E, Rebel Ti /2000/G/GII/X/XS, IX/IX Lite
Compatible with: EOS-3, 1v HS/1v, 1D-series, 1Ds-series, 5D-series, 7D, 10D, 20D, 30D, 40D, 50D, D30, D60, and D2000
Review the Photo and Make Changes if Necessary
As soon as the camera is done with the long exposure, review your photo on the LCD and see if it looks fine. If it’s too bright, you may have put your camera into full manual mode. We’ll discuss that later if that’s the case. If the brightness looks fine, check the color next. If the color looks off, try changing the white balance to a different preset, like Fluorescent, Tungsten or sometimes even Flash. And if the color looks good, then great!
If your photo is either too dark (underexposed) or too bright (overexposed) the easiest way to adjust the shutter speed.
To start, first take note of the Aperture and Shutter speed on the photo your trying to fix. For example, let’s say the the settings were 10 seconds at f/8. Next, set your camera to manual mode, and dial in 10 seconds at f/8. But don’t take the picture just yet. You’ll end up getting the same results if you do. If the photo is too dark, change the shutter speed to something a little longer, like 13 to 15 seconds. If the photo is too bright, change it from 10 seconds down to something around 8 seconds, or maybe even 5 seconds. It all depends on the brightness you’re trying to achieve.
And remember, don’t change the aperture – only the shutter speed. The aperture should stay where it’s at, which ought to be between f/8 to f/11 as discussed earlier. This will ensure that everything is still sharp and in focus. Also, keep in mind that these numbers are figurative numbers only, and actual numbers may differ.
If I missed anything or if you guys have any tips to add to, I urge you to comment. Your feedback is greatly appreciated. And as always, feel free to subscribe via RSS and get free photo tips along with the latest updates. You can also follow me on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook.
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