Whether you are in a big city where everything lights up or in the country where the moon and stars create true art masterpieces, the views our world offers at night are absolutely magnificent. As a photographer, you want to capture those sights and be able to show them to everyone, but you soon discover that is not an easy task. What is visible to the human eye at night are not easy to replicate by camera, so unless you know what you are doing, night time pictures can look bleak and unappealing. Here are a few tips on how to make the most from your camera at night time.
The Shutter Speed
This tip is related to the very definition of night photography – taking pictures when there is not enough light to work with. If you are a beginner and don’t know what the shutter speed does, you need to learn before attempting night shots. Essentially, the shutter speed controls the time it takes from when you have pressed the shoot button to when the picture is finished being taken. The longer the shutter is left open, your camera’s sensors can absorb more light from the surroundings. Slower shutter speeds are therefore vital to the success of night-time photographs as this means that the shutter is open longer.
In normal light, you would commonly leave the shutter open around 1/60th of a second. In order to capture and freeze fast moving objects, your shutter speed could be as fast as 1/500th or even up to 1/8000th of a second in some extreme cases.
In night photography, you are less likely to leave your shutter open for a fraction of a second, and more likely to leave it for a whole second or multiples of seconds.
As you are leaving the shutter open for a longer period of time, this means that if anything in your shot moves during this time, you will capture the light from their whole journey. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as this can be the effect you want to create. Consider a city scene with traffic whizzing past. A dramatic night shot to have a go at as a beginner is to get the building lights perfectly still in your shot with the car lights showing as streaks in the foreground. This effect can be transferred to any movement that occurs in your night shots. The key is to make sure most of your elements are static and just to have one feature element that shows the movement. Fireworks are an exception to this and provide another great opportunity to capture movement at night.
Use a Tripod
Following on from that, if you are not standing perfectly still for the duration of your shot, then your static elements will show as wobbles of light. However, it is absolutely impossible to stand perfectly still for 1 second, let alone a minute. Taking pictures in the bright daylight might have you thinking you have quite a steady hand because all your pictures are focused, but unfortunately you do not – no one does. So get your hands on a steady tripod and secure it in place to ensure that you don’t have any unwanted movement in your shots.
Also, make sure that you avoid touching the camera at all. Once it is securely in place on your tripod and you are happy with all the settings, either set the timer or use a remote button to control the shutter.
The aperture is another camera setting that controls the amount of light reaching the shot. When you release the shutter, the lens opens. How wide the lens opens is controlled by the aperture. The wider it opens, the more light enters the shot and vice versa. Moving your camera up or down by one ‘f-stop’ as it is known, either doubles or halves the size of the opening and therefore either doubles or halves the amount of light in your shot. The smaller the f/number, the larger your opening and the more light is allowed in. This is the opposite way round to what you might naturally think and is therefore something to bear in mind. Reducing your shutter speed at the same time as decreasing the f/number by one stop, will therefore have the effect of quadrupling the amount of light coming in to your shot – and this is also something to bear in mind if you want to prevent your shot from becoming over-exposed (where too much light is allowed in).
While the shutter speed affects motion blur, the aperture is where you control your depth of field – in other words, how much of the shot is in focus. If you want a blurry and out of focus background, but want your foreground to be sharp, as you may do with a night time portrait shot, a shallower depth of field is required and a wider aperture (or smaller f/number) is used to achieve this.
The final piece in the exposure triangle is the ISO, which is responsible for how sensitive your camera is to the light coming in. The most common ISO speeds that you will find on your camera are 50, 100, 200, 400 and 800, and more light will be absorbed when your ISO speed is higher.
It is worth noting, high ISO speeds increase the amount of noise in your shot. That is to say, the more sensitive you allow your camera to be to the incoming light, the more ‘grainy’ your picture will appear. Again, you can choose to use this effect creatively for your shot, but if you want to get away from this, you will need to use as low an ISO speed as possible.
Of course, all of the usual photography rules apply to night photography as well. In thinking about all these additional complications, don’t forget to compose your image well and look for interesting things and objects to take pictures of. You may wish to master taking night shots using the auto-exposure modes on your digital camera before you venture into manual handling as this will get you used to what you can achieve at night. You can then move on to the next step and take full control of your camera, experimenting with small changes to each of the three exposure controls above until you get your perfect night shot.