I’ve found that shooting photos at night is a brand new challenge for me. I knew it would be, but I did not realize how much of a challenge it would be. Here’s what I’ve learned using my Canon dSLR:
Basic Rules for Shooting at Night
- Use a tripod. This should be automatic – you’re shooting longer exposures so there are way more chances for a shaking camera and a blurred photo. You have to lengthen the shutter speed into the range beyond hand-held, so you need a good steady tripod to really do anything of high quality. First figure out what shot you want to take, then set up your tripod. Point one leg of your tripod toward the shot. Don’t extend the vertical riser under your camera unless you have to, because this will make your camera less steady and prone to shake/blur. Use a level either on your camera or tripod to get yourself level with the shot and to avoid straightening later.
- Turn off the auto focus on your lens. Your camera will not have enough light to do its auto-focusing itself. Focus manually just like you would if it were daylight (pick the same targets and ranges). I like to hyperfocally focus mine, but that is what I would do in the daylight anyway.
- Use a wide angle lens. I use the ultra-wide Sigma 10-20 mm on my APS-C camera. It’s not mandatory, but you get more forgiveness from the wide angle lens because the lens is a bigger diameter and you’re gathering more light. Besides, at night the distractions in your scenes are minimized because it is dark, so the wide angle lens that normally captures all kinds of items in a scene (because it’s wide) and makes it a nightmare to get good composition, will not be so bad. For example, the reflectors at the end of my driveway are there in day and night, but I don’t really see them that well at night — I just see the bright lights of the passing car that dominate the photo anyway.
- Shoot at a low ISO, like 200, let’s say, as a maximum. Reason? Lower noise. Experiment here, but up the ISO at your own risk. Higher ISO equals higher noise. Noise is worse in night photos because the dark backgrounds make it really stand out.
- Turn on your “long exposure noise reduction.” I use the ‘standard’ setting. Any more and you would have a mushy looking photo. Any less and it would be grainy and too noisy.
- Shoot mostly in manual mode. I know, it was scary for me too. I dislike manual mode. Too many things to set and go wrong. But, it will allow you to dial in the time of the exposure to be ‘bulb’ if needed for those long-timed shots. Alternatively, shoot on aperture or shutter priority mode and bracket.
- Set the aperture as you would during the day. I mean, set it to where your camera takes the sharpest photos in order to get your sharpest results. f8 to f11 is the range of sharpest images on mine. (Obviously you should figure this out ahead of time.) I also experiment with the max-open settings like f5.2 or lower if your lens will allow. Lower f values equal more light capture. There is some trial and error here as with the shutter speed also.
- Set the shutter time to something long. You will probably want to capture some neat light effects like passing cars, planes, etc. Experiment here. I did fine with 20 to 30 seconds. Take some test shots and see how much light you are getting in your photos and how they look. If they are dark, then up the time. If too bright, then reduce it. It really depends on where you are and how much ambient light is getting to your camera. Bracket in order to shoot the range and save time.
- Optional: Turn on your camera’s “mirror lock up.” This minimizes the slap vibration that you would get when taking a photo normally, and you need all of the help you can get here in reducing vibrations and camera shake. However, note that your camera’s automatic bracketing features are usually disabled when mirror lock-up is on.
- Optional: Turn off your lens’ image stabilization feature. My Sigma 10-20mm does not have it so it was not a problem, but most lenses do. It seems counterintuitive because you want a stable image for these long exposures. However, the vibration reduction mechanism in your lens will seek to do its job and stabilize the lens even when the lens is already stable (because your set-up is using a tripod for these night photos). When it does this, it tends to ‘hunt’ for a stable position, and thereby introduces a slight shake into your images. So, turn it off for better photos.
- Sometimes I forego this step, but I would turn on your camera’s self-timer. I usually set mine to a 2 second delay. This gives me time to push the shutter release button and allows my camera to stop shaking from my big finger that just disturbed it. Some people may prefer longer or using the remote, but I’m more anxious to see what photos I get than to be waiting longer or fumbling around with a remote trigger in the dark.
- Bracket your shots. Most cameras allow you to bracket up to +2 EV and down to -2 EV in a series of three shots (+2 EV, -2 EV, and 0 EV). Experiment here. You may not need to go to +/- 2 EV — it may only take +/- 1 or something in between. By bracketing, you will get a light, dark, and properly exposed shot. Sometimes those light and dark ones are keepers. Plus, you will have three shots for HDR imaging later if you’re into that sort of thing.
- Take a small flashlight with you. I forgot this, and I was desperately trying to see where my buttons were and what my lens was set at by using the light of passing cars. A red light would have been optimal as it wouldn’t blind so easily. I need to get one for next time.
- When post-processing in Lightroom, I usually save the image then open it in Neatimage to remove the noise. This, I found, was not a good idea with my night shots. I had banding in the dark areas, making them look ‘painted’ and un-real. I fooled around with my Neatimage settings but could not get something that worked. It was most likely not the fault of Neatimage, but rather an artifact of multiple saves. So, I recommend that you remove the noise that you have in your night shots in both the camera (see #5 above), and during development in Lightroom, but not afterward in Neatimage.
- Remember those bracketed shots? Use them to make an HDR image. Night photos look particularly cool when properly tone mapped.
That’s it. Take some test shots, make adjustments, and you are well on your way to taking some really good night photos!
Thank you for reading what I wrote – I hope you enjoyed it!