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Night Photography: Lighting Up the World of the Dark

Getting crisp night photos doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark. With a few key settings, a tripod, and a remote shutter release cable, you can easily land exquisite night photos. Here’s how.

Photo Credit: Pierpaolo Lanfrancotti

Pulling an Image Out of the Dark

One of the more obvious issues with night photography is the lack of overall light. During the daytime, the sun usually acts as our main source of illumination (assuming we’re shooting with natural or ambient light). At night, we have to find a way to get the same amount of light to our sensor as we would in the daytime. We can do this by paying close attention to the exposure triangle—Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO. 

Shutter Speed

Unless you’re looking to do stop action photography (a definite challenge at night), slowing down your shutter speed is generally a great option. This allows the sensor to be exposed to light over a longer period of time, thereby capturing more of the illumination in the shot. It also allows for some great effects.

Aperture

Another way to allow more light into your sensor is to widen the aperture. That’s where faster lenses can really make a difference. Choosing a lower f-stop (i.e. f/2.8 or less) allows more light in and can help you avoid having to bump up your ISO or slow down your shutter speed. Of course, if you need the depth of field that a higher f-stop provides (i.e. f/8), then you’ll need to settle for a longer exposure. But for those shots that don’t need the entire scene tack sharp, opening up your aperture is a good idea.

ISO

ISO is the last leg of the exposure triangle and refers to your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. All cameras have a native ISO, as well as an ISO range in which they function at their best. Beyond that range, however, there’s a risk of camera noise being added to the shot. The greater the ISO, the more likely there will be noise. At night, it’s a bit of a balancing act—how to get the shutter speed and depth of field you want without bumping up the ISO so high that noise will ruin the shot. Luckily, if you’re shooting in Raw, a fair amount of noise is easy to edit out. (In Luminar, you can use the Denoise Filter.) Still, it’s best to try to get as little as possible.

Photo Credit: Femke Ongena

Putting It All Together

For cityscapes and similar shots, you’ll want to be set up for a longer exposure. This means you’ll need to be able to keep your camera totally still during the shot. To do this you’ll need a tripod and ideally a shutter release cable. Shutter release cables are relatively inexpensive (I got mine for $10). They allow you to activate your shutter without touching your camera. Of course, most camera’s have a self-timer option, but you’d be surprised how much camera shake is still there even after the 2- or 5-second delay. A shutter release cable takes out any possibility of you introducing camera shake, and what’s more, you can program it to take as many shots as you like, for as long as you like. Most come with an intervalometer built in so you can do time lapse photography as well.

If you don’t have a shutter release cable, then set your self-timer for a full 10 seconds to make sure to give your camera as much time as possible to settle. If your camera has a mirror, it’s also helpful to use the mirror lock-up function.

Pro Tips

• Use a lens hood to minimize lens flares from a light that might be entering from the side.

• Bring a headlamp or pen light with a red filter on it. Red will allow you to see what you’re doing without ruining your night vision.

• If you have a flimsy tripod or it’s a windy day, hang your backpack from the center section of your tripod to give it some added stability. (Most tripods have a hook already built into their center column for this.)

• Look for night scenes with water in them. Water will soften and reflect color and add a sweet glow to your composition.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Bishop

Creative Night Photography

There are a number of creative effects you can do with long exposures in night photography, one of which is light trails. To do this, find a night scene that has lit moving objects. (Cars and bicycles work great for this.) Start by setting your shutter speed at 30 seconds. If you’d like longer trails, set your camera for a longer exposure. (Some cameras only go up to 30 seconds in their programming, so if you want something longer, set your camera to bulb mode. This will keep the shutter open as long as the shutter button is pressed, whether on your camera or on your remote shutter release.)

Another form of creative night photography is called light painting. This is where you set your camera up for a long exposure and then move a flashlight (or other light sources) in the frame while the shutter is open. Feel free to use different colored lights, or even have more than one person moving in the frame with a light.

All in all, there are a lot of amazing shots you can get at night. You just have to have your settings dialed in, pay added attention to your composition, and be willing to play around with long exposures.

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