Making pictures by night is a curious practice. While specialists of this subject embrace it as a deep-seated passion and have a never-ending quest for technical and creative advancement, those more familiar with daytime photography are often unaware that tried and true photography rules often need to be adapted or even overlooked at night. With this in mind, consider the following tips the next time you venture out in the darkness, to help you to adapt.
1. Take a Chance and Explore the Unknown
What’s my exposure time? This is the number one question asked by a night photography novice setting up his or her camera for the first time. A basic understanding of the functions of aperture and shutter speed take on mind-expanding dimensions at night, when stopping down your aperture can turn street lights into starbursts and setting your shutter speed to bulb offers you the ability to capture the unseen. Contrary to the view of photography as an exact science, nocturnal image making provides an opportunity to experiment, explore, play, and have fun. So, instead of freezing up and following someone else’s exposure suggestions by rote, explore all the variables at your fingertips with your own camera. Then, make this into a veritable learning experience by noting down your exposure settings in writing (or audio) so you can study the results after downloading your files. To economize on power when taking notes, keep things simple and stow a small waterproof notepad and pen in your camera bag or coat pocket.
Devoting time to this effort will help you to determine what worked best so you can incorporate the same exposure strategies in future shoots. In the words of Lance Keimig, author of the book Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark, “There are no bad exposures at night, only different ones!”
2. Use High ISO Testing as an Exposure Guide
If you’re still unsure about how to determine exposures from scratch, use a trick called High ISO Testing as your guide. Here’s how it works. For each successive increase of your ISO dial and full stop in opening the aperture notch of your lens, your subsequent exposure time will be cut in half. Let’s say you boosted your ISO to 6400—a 6x difference from ISO 100—and fully opened your aperture to f/2.0—increasing the amount of light from a mid-range setting of f/8.0. While these settings will potentially yield an image with unappealing contrast, increased grain and limited depth of field, you can save valuable time by shooting an exposure bracket to identify a well exposed histogram at these settings. Let’s say the ideal histogram for this scene corresponds with a shutter speed of 4 seconds. You can then do the math to calculate the required exposure time for the same scene captured at ISO 100 and f/8, which would be a total of 32 minutes.
In addition to being an efficient way to calculate exposure, doing test shots at high ISOs is also helpful for quickly evaluating your framing and basic details of the image composition. Most important—when using this method, make sure to change your ISO and aperture back to the desired settings after you’ve finished calculations, otherwise you’ll find yourself with a final image that is grossly overexposed, yet took more than 30 minutes to make.
3. Learn and Memorize Gear Functions Beforehand
Locating that pesky button or dial to change camera settings or pull up a menu is much more challenging at night, not to mention locating the accessories buried in your camera bag! Low light shooting makes it even more essential to study your camera manual to memorize how your gear functions and locate access points for essential dials and menu options before you go out into the darkness. When photographing at night, you should be shooting with your camera and lens in manual mode. If you’ll be breaking new ground with this, get comfortable with your gear’s manual functions under low pressure circumstances, so you can act with calm efficiency when conditions are less than ideal. One item I always rely on in low light is a basic magnifying light, which serves the double purpose of casting a concentrated beam of light where I need it and magnifying the text of tiny dials or digital readouts, so I don’t need to pull out my reading glasses.
4. Know Your Destination and Scout It in Advance
One challenging repercussion to low-light shooting is that everything in sight takes on an otherworldly appeal, which can complicate attempts to pinpoint one specific composition or picture subject. To avoid this dilemma, as well as to prepare yourself for unexpected surprises, you should familiarize yourself with your destination, ideally by scouting the site in advance. Plan to arrive at your location before sunset and take your time setting up, while also gaining the advantage of making pictures during magic hour lighting. This will add to your understanding of how changing light conditions can impact a scene.
In addition to scouting your location directly, you can also let your computer help out during a remote scouting session. Photo sharing websites such as Flickr are readily searchable by descriptive terms, or even specific GPS coordinates. Scrolling through the results from other photographers can provide innumerable tips about site conditions, camera angles and much more.
Lastly, consider bringing along a digital compass to log GPS data, as well as to determine your orientation in relation to the heavens. This can prove critical when shooting star trail images, especially if you want to make images of star trails encircling the North Star.
5. Adapt Your Image Capture to Address High Contrast Levels and Color Casts
Night photography often involves working in situations with extremely high contrast and widely ranging colorcasts. This makes it particularly important to shoot in RAW file format, for greater leeway in controlling contrast and white balance in post-production.
For optimum control of color, you can manually set your camera’s white balance to a specific Kelvin temperature. This can be particularly useful if you’re looking to achieve the cool blue tungsten hue (3200K) that many people associate with nocturnal images. Your camera also has white balance presets for various lighting conditions, as well as an auto white balance option. Auto white balance is quick and convenient, but this setting functions within a limited range and can be fooled by mixed lighting conditions or the predominance of one color in a scene.
Mixed lighting situations—where artificial lights of different color temperatures are adjacent in a scene—are extremely common at night. These can be difficult to identify visually and nearly impossible to control 100 percent. Under these conditions, decisions must be made about which color cast to neutralize and how the neutralization of a dominant or distracting color cast will shift colors from competing lights. In recent years, many cities have made strides to replace traditional sodium-vapor streetlights (which exude a yellow-orange color cast) with more energy-efficient LED lighting. This produces a clearer, whiter light—thereby simplifying the issue of color casts, while simultaneously reducing opportunities for night photographers to explore creative compositions that highlight mixed light.
6. Plan for a Sturdy Shooting Platform to Avoid Vibration of All Types
Another key concern when photographing at night is camera vibration as a result of long exposure times. The importance of a sturdy tripod cannot be underestimated in such circumstances. While the bulk and unwieldiness of working on a tripod can take some getting used to, it is essential for image clarity at night. This can also offer a big advantage when perfecting composition, as well as for general mindfulness of your actions. The use of a tripod generally goes hand-in-hand with a remote or cabled shutter release, or your camera’s mirror lock-up function (which you can find in the Custom Functions menu).
Keep in mind that issues with vibration can extend well beyond direct contact between you and your camera. Attention should be given to potential vibration caused by unsecured accessories such as camera straps, cable releases or loose tripod connections, and even environmental interference from passing footsteps, automobile traffic or the rumbling of underground transport. Every little bit counts towards getting maximum stability.
7. Condition Your Gear to the Outside Environment
A pesky external condition that’s likely to hamper every night photographer on occasion is the occurrence of lens fog. This can be caused by moving gear from dry cold to warm, humid conditions, or it can occur due to changes in temperature and humidity levels—such as when the temperature nears the dew point. Accumulating moisture can totally interfere with or block light passing through the lens, which can result in soft, blurry images or frames that register no exposure at all. This can be particularly frustrating when it occurs in the process of a long exposure.
In conditions that are prone to lens fog, adding a clear lens filter can protect the optical glass from direct exposure to moisture, however this may cause ghosting or flare in an image if lights are present in the scene. A lens hood can also help reduce moisture build-up. Other methods to prevent lens fog involve heating the lens to make it warmer than the dew point. Astronomy buffs use portable, electric heating devices to keep telescope optics free of moisture. Another possibility is to attach portable hand warmers to the lens barrel. In these situations, it’s advisable to attach the heating device before the lens fogs up, since it can be time consuming and difficult to eliminate moisture that has already condensed.
Without ignoring proper safety measures, you can also circumvent this issue by keeping your camera gear in an environment similar to where you will be working for several hours in advance of a shoot. This will allow gear to acclimate to existing temperature and humidity levels, and will keep your glass fog-free until the levels change.
8. Dress for Success in All Conditions—Winter-, Water-, and Bug-Proof Yourself and Your Gear
Proper wardrobe is a key concern when photographing at night. Plunging temperatures or sudden weather inversions can quickly turn an enjoyable evening into an endurance test for the unprepared, even in temperate climates. Dress in thin layers that you can add or subtract as outside conditions change, and bring along items to keep everything warm, dry and comfortable—from your core to your extremities to your gear.
Increasingly popular in recent years, gloves with pullback fingertips offer substantial protection while being a practical way to access camera controls in cold climates. A more moderate option for those who have a hard time working encumbered are lightweight glove liners, which protect hands from wind and weather and can be coupled with heavy gloves or mittens in extreme climates. Another handy cold-weather tool is the rechargeable hand warmer, which often doubles as a portable power supply and/or flashlight, in addition to providing warmth.
Cold or wet conditions are not the only concerns facing intrepid night photographers. Insects can be nearly invisible and are an extremely hard to predict nuisance with lasting after-effects. Bug spray can help, but if you’ll be venturing into buggy territory, consider arming yourself with a bug jacket.
9. Pack Extra Power and Plan for Calamity
Making long exposures for hours at a time can drain your battery quicker than you think, so make sure to bring plenty of back-up power for cameras and other electronic gear that require batteries to function. You can also conserve power by turning off your camera’s Live View function and LCD display. If you’re shooting on a tripod turn off the Image Stabilization, as well.
Extreme cold also has a tremendous impact on battery drain. If carrying multiple packs in cold weather, keep extra batteries warm by placing them in interior pockets or insulating them with hand warmers. If a battery becomes exhausted by the cold, warming it up may provide a temporary revival of power, allowing you to fire another few shots.
If you’re shooting in a remote location and have traveled there by car, you can recharge batteries using your car battery as a generator, or better yet, bring along a portable generator to ensure you don’t tax your car battery to the point of exhaustion. And, as an added safety precaution, inform friends or family about your shooting destination and overall plans, then follow up to let them know you’ve returned safely, especially if you’re working alone.
10. Don’t Be a Couch Potato, Go Out and Give It a Try
As the adage goes, you can’t be successful at something if you don’t first apply yourself. This is particularly applicable to night photography, when the motivation to gear up and go into the darkness after a full day of work or other pursuits can be easily foiled by inertia.
Veteran night photographers use a number of different strategies to kick-start their motivation—from making a commitment to shoot during particular astronomical conditions such as a full moon, high or low tide, to capturing weather events such as fog, mist, or snow. While the idea of going out with your camera during inclement weather seems less than appealing, the aesthetic results from these types of conditions can pay off in spades.
You can also consider planning a group expedition with one or more cohorts. This can yield benefits far exceeding the simple matter of accountability in getting you out the door. There is both safety and camaraderie in numbers, attributes that can be especially important in the still of the night. The practice of night photography is rich with community engagement. At the end of the day, connecting with—and learning from—like-minded colleagues, is what night photography is all about.
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