8 Mistakes I Have Made in Night Photography and How You Can Avoid Them

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A few years ago, I published the groundbreaking article 8 Mistakes I Have Made in Photography and How You Can Avoid Them—a mea culpa that exposed me to endless ridicule around the halls of B&H. Well, I am back with another confessional—this time focusing on mistakes I have made in the dark while engaged in night photography. Although I made some of those aforementioned mistakes after dark, here are some night-specific pitfalls for you to avoid! 

1. Forgotten release  I own several shutter releases, including the sexy, now-discontinued Nikon AR-3 but, on occasion, all of them have avoided being in my camera bag on a few night photo excursions—either because I was using them in the studio or they figured it was too cold and dark to be outside. A remote shutter release is mandatory gear for night photography. If you leave yours at home, like I sometimes do, use the self-timer and, if you have a DSLR, mirror lock-up to avoid as many vibrations as possible. 

2. Late to the high ISO test-shot party  After years of shooting in the dark and minutes of my life spent waiting for a long exposure to finish, I learned about the high-ISO test shot—where you crank your ISO to ridiculous levels, set your aperture where you want it, and pick (using the camera’s light meter), a (relatively) fast shutter speed. Take the shot and evaluate the exposure. If everything looks good, lower the ISO to its native setting (making these adjustments in full-stop increments helps my weak math brain) and then slow the shutter the same number of stops. Then, take the “real” photo and know your exposure is likely good. 

3. Kicking the tripod  This is similar to one of my daytime confessionals, but, yes, I have accidently kicked my tripod in the middle of a long exposure. Impressive, I know. Seriously. Who does that? The tripod is designed to hold the camera completely still and it does a pretty good job without any human intervention—so don’t try to help it by holding it or, yes… kicking it. 

4. Manufacturing personal earthquakes  Continuing the tripod theme, if you are shooting night photography on any sort of surface that vibrates or moves, either stand completely still while the camera is doing a long exposure, or use the self-timer to allow you to get some distance between yourself and the camera before the shutter opens. I have found this especially important when doing photography at industrial sites where the tripod is not always standing on terra firma but is, instead, on a platform, staircase, metal floor, etc. 

5. Blurry stars  One of the biggest challenges in astrophotography is achieving sharp focus when shooting celestial objects. If you are lucky, and shooting an autofocus lens, you might have a target in your field of view that is bright enough for the autofocus to lock onto. If you are using a telescope, spotting scope, astrograph, or manual focus lens, then accurate focus becomes a process involving your eyes, the camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen, your hands and a focus ring or knob, a good amount of patience, and a fair amount of luck. And, yes, I have gotten home after a night of shooting to find that, on some images, my focus was a hair off. To help, use magnified live view (DSLR) or a magnified image on a mirrorless EVF or LCD, a focus mask (telephoto lenses or scopes), or make tiny focus adjustments and shoot several exposures of the same image. 

6. Auto White Balance  Many moons ago, when I was first dabbling in digital, I was shooting what should have been a spectacular panoramic shot of the Hong Kong skyline from Kowloon. I was shooting JPEGs and had the camera set to AWB. Well, it turns out the Nikon D100 thought each panoramic frame deserved its own special color temperature. Lesson learned (when it was too late… I haven’t been back since). Shoot raw and adjust the WB in post, or set the WB manually before you do your panorama. 

7. Filter flare  I am a proponent of using a UV filter to protect the front of your lens and I feel that any optical degradation (when using a good filter) is negligible. However, when shooting at night surrounded by artificial lighting, I have picked up flare from the filter—and failed to notice it. If you see some lens flare on your night photos, try removing the UV filter for a frame to see if that resolves the issue. Sometimes the flare is from the lens itself and the only solution is to change lenses or reposition the camera, but often it’s a flare-prone filter (even a premium filter can flare from the intensity/angles of artificial lighting at night) and easily remedied. 

8. ISO too high  I see this a lot as a teacher and I remember doing it myself when I started digital night photography. In the digital world, we are told to crank up the ISO for night photos to increase the “sensitivity” of the sensor. Rarely are we told that the increase is only needed when shooting handheld. When your camera is on a tripod, you can keep your ISO at its lowest native setting and give yourself a fighting chance at a low-noise file. An exception to dialing the ISO down is if you need to manage the shutter speed to control certain movement within the frame. 

Do you want to add to this conversation by sharing your own mistakes, or by making fun of me? Feel free to chime in below, in the Comments section! 

9 Comments

That high ISO test shot idea is a keeper. Thanks for that one! I go to northern Maine most summers and photograph the stars over a lake. It's so dark that I cannot see anything to frame my shot, so I've absolutely done the 2m exposure…2m hot pixel processing…okay now I see my horizon line is too centered.



I keep meaning to buy a bhatinov (sp?) mask for astrophotography, but I always forget, and that is NOT the sort of thing you'll find in the gadgets section of a charming Maine camping store. Today's the day!

Hi Artie,

Yep, I was really late to the High ISO Test party and have lost more than a few minutes of times doing bad exposures and/or bad compositions in the dark!

Bahtinov. :)  You can read all about it on Wikipedia while you wait for darkness.

It works really well with telephoto lenses.

Thanks, as always, for reading Explora!

Best,

Todd

I'll add another: forgetting to change the ISO. I was changing out a roll of Kodak T-Max 400 and putting in a roll of T-Max 100. Oh well.

On another note, I took three photos of Lake Murray of a quiet cove. I didn't want exposure changes, so I metered for the darker area of the scene and put my Canon A-1 on full manual. That turned out great; can't tell where the seams are. I tried another panorama by the Lake Murray dam. That was a bust! With the moving clouds and the wind driven waves, it was impossible to merge the photos. 

PS: The camera was loaded with Kodak Ektar 100 film, so I didn't have to worry about possible changes in ISO or white balance. 

Hi Ralph,

I guess I could have added more mistakes if I had reached further into my own way-back machine and taken a look at my first night photos—attempts to capture light trails from airplanes landing at Bradly International Airport in Windsor Locks, CT with my brand-new Nikon N6006 many years ago. I wonder if my girlfriend-at-the-time remembers those adventures!

As always, thank you for reading!

Best,

Todd

Todd, you can tell the boys and girls of B&H that admitting to mistakes takes chutzpah.  Clearly they don't have it and you do.  👍Seriously, though, isn't that how we learn?  I'd rather not learn that way, but sometimes that's the way.  The real issue is figuring out what you did wrong when it's not obvious or you forgot that you "kicked" the tripod during the exposure.  And sometimes, as we all know, it's the mistake that makes the best pic.  I think the article is helpful, and thanks for taking the time to write it.  Onward!

Hi Henry,

Thank you, very much, for the comment and kind words.

Art (and photography) is all about learning, practicing, making mistakes, and luckily finding the rare moment of success. :)

Looking back, I feel that night photography can be less tolerant to mistakes than daytime stuff—unintentional camera movement, botched exposures, and more can lead to some creative looks, indeed. Night photography feels more clinical to me...with less room for creative "mistakes." Maybe?

I am glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

All your articles are great, inventive and packed with good info. Thanks!

Hi Dean,

Thank you for the kind words! I am glad you are enjoying the articles!

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd